“We now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions.” ― Ta-Nahisi Coates
In an old coffee cup on my desk, I keep a yellow penalty flag that I picked up years ago after a high school football game. I never gave it much thought until, one day, a major stood in the doorway of my office trying to convince me that there was a good reason for leaving a highly-classified file on the desk of an unsecured office while he was out to lunch.
“I can explain.” Without a second thought, I reached into the coffee cup, pulled out the flag, and threw it on the floor.
Those are probably three of the most often used words in the English language. Separate, they are relatively inconsequential words. Strung together, they are almost always the leading salvo in a barrage of BS that typically ends with the person on the receiving end sitting cross-armed and shaking their head. But not a day passes when those words aren’t put to use somewhere.
Damage to a vehicle? “I can explain.”
Failed to meet a deadline? “I can explain.”
Late for work? “I can explain.”
Drunk texted the sergeant major? “I can explain.”
And the beat goes on. Sometimes, you know better than to ask but you do, anyway. It’s not that you want to hear those three words, it’s the intrigue of the explanation. Sometimes, the explanation actually makes sense. Other times, the explanation just makes for a good laugh. Other times still, the explanation drags on like the aftereffects of a mystery meat burger in a Kandahar dining facility. And when that happens, out comes the yellow flag.
Having a refined BS filter is as essential to successful leadership as the ability to articulate a vision or understanding how to motivate people. But, when pressed for time or facing down information overload, your ability to think critically is often the first casualty in the war on BS. In which case, it helps to have a process. Nothing complicated, just enough to ensure you have a filter in place to screen out the nefarious odor.
Ask the Right Questions
When something sounds too good to be true, that usually because it is too good to be true. Learning to ask profound, thoughtful questions is important. Learning to add a healthy dose of skepticism to those questions is absolutely critical. Asking probing questions is essential to critical thinking and your first line of defense when confronting BS. Once doing so becomes habit – whether facing a monumentally bad excuse, an unbelievable news story, or a great deal that’s “too good to be true” – you’ll be a much better critical thinker and decision-maker with a reliable BS filter firmly planted in your leadership kit bag.
Just the Facts
One of the most enduring lessons of my time as a planner and strategist – “the facts, while interesting, are irrelevant” – is a tongue-in-cheek reflection on a fundamental challenge of our world today. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t share a meme as if it was personally sourced by Woodward and Bernstein. Few people bother to check their facts, and fewer still seem to think that’s a problem. A strong BS filter roots out the substance in any argument. Have you confirmed the facts underpinning your claim? Are your sources reliable? Are your facts influenced by bias? The facts don’t lie.
Mind the Gaps
Oftentimes, it’s not what you know that matters, it’s what you don’t know. And what you don’t know tends to pose the greatest risk. Those probing questions become all the more important at this stage. What aren’t you being told? What do they know that you don’t? What do they see that you can’t? What have they heard that you haven’t? A significant part of critical thinking is recognizing and closing those gaps, tying the loose ends together in a way the ensures you have the full picture.
The Logic of it All
One of the most essential pieces of a good BS filter is the ability to recognize logic fallacies. Logic fallacies are common errors in reasoning that undercut the logic of an argument. They are a lot like piles of manure in a pasture – easy to overlook until you step in one. There are a multitude of forms of logic fallacies, from ad hominem (“Of course he’s wrong, he’s a lieutenant.”) to false dilemma (“We have to go to war, or we’ll look weak.”) to sunk cost (“The hovertank isn’t really working out, but we’re been at this for ten years so we can’t quit now.”). Learning them all and understanding how to identify them is essential to refining a BS filter. If all else fails, turn to Mr. Spock.
The Rest of the Story
There are always two sides to every story. Sometimes there are more. One of the keys to developing a strong BS filter is recognizing and considering multiple perspectives before committing to a decision. The late Paul Harvey was renowned for his ability to shed light on such perspectives, to convey the meaning behind events that might otherwise be overlooked. He was so adept at this that his catchphrase – “the rest of the story” – became a common idiom in American speech. Set aside your bias, widen your aperture, and get the big picture. The rest of the story is out there.
Develop Your Filter and Grow Your Critical Thinking Skills
Ultimately, a good BS filter takes time, patience, and experience to cultivate. You have to learn to ask the right questions, identify the relevant facts, close the gaps, eliminate logic fallacies, and consider multiple perspectives. Just as important, you have to recognize your own biases and understand how they can limit your perceptions. A seasoned BS filter is what makes a great critical thinker, and that doesn’t happen overnight.