Psychologists search philosophical mind for bullshit detector, find “friendship deterrence system” instead


An unfortunate philosopher and his more unfortunate interlocutor fall victim to a friendship deterrence system out of control.

Philosophers pride themselves on being “bullshit detectors,” as having the capacity to recognize and expose bullshit at first sight.  Intrigued by such self ascriptions, a team of psychologists at the University of Washington conducted a study of 37 philosophy professors and graduate students from the US and Canada. Their results will be published later this year in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  While no bullshit detector was found, they did identify what they call a “friendship deterrence system.”

The team’s lead investigator, Ian Hammersmith, explains: “We were looking for a mental module that automatically deploys in the presence of confused or unclear thought, that seizes on and exploits the dialectical weaknesses of others, and that makes the difference between an easy-going conversation partner and a hard-nosed philosopher with a killer instinct.  We didn’t find a bullshit detector, but we do believe we’ve located a friendship deterrent system, or FDS.”

When asked about the difference between a bullshit detector and a friendship deterrence system, Hammersmith explains that while a bullshit detector is active in the presence of bullshit, a philosopher’s friendship deterrence system is active in all social contexts.  To illustrate, he pulls up a post from Philosophers Anonymous.

Early on the first day of the APA, I was in an elevator in the conference hotel that was headed down to the lobby. As the elevator came to a stop, an older man addressed two young guys in sport-coats; he gestured towards the right and asked “Is the philosophy conference that way?” It was clear the the man was asking whether the registration for the APA was off in the rightward direction. But here are the replies he got:

Guy in sport-coat #1: “Sounds like a category mistake.”
Guy in sport-coat #2: “Uh… Philosophy is everywhere.”

Old man in reply: “Good luck with the interviews, boys. You’ll need it.”

“Notice that these sport-coated youngsters aren’t even calling out actual bullshit,” Hammersmith continues, “they’re just being dicks.”  A second important difference between a bullshit detector and an FDS is that the former merely mediates the attempt to diagnose and alleviate confused thinking, while the latter usually contributes to the denigration of the confused thinker.

The FDS does, however, appear to play an important role in promoting critical thinking, just as the bullshit detector had been supposed to.  To illustrate, consider this log entry—one of many recorded at the behest of Hammersmith’s team—made by a male philosopher in his early 30s.

Saturday, 8pm.  Went out with friend-of-a-friend Marla for dinner and drinks.  Went fine, until conversation turned to her legal problems.  Tried not to, but told her that, no, her shitty private-practice lawyer isn’t violating her right to due process by being shitty, her court-stenographer father doesn’t count as a legal expert, and there is no such thing as “the first amendment right to freedom.”  She decided she couldn’t stay for drinks, after all.  I went home and did philosophy for the rest of the night.

“This typifies a pattern we saw over and over again when analyzing the daily activities of philosophers,” Hammersmith explains. “The FDS plays a crucial role in the professional life of a philosopher, providing time to contemplate things such as the meaning of sex, love and friendship without distraction by things such as sex, love and friendship.”

Hammersmith emphasizes that, while they didn’t find a bullshit detector within the philosopher’s mind, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.  If it’s there, however, it’s certainly not as salient as the FDS.  “Frankly, I’m surprised psychologists hadn’t previously discovered the FDS,” Hammersmith confides.  “It sticks out like a sore thumb—or a philosopher at a party.”