The Art of Crap Detection

The purpose of a liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for one simple reason.

Because you are a fool.

And so am I.

Please do not be offended by the above statements. They are cause for compassion, not criticism.

We are brothers and sisters in fool-hood. We live, move, and have our being in foolishness. And it’s not our fault. We are born into foolishness, and precious few are the voices that would call this fact to our attention, let alone point a way out.

Much of what we hear from pundits and politicians of any stripe is foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. And often the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject—and the first words we commit to paper or screen—are pure foolishness, otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply—crap.

Fortunately there is a solution. It starts with constructing an operational definition of crap.

We utter crap when we string together:

  • Words that—upon close examination—have no meaning
  • Assertions that—upon close examination—violate logic
  • Arguments that—upon close examination—have little or no supporting evidence
  • Sentences that—upon close examination—are unnecessarily ugly

The act of sustained attention and close examination that reveals these flaws is called crap detection, or editing. People who write for a living know that editing is not a luxury. They know that if they skip this step, their readers will be only too happy to point out the resulting crap.

Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. I’m glad to say that there are refresher courses from two esteemed teachers. They’re both dead, but that matters little when it comes to crap detection, for their teachings are still available.

The first teacher is George Orwell, whose essay Politics and the English Language is an anthem to crap detection.

The second is Neil Postman, who carried on the Orwellian tradition with another classic essay, Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.

But please be careful. Be on guard. Be ever vigilant. Because anything you read—including what you’ve just read here—might be pure, unadulterated crap.

14 thoughts on “The Art of Crap Detection

  1. Thank you! In an old college box, on paper that was decomposing from the 70s, I found a mimeographed copy of Postman’s Bullshit essay. One summer It had been given to me by a wise but less understood English teacher/preceptor. I was a temporary CETA teacher, teaching high school kids who had failed their English competency tests. The preceptor was not well-respected by the lead teachers–their ignorance. When he pulled out copies of Postman’s essay, I was blown away by its candor, its humor, and all its seriousness. I forgot about Postman, the author, but in the course of my life have often referred to the “art of crap detection,” the process of weeding out bullshit. Now, with the advent of the internet, it was easy to find Postman’s essay. And, I’m happy to say, your delicious comments about our foolery, and necessary life-long diligence toward crap detection has perfect pitch!


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