I teach mind-reading skills to college freshmen. On their final, I ask which mind-reading term they are most likely to remember in ten years. The majority say, “Dipshit theory.”

The name refers to a halting move, a way to stop thinking, to put an issue to rest, and, as such, is extremely handy. It’s a one-size-fits-all explanation for other people’s annoying behavior.

Q: Why the heck do people do X?
A: Because they’re Dipshits.

To name it is to tame it. I had to coin the term “dipshit theory” in order to tame it in the classroom. I’m teaching psychology, which does its best to be a science. To be scientific means to force a division of labor between description, explanation, and prescription. We have to force the division; it doesn’t come naturally.

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Normally, our prescriptions (“He shouldn’t do that”) are commingled with our descriptions and explanations (“He does it because he’s a dipshit”), whereas in science, and therefore in my psychology class, we try to keep prescription out of description and explanation.

It’s the skill my students have the hardest time learning. I have them write what is supposed to be a prescription-free paper. I tell them over and over to include nothing about what people should do or what the students wish they would do, only what they do, and why they do it. I rarely get a paper that doesn’t at least hint at prescription, and many are riddled with it.

The students are getting very good at spotting the dipshit theory in other people’s arguments, but it’s still hard to keep it from slipping into their own descriptive and explanatory work. To force it out, I even turned the paper project into a form the students had to fill out. I called it “Dips to DEPTHS in 28 Steps.” (“DEPTHS” stands for “Description, Explanation, Prescription Theory, and Self-reflection.”) I mostly don’t use it these days — who likes filling out forms?

Among my freshmen, many of whom are enjoying, if prematurely, the right to drink, the theory’s full name is “barroom dipshit theory,” because it’s so prevalent in bars. But not just there. I’ve never met anyone (myself included) who doesn’t resort to the dipshit theory at times. Even the president of the United States employs it. It goes that high up.

And his critics use it as well. A recent best-seller, “Your call is important to us: The Truth about Bullshit,” by Laura Penny is largely a dipshit theory-based rant against corporations and big government. At core the argument is that some bad people—certainly not the author or her readers—bullshit us, telling us that our calls are important to them when its obvious they aren’t. If our calls were really important to them, we wouldn’t be kept on hold waiting to talk to them.

It doesn’t take much reflection to find the BS in that argument. Importance isn’t all or nothing, and it does not translate directly into availability. My children’s needs are important to me, but I’ll put one child on hold while I attend to the others. Indeed, my to-do list is full of things I haven’t gotten around to yet, even though they are important to me.

But some of Penny’s readers won’t see through her argument because the dipshit theory stops reflection before it gets a chance to discover the flaws.

The term dipshit theory is, of course, double edged, ambiguous as to who the dipshit is. This ambiguity raises a question: Are people who use dipshit theory dipshits?


Scientists have biases too but work within a system that constrains the biases.

People often assume science is empirical research instead of theorizing or wishful thinking. Actually, it’s all three. Science is the cleanest way we have so far of integrating empiricism and theory in the service of our wishes.I’ve summed up scientific method as “To get what you want, set aside what you want long enough to see what is, and then come back to what you want, better informed about how to get it.” Notice that there’s a place for wishful thinking. That place, however, is before and after description and explanation, not during it.How, then, did science get its reputation for being purely dispassionate empiricism? In part, it did so because science ekes out a passion-free zone at the center of its work (description and explanation, with prescription set aside) and in part, it came about because science puts a far greater emphasis on empiricism than any other system for building knowledge. Also, however, the reputation is due in part to a social phenomenon in scientific culture.Scientists are ever on the lookout for peers who have let their wishful thinking seep into their description and explanation. How, then, can a scientist defend against that suspicion? Not by saying, “I really care about the answer and really hope it turns out this way, but I’ve set that hope aside long enough to find out how it really works.” That approach raises suspicions: “Hmmm — he says he’s set aside his hopes and wishes, but he may be just kidding himself.”

Rather, by saying, “I’m a dispassionate scientist; I have no wishes whatsoever on the subject — I’m only trying to see what is,” scientists — even social scientists who care passionately about the answers to their research — do what they can to look completely dispassionate. It’s the most efficient way to make oneself credible to one’s peers, even if it’s not entirely credible.