By Ray Williams
March 15, 2022
It seems that we are increasingly inundated not only by lies and disinformation fed to us by politicians, business leaders and social media. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” Princeton-based philosopher and author of the great book, On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt has declared.
So what is bullshit?
It is very difficult to put a finger on what bullshit exactly means because we use it in so many different speech situations. Here are some examples of how we use it:
- “That’s a load of bullshit.” (Expression of Frustration).
- ‘What you’re saying is bullshit.’ (Expression of Anger.)
- ‘Wow, that’s a bullshit car you have there.’ (Expression of Admiration).
We often associate bullshit with words like “nonsense”, “meaningless”, “horseshit’, “hogwash,” “bullocks”, “palaver” and “stupid”. Is it that we are expressing our feelings, or that we call something meaningless or not truthful whenever we say that something is bullshit?
Although in some cases we use the word ‘bullshit’ as an expression of our feelings or a ridicule we give to something meaningless, it is not to be inferred from this that they are the only uses of the word. There is a more important use of the word that we need to understand. And this use would give us an idea why bullshitting is something we should be on the lookout for.
Andreas Stokke, author of the book Bullshitting and Lying, argues: “Someone who tells you such a lie wants you to believe something false because it is false. It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.”
In reference to commercial advertisements, Stokke goes on to say “my presumption is that advertisers generally decide what they are going to say in their advertisements without caring what the truth is. Therefore, what they say in their advertisements is bullshit. Of course, they may also happen to know, or they may happen to subsequently discover, disadvantageous truths about their product. In that case what they choose to convey is something that they know to be false, and so they end up not merely bullshitting but telling lies as well.”
The essence of bullshit, Frankfurt decides, is that it is produced without any concern for the truth. Bullshit needn’t be false: “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” The bullshitter’s fakery consists not in misrepresenting a state of affairs but in concealing his own indifference to the truth of what he says. The liar, by contrast, is concerned with the truth, in a perverse sort of fashion: he wants to lead us away from it. As Frankfurt sees it, the liar and the truthteller are playing on opposite sides of the same game, a game defined by the authority of truth. The bullshitter opts out of this game altogether. Unlike the liar and the truthteller, he is not guided in what he says by his beliefs about the way things are. And that, Frankfurt says, is what makes bullshit so dangerous: it unfits a person for telling the truth.
How evil is the bullshitter? That depends on how valuable truthfulness is. When Frankfurt observes that truthfulness is crucial in maintaining the sense of trust on which social coöperation depends, he’s appealing to truth’s instrumental value. Whether it has any value in itself, however, is a separate question. To take an analogy, suppose a well-functioning society depends on the belief in God, whether or not God actually exists.
Frankfurt argues “Bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” If this is true, we ought to be tougher on someone caught bullshitting than we are on someone caught lying. Unlike the bullshitter, the liar at least cares about the truth.”
Laura Penny’s book Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit. applies the term “bullshit” to every kind of trickery by which powerful, moneyed interests attempt to gull the public. “Most of what passes for news,” Penny submits, “is bullshit”; so is the language employed by lawyers and insurance men; so is the use of rock songs in ads. She even stretches the rubric to apply to things as well as to words: “The new product that will change your life is probably just more cheap, plastic bullshit,” she writes. Penny appears to equate bullshit with deliberate deceit: “Never in the history of mankind have so many people uttered statements they know to be untrue.” She says that George W. Bush was “a world-historical bullshitter” by lying about the reason for attacking Iraq after 9/11 and his circle of advisors “distinguish themselves by believing their own bullshit,” which suggests that they themselves are deluded.
In a paper published a few years ago, “Deeper Into Bullshit,” G. A. Cohen, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, protested that Frankfurt excludes an entire category of bullshit: the kind that appears in academic works. If the bullshit of ordinary life arises from indifference to truth, Cohen says, the bullshit of the academy arises from indifference to meaning. It may be perfectly sincere, but it is nevertheless nonsensical.
For example, a few years ago, the physicist Alan Sokal concocted a deliberately meaningless bullshit parody under the title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” and then got it accepted as a serious contribution to the journal Social Text. Cohen adduces a more precise criterion for bullshit: the discourse must be not only unclear but unclarifiable. That is, bullshit is “the obscure that cannot be rendered unobscured.”
Simon Blackburn observes in “Truth: A Guide” , the “brand-name” Anglophone philosophers of the past fifty years — Wittgenstein, W. V. Quine, Thomas Kuhn, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty — have developed powerful arguments that seem to undermine the commonsense notion of truth as agreement with reality. Indeed, Blackburn says, “almost all the trends in the last generation of serious philosophy lent aid and comfort to the “anything goes” climate”— the very climate that, Harry Frankfurt argued, has encouraged the proliferation of bullshit.
If relativism needed a bumper-sticker slogan, it would be German Philosopher Fredriech Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Nietzsche was inclined to write as if truth were manufactured rather than discovered, a matter of manipulating others into sharing our beliefs rather than getting those beliefs to “agree with reality.” In another of his formulations, he says, “Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are illusions.” If that’s the case, then it is hard to regard the bullshitter, who does not care about truth, as all that villainous.
Lying rewires your brain.
We think of lying as something we do to others, but in fact lying also does something to us. In short, the more you lie, the easier lying becomes. In a 2016 study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, [Duke University psychologist Dan] Ariely and colleagues showed how dishonesty alters people’s brains, making it easier to tell lies in the future. When people uttered a falsehood, the scientists noticed a burst of activity in their amygdala. The amygdala is a crucial part of the brain that produces fear, anxiety, and emotional responses — including that sinking, guilty feeling you get when you lie.
But when scientists had their subjects play a game in which they won money by deceiving their partner, they noticed the negative signals from the amygdala began to decrease. Not only that, but when people faced no consequences for dishonesty, their falsehoods tended to get even more sensational.
Who Are Bullshitters?
“In essence,” John Petrocelli explains in his new paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “the bullshitter is a relatively careless thinker/communicator and plays fast and loose with ideas and/or information as he bypasses consideration of, or concern for, evidence and established knowledge.”
Petrocelli says: “Whether they be claims or expressions of opinions about the effects of vaccinations, the causes of success and failure, or political ideation, doing so with little to no concern for evidence or truth is wrong”.
There are countless psychology studies into lying (which is different from bullshitting because it involves deliberately concealing the truth) and an increasing number of studies into fake news (again, unlike bullshit, deliberate manipulation is part of it). However, there are virtually none on bullshitting. Now Petrocelli has made a start, identifying several social factors that encourage or deter the practice.
Petrocelli’s research began with nearly 600 people on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website reading that a man named Jim had pulled out of running for a seat on the City Council. Participants thought they were taking part in a study of how we ascribe causes to others’ behavior (the term bullshitting did not appear anywhere in the experiment instructions), and after they read about Jim’s resignation, they were invited to list five possible reasons and any related thoughts on why Jim might have done this — a perfect opportunity for bullshitters to let rip!
Petrocelli varied the precise conditions to see how this affected people’s propensity to bullshit when answering. For starters, he manipulated background knowledge by earlier on giving half the participants 13 facts about Jim, such as that he liked to be admired. Petrocelli also manipulated the social pressure to give an opinion, telling half the participants they didn’t have to list any reasons if they didn’t want to. Finally, Petrocelli manipulated audience knowledge, telling half the participants that their reasons would be scored by judges who knew Jim extremely well.
To measure bullshitting, Petrocelli later asked the participants to score their own reasons, based on how much they had been concerned with genuine evidence and established knowledge; essentially they assessed their own bullshit levels.
All the factors that Petrocelli manipulated made a difference. Overall, the participants who received no background information on Jim admitted to engaging in more bullshitting. Participants also bullshitted more when they felt more obliged to give an opinion, and when their audience was not knowledgeable about him. These latter two factors (obligation and audience knowledge) interacted, with social obligation being more potent. When feeling obligated to have an opinion, uninformed participants bullshitted a lot even when they knew their audience knew more than they did.
“Anything that an audience may do to enhance the social expectation that one should have or provide an opinion appears to increase the likelihood of the audience receiving bullshit,” Petrocelli said.
Without such pressure, however, the risk of being caught out was a deterrent to bullshit and Petrocelli further explored what he calls the “ease of passing bullshit hypothesis” in a follow up experiment. Online participants were invited to justify their attitudes on hot-button social issues: affirmative action; nuclear weapons; and capital punishment. Crucially, Petrocelli manipulated who participants thought would be reading their justifications — either he gave participants no information about their audience or he told them a sociology professor with expertise on these issues would be reading their views (and further, that the prof either agreed with their positions; disagreed; or his own position was concealed).
The participants subsequently rated their own bullshit levels (i.e. they rated whether they’d been concerned with evidence or established knowledge) and it was the participants not told about a professor, or who thought the professor agreed with them, who especially admitted to more bullshitting. Those participants who knew a professor with opposing views was going to read their arguments admitted to the least bullshitting. Fear of being called out, in other words, appears to be a strong deterrent to spewing bullshit.
You Can’t Bullshit a Bullshitter?
Well, that’s the saying — but is it true? Shane Littrell and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada, set out to investigate. And in a new paperin the British Journal of Social Psychology they report that, in fact, people who bullshit more often in a bid to impress or persuade others are also more susceptible to bullshit themselves. The reason for this — also uncovered by the team — is truly fascinating.
Some earlier work has suggested that better liars are also better at detecting lies. But as the team notes, bullshit isn’t quite the same, as it falls just short of outright deception. Recently, researchers have begun to treat bullshitting as having two separate dimensions. “Persuasive bullshitting” is motivated by a desire to impress or persuade. “Evasive bullshitting” is different — as a “strategic circumnavigation of the truth”, it’s the sort that a politician might engage in when trying to cover up a mistake, for example. By definition, the creation of either type of bullshit is intentional, though of course the spreading of bullshit may not be.
In an initial study, 219 adults recruited online completed the Bullshitting Frequency Scale. (This assesses, for example, how likely you think you are to persuasively bullshit a contribution to a discussion on a topic that you don’t know much about, or to evasively bullshit “when being fully honest would be harmful or embarrassing to me or someone else.”) These participants also completed the Bullshit Receptivity Scale, using a 5-point scale to rate the level of profundity of 10 made up but grammatically correct sentences, all of which had been constructed from pseudo-profound buzzwords. (If “We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself” sounds extremely profound to you, you’d probably score highly on this scale…).
The participants also completed scales that assessed their receptivity to “scientific bullshit” (e.g. feeling that a randomly generated sentence that used a lot of terms like “entropy”, “constructive interference” and “quantum ground states” is probably genuine) and also to fake news. For this, the participants were presented with five factually accurate and five fake news items. The latter were taken from a list of genuine popular recent fake news items. The participants had to indicate how accurate they believed each headline to be.
The team found that people who reported engaging in more persuasive bullshitting were more receptive to all forms of bullshit (pseudo-profound, pseudo-scientific and fake news). However, higher scores for evasive bullshitting were not related to susceptibility to the first two forms of bullshit, and were actually associated with less susceptibility to believing fake news.
In a subsequent study, the team found that, when levels of evasive bullshitting were controlled for, people who engaged in more persuasive bullshitting were not only more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit but were also more over-confident in their own intellectual ability.They also scored lower for cognitive ability (measured using simple numeracy and vocabulary tests) and reported less insight into their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
In contrast, when persuasive bullshitting was controlled for, high evasive bullshitters scored higher on the tests of cognitive ability. As the researchers write, “persuasive bullshitting may rely on less engagement in analytic thinking processes compared to evasive bullshitting”.
The team wondered if persuasive bullshitters might have difficulty telling apart statements that actually are profound from those that only sound profound. So they asked a new group of 400 participants to rate the profundity of various sentences (sentences in the genuinely profound list included, “A river cuts through a rock not because of its power but its persistence”, for example). The results were clear: while those who scored highly for evasive bullshitting were also better at distinguishing between the genuinely profound and the pseudo-profound statements, the high persuasive bullshitters were poor at this. “Put another way, high persuasive bullshitters appear to interpret/mistake superficial profoundness as a signal of actual profoundness,” the team explains.
Overall, the results of the three studies are consistent: “one can ‘bullshit a bullshitter’.” And as the frequent persuasive bullshitters were also more over-confident in their intellectual abilities, they could be seen as experiencing their own Dunning-Kruger type effect, and suffer from a “bullshit blindspot”, the researchers add. (It’s worth noting that they didn’t explore how good these participants actually were at bullshitting — just because they did it more often doesn’t mean they’re better at it.)
Understanding what makes some people more likely to believe misleading information — and right now, there’s a lot of that around COVID-19 vaccines, of course — is crucial. This work does suggest that the people who like to bullshit themselves are more likely to fall for it, too.
Popular Misconception: Bullshitting is Less Harmful Than Lying
A book by researchers Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles, Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense,examines the issue of bullshit in detail.
The authors claim that a bullshitter is not a liar — he does not set out deliberately to deceive — but neither does he take the truth very seriously. Indeed, it is his lack of concern for accuracy that makes him dangerous. The bullshitter does not presume to know the truth and therefore cannot be said to be lying. His offence is more worrying in a way, because he does not seem to be bothered one way or the other. He is indifferent to the distinction between truth and falsity. He regards the difference as immaterial and unimportant.
The authors argue that bullshit is offensive and destructive not because it misrepresents the world it seems to be describing, or indeed the views of the person who is speaking, but because it misrepresents the speaker’s intentions and motives. Liars know the difference between what is true and what is false, take the distinction seriously and purposefully seek to subvert the truth and deceive others.
Bullshitters, on the other hand, have no interest in whether their utterances are either true or false. Bullshit is to be expected whenever someone feels compelled by the situation to say something profound but lacks entirely the knowledge to do so.
Goddard and Eccles contend “the bullshit quotient is high in today’s business world because more and more people are called upon publicly to make sense of a world that is increasingly complex and unpredictable, and “I don’t know” seems to have become an inadmissible response.”
Sophie McBain, writing in the New Statesman “Why we don’t mean what we say,”calls bullshit “dangerous.” She cites a study by social scientists from University College London and the Australian Catholic University. They surveyed 40,550 teenagers from nine Anglophone countries and asked them, as part of a larger math exercise,to rate on a scale of one to five their knowledge of various mathematical concepts, three of which — “proper number”, “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fraction” — don’t exist. The researchers gathered information on respondents’ gender, socio-economic background, immigrant status, academic ability and various character traits, such as their self-reported popularity orability to solve problems.
Across all the countries surveyed, teenage boys were more likely to profess a knowledge of fictitious maths concepts than girls, and young people from “more advantaged” socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to bullshit than less privileged teenagers. Bullshitters were more likely to express confidence in their skills, even when they were of equal academic ability, and to believe they are popular at school. There was also a substantial difference between countries. The US and Canada recorded the highest percentage of bullshitters, followed by Australia, New Zealand and England, with Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland at the bottom of the list. Interestingly, these gender and wealth gaps were more pronounced in countries where bullshitting is less common; in the US and Canada, it seems, everyone bullshits a lot.
There were several limitations to the study the authors claim. We don’t know whether being a bullshitter at 15 corresponds to being one later on in life, or whether people who bullshit at an early age continue to do so throughout their lives.
Caitlin Ferreira and her colleagues published a study in Psychological Reports entitled “This place is full of it: Towards an organizational bullshit perception scale.” This study evaluated the psychometric properties of the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale (OBPS) using two samples of employees of organizations in various sectors. The scale is designed to gauge perceptions of the extent of organizational bullshit that exists in a workplace, where bullshit is operationalized as individuals within an organization making statements with no regard for the truth.
Their analyses revealed three factors of organizational bullshit, termed regard for truth, the boss and bullshit language.
The authors define workplace bullshit as “as taking place when colleagues make statements at work with no regard for the truth”. The word bullshit can therefore be both a verb (the act of communicating with no regard for the truth), and a noun (the information contained in that which is communicated with no regard for the truth).
As bullshitters don’t care what the truth is, this affords them freedom to say whatever it takes to further their agenda. This freedom from truth and evidence can mean that bullshit is sometimes misperceived as something profound or, alternatively, viewed as an empty claim. In the workplace this range of perceptions can result in four responses from individuals that work to promote or hinder the prevalence of organizational bullshit: exit (they try to escape the bullshit); voice (they confront the bullshit); loyalty (they embrace and spread the bullshit); and neglect (they disengage from the bullshit).
Workplaces are awash with many forms of bullshit that manifest in many different ways, including misrepresentation, where leaders make statements without knowing the facts; meaningless job titles; fake and shallow company slogans and workplace puffery such as resume padding.
Some researchers, while acknowledging there can be positive effects of organizational bullshit, also caution that it can result in lower job satisfaction among the organization’s members, increased distrust in leadership, a reduction in productivity, and ultimately a negative impact on overall performance .
No longer is bullshit a handy supply of manure for fertilizing new ideas. Instead, it can create a dangerous waste problem, which could make people and, indeed, the entire organization, profoundly ill. Bullshit has a number of negative effects on both employees and organizations, including a separation of talk and action, an apparent ignorance to well-established assumptions and a tendency to suppress those with differing opinions and perspectives.
The most detrimental consequence of rampant organizational bullshit is the corrosion of organizational decision-making.
Corporate jargon is one such example of organizational bullshit language, whereby words or expressions are used in an attempt to legitimize something, whilst at the same time confusing language and thinking. Examples are number of bullshit expressions are: “blue-sky thinking,” “buy-in,” “bandwidth,” “low-hanging fruit,” or “out-of-the-box thinking”, which are often used as vague buzzwords with minimal substance. This vagueness serves the interests of bullshitters, because communication targets are less likely to ask questions when they find it difficult to understand what has been said. Bullshit language therefore goes beyond what is said, but also incorporates how it is said — whereby both components are able to compound the actions of bullshitters. Beware of the leader or consultant who uses cliches and bullshit terms to appear to be more credible.
Thus, the research literature suggests there are three factors comprising organizational bullshit. We have termed these factors regard for truth, the boss, and bullshit language.
Organizations with a culture of bullshit would likely influence leaders to bullshit, and leadership bullshit could in turn shape an organization’s culture. Further, an organization with limited regard for truth, would likely reward the bullshitting behavior of the boss and other employees, who would readily make use of bullshit language to advance their own self-interests.
Joshua Cruz, in his article in the journal Composition Studies, “An ethics of bullshit: The good, the bad, and the ugly,” says we are surrounded by “fake news” and we occupy an era that has been labelled “post-truth” an era defined by its bullshit.
He says it is prudent to ask what a bullshitter is trying to accomplish when bullshitting. Research provides us a tentative consensus: bullshitters construct a “false ethos” and Frankfurt suggests that bullshitters “try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels…”
There’s a hilarious scene in the movie Rock of Ages where Tom Cruise’s (Stacy Jaxx) agent Paul Giamatti is confronted with a Rolling Stones article which describes how Giamatti “stole” the proceeds of Cruise’s performance at the Bourbon Club. Giamatti’s bullshit response was this: “ It‘s not not true. It’s more true than I would perhaps wish. I wish the true part were falser.”
Cruz says bullshit is so often associated with pretending to know more than one does about a specific topic. When individuals bullshit in this way, they try to convey a self that they wish they had. In a similar vein, this is often what happens when students resort to bullshitting an academic essay; the difference is that students are not pretending to have knowledge so much as they may be pretending to care about a particular subject or pretending to support a specific stance. Through the act of bullshitting, we can push our ideas farther than we anticipated and become selves that we could only pretend at being beforehand.
Trump the Master Bullshitter?
However, one can use a false ethos for darker purposes. Certainly, Donald Trump is a prime example of instances when bullshit can cause harm. The Washington Post reported that he has uttered over 30,000 misrepresentations or lies or bullshit (depending on your perspective) during his four-year term in the Whitehouse.
But do these alleged misrepresentations constitute bullshit or lies? Well, let’s consider his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider, for instance, the fact that on March 2nd, 2020 Trump stated that we would see a vaccine “relatively soon,” despite the fact that experts suggest no vaccine would be available until much later; or his statement that 99% of cases are totally harmless; or that children are “almost” immune; the list goes on. These are admittedly vague claims (what constitutes “harmless,” what are the limitations on “almost”?), but the point is that Trump presents himself as a kind of medical expert when he is not. Making confident, hope-filled claims (true, false, or vague) about this virus creates the image of one who knows how to handle such a medical emergency.
In fact Trump has made unsubstantiated claims about his intelligence stating, in a series of tweets , that he is a “very stable genius” and “actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”
Trump bullshits so that he seems more competent, knowledgeable, and powerful than he really is. The problem occurs when we believe and are loyal to Trump’s persona to the point where he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without ramification. Allowing any one person this type of power based on a perceived character — based on bullshit — undermines democracy, legality, and decency.
Trump has successfully made accurate language irrelevant, at least among his supporters (potentially half of the country). He indicated this himself when he said that his supporters are so passionate about him that even if he walked down Fifth Avenue and shot a person they would still love him. Although it did not sound like that, this was a statement about language, and not about Trump’s potential murderous actions. What he meant by this is that his supporters would love him no matter what he said. Hence, the bullshit.
And then it gets really crazy. Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama , insisted that the former were larger. Sixty-six percent of self-described “very conservative” Americans seriously believe that “Muslims are covertly implementing Sharia law in American courts.” Forty-six percent of Trump voters polled just after the 2016 election either thought that Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex trafficking ring run out of the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., or weren’t sure if it was true.
Many conservatives have a loose relationship with facts. The right-wing denial of what most people think of as accepted reality starts with political issues: As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels” (it doesn’t). A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim (he isn’t).
Then there are the false beliefs about generally accepted science. Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans believe that humans have evolved over time.
If “truth” is judged on the basis of Enlightenment ideas of reason and more or less objective “evidence,” many of the substantive positions common on the right seem to border on delusional.
“Misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right,”concluded a team of scholars from the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University at a February 2017 conference. A BuzzFeed analysis found that three main hyperconservative Facebook pages were roughly twice as likely as three leading ultraliberal Facebook pages to publish fake or misleading information.
Why are conservatives so susceptible to misinformation? The right wing’s disregard for facts and reasoning is not a matter of stupidity or lack of education. College-educated Republicans are actually more likely than less-educated Republicans to have believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim and that “death panels” were part of the ACA. And for political conservatives, but not for liberals, greater knowledge of science and math is associated with a greater likelihood of dismissing what almost all scientists believe about the human causation of global warming.
Part of the problem is widespread suspicion of facts — any facts. Both mistrust of scientists and other “experts” and mistrust of the mass media that reports what scientists and experts believe have increased among conservatives (but not among liberals) since the early ’80s. The mistrust has in part, at least, been deliberately inculcated. The fossil fuel industry publicizes studies to confuse the climate change debate; Big Pharma hides unfavorable information on drug safety and efficacy; and many schools in conservative areas teach students that evolution is “just a theory.” The public is understandably confused about both the findings and methods of science. “Fake news” deliberately created for political or economic gain and Donald Trump’s claims that media sites that disagree with him are “fake news” add to the mistrust.
All of this misinformation and disinformation and “fake news” creates fertile ground for the widespread use of opinion and bullshitt to replace fact and critical thinking.
Jeremiah Joven Joaquin wrote an article for The Royal Institute of Philosophy’s, publication Think. He makes a distinction between lies and bullshit, and shows how prevalent bullshit is in our modern society.
Joaquin says “Our society is so enamored with the creation and proliferation of information; information that may or may not be of any value to each and every one of us. But because we are so engrossed with the hunger to ‘know’ things and events, we feel that this hunger must be feed by any means necessary. Feeding this hunger leads us to take in whatever information may be offered us, whether it is true or not. So, yes! We often eat bullshit! And that is our problem.”
Thinking nowadays is such a cumbersome task, Joaquin says: “As such, we stop doing it. But if we stop thinking and just accept any information whatsoever, then we may have to take in bullshit as well. So, bullshit is here. It is here because we stopped thinking. And because we stopped thinking, we are now in a deep pile of bullshit.”
The challenge, he argues, is to do away entirely with bullshit or to accept it wholesale. If we were to do away with it completely, it may hinder some social relations (e.g. employee–employer relations). If we were to accommodate it, then possible problems may occur (e.g. a culture of nonsense). Harry Frankfurt, argues, “Contrary to our common beliefs about it, bullshit is not the same as lying.” He points out, that “it is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. We can never tell a lie if we do not know, or we do not think that we know, the truth.”
Of course it is obvious that bullshitting is not telling the truth. To tell the truth is to say something that is based on facts. It may be facts based on experience, the sciences, or whatnot. It is the act of stating how things really are. But bullshitting is not after the facts nor is it after stating how things really are. Its purpose is something else.
Frankfurt tells us that the act of bullshitting is the act of being indifferent about truths and falsehoods. The purpose of it is “getting away with what was said”.
So, bullshitting is really an indifference to the truth. Or in Frankfurt’s words, ‘It is the lack of connection to a concern with truth — an indifference of how things really are.’
So how does someone commit bullshit?
As we have shown, bullshit does not depend on the outcomes of what was said because the outcomes may turn out to be true. It does, however, depend on the process by which we create them.
There are two kinds of people who make the bullshit phenomenon possible. There are those who produce it, and there are those who consume it. The role of the producer is to sell their crap to others, while the role of the consumer is to accept those craps joyfully. Those who produce it would continue to produce it so long as there is a demand for it. And, as far as I can see, there is still a huge demand for it.
Frankfurt notes that “people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant’. We know of a lot of people who take on the responsibility to talk and talk and talk. And it is sometimes funny to think that most of the time what they’re saying is merely air. That is, they talk bullshit. But what is not funny about it is that we tolerate it.”
Bullshit is possible because there is a need for it. There is a craving for a ton of senseless, and often destructive, information. Thus, we have gossip-oriented TV and radio shows.
Bullshitting in the Workplace
It is readily apparent that being a bullshitter can be hugely advantageous in a job interview, as well as in many professions: politics, business, sales, marketing, PR and, of course, journalism.
This is why the link between socio-economic status and bullshitting is so interesting: are privileged teenagers more likely to bullshit because they’re following the example of their professionally successful parents? Does affluence make teenagers more assertive, therefore more likely to believe they can get away with bullshit? Is greater assertiveness also why men bullshit more than women? If artful bullshitting is often the key to professional success, would it serve social equality to encourage women and less affluent teenagers to bullshit more?
We Should Call Out People Who Are Bullshitting
Carl Bergstrom, professor of biology at the University of Washington and owner of the website CallingBullshit.org, told Fast Company it is hard to call someone out on their bullshit because it can be seen as a forceful and disrespectful act. However, he notes that it can be advantageous to learn to overcome this social norm. “One of the common habits of successful working teams is that their members learn to call B.S. on one another without disrespecting or perceiving disrespect. That allows the team to rapidly cut through mistaken arguments with a minimum of social friction.”
In other words, calling bullshit when you see it can make you more productive. So that’s exactly Bergstrom also says it’s important to take the time to mentally check at the time whether any figures and statistics being told to you are even plausible, and look out for attempts to obfuscate claims behind mathematical, statistical, or algorithmic complexity. “Suppose I tell you that I’ve demonstrated an association between the facial structure of dogs and their owners,” Bergstrom says. “You start asking questions about what I did, and instead of giving you a clear explanation, I keep talking about ‘a complex algorithm that you wouldn’t understand.’ That should be a red flag.”
“Allowing someone to bullshit you, particularly if you know they’re bullshitting and they know you know this, sets up a skewed power dynamic. You can recover some of the balance by drawing a line and saying, ‘Look, that’s just not correct,’” says Bergstrom.
Bergstrom says there’s no one single right way to call out bullshit. Here are the guidelines he goes by:
- Do not accept anything without checking its truth and value, even if it is presented as if you are to benefit from it.
- Question the assumptions of what is being offered.
- Inquire for its evidence or justification from reliable sources. Opinion is not the same as fact.
- Call bullshit on a claim, not a person. Say, “I don’t think that’s correct,” rather than, “Bullshit.”
- Do it respectfully. Learn to call bullshit without disrespecting someone, and learn to accept bullshit being called out on you without feeling disrespected.
- Call bullshit with humility. It can be tempting to do so with a righteous tone, but you’ll surely regret that the first time you turn out to be wrong in calling bullshit.
- Don’t assume it’s malicious. When someone says or writes something that is bullshit, don’t assume or insinuate that it has been done maliciously if it could simply be the result of an error.
Bergstrom suggests “There are different kinds of B.S.,” he says. “I think we all like to tell good stories, and it’s tempting to veer into tall-tales territory when doing so. I think a lot of B.S. is produced when we want to seem knowledgeable about something, but we simply are not. It’s kind of a natural smoke screen to cover our own ignorance. But more broadly, this is the paradox of communication. It provides us with the amazing power of sharing ideas and helping people work together. But communication also gives us ‘handles’ with which to influence others’ behavior. Given that our interests never overlap perfectly with those of others, there’s a lot of incentive out there to use language in order to mislead.”
To avoid bullshitting yourself:
1. Be truthful in your words.
2. Avoid flattering others. (This may cause you to make statements that are not truth-regarding.)
3. In cases where you really do not know anything about the subject matter being discussed, especially if that subject matter is a delicate one, say that “I do not know, but I want to know” (It’s better to be honest, than to bullshit.)
Most bullshits that we swallow wholly are really harmful and detrimental. And we have to do something about it. We need to rid ourselves of them. The harm that they may cause ranges from a great obliteration of a nation to a simple betrayal of trust between and among people.
Read my book available on Amazon: Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders,