On Bullshit!

Apologies to my more sensitive readers, but I thought I would post this short video by Harry Frankfurt, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. I believe that the origin of this is quite old, but – given that he mentions Trump and the Consensus – this is clearly quite a recent video. His basic premise is that there is a difference between liars – who conceal the truth – and bullshitters – who have complete disregard for the truth. Bullshitters are simply trying to manipulate the listeners and don’t care if what is required to do so is true, or not. It seems that we live in an age where this becoming more and more prevalent, and this is a problem because understanding reality requires knowing what is true, and what is not.

Something that concerns me about posting these kind of things is that it’s easy to assume that we’re above this; that it doesn’t apply to us. In the online climate debate I often see people metaphorically patting themselves, and those with whom they agree, on the back for being the most decent, honest, skeptical people involved. It’s easy to fool oneself. As the video says, we should be on guard against bullshit and should value the truth; a world in which we understand what is true is one in which we can marvel about actual reality, rather than being conned by the made up reality of the bullshitter.

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30 Responses to On Bullshit!

  1. snarkrates says:

    There is a very strong relationship between Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” and Pauli’s “Not even wrong.”

  2. Just discovered that this is based on a book, first published in 2005.

  3. BBD says:

    Bullshitters are simply trying to manipulate the listeners and don’t care if what is required to do so is true, or not. It seems that we live in an age where this becoming more and more prevalent […]

    But of course. The tension between self-interest and reality is increasing. So the bullshit is piling up so fast we will need wings to stay above it (yes, nicked from Apocalypse Now, before I get nailed for plagiarism 🙂 )

  4. The great George Carlin had something to say on the subject (and it’s very bad this comic genius isn’t around to have something to say about the recent Donald Trump):

    Video: “Bullshit is everywhere”

  5. Tim Roberts says:

    George certainly had a way with words. Thanks for sharing that Keefe

  6. Something that concerns me about posting these kind of things is that it’s easy to assume that we’re above this; that it doesn’t apply to us. In the online climate debate I often see people metaphorically patting themselves, and those with whom they agree, on the back for being the most decent, honest, skeptical people involved.

    A variant of Karl Rove strategy #3. Claim your opponents strengths.

    Karl Rove strategy #3: Accuse your opponent of your own weakness
    http://variable-variability.blogspot.com/2015/08/karl-rove-strategy-weakness-of-mitigation-sceptics.html

    Someone who does not have to time to figure things out, only see two groups making the same claim. A good strategy if you find the truth irrelevant.

    Whether it applies to us, is something we need to figure out ourselves. What the mitigation sceptics say about it or themselves is not informative.

  7. Whether it applies to us, is something we need to figure out ourselves.

    Absolutely.

  8. izen says:

    @-“Bullshitters are simply trying to manipulate the listeners and don’t care if what is required to do so is true, or not. ”

    This may be true for a small minority of people like Trump who have a compulsive need to manipulate the listener for personal gain.
    However it is not the main reason for the majority of bullshit that gets said. As I suspect Joshua would recognise, most of the beliefs, claims and arguments are part of the ‘tribal’ identity kit that are obligatory assumptions to be held as proof of membership.

    Believing the ‘other side’ is talking bullshit is a key component of this tribal (socio-political group) affiliation.

  9. MikeH says:

    “Believing the ‘other side’ is talking bullshit is a key component of this tribal (socio-political group) affiliation.”

    More overcooked Kahan? It presumes that there is no way of distinguishing truth from bullshit. I think we humans are a little bit more sophisticated than that.

  10. angech says:

    “Lucia had a topic on this in February Best Paper Ever? Or Parody?
    It’s still bullshit: Reply to Dalton (2016) may be worth comparing notes
    Gordon Pennycook James Allan Cheyne Nathaniel Barr Derek J. KoehlerJonathan A. Fugelsang
    In reply to Dalton (2016), we argue that bullshit is defined in terms of how it
    is produced, not how it is interpreted. We agree that it can be interpreted as profound by some readers (and assumed as much in the original paper). Nonetheless, we present
    additional evidence against the possibility that more reflective thinkers are more inclined to interpret bullshit statements as profound.
    Bullshit has been defined as something that is constructed without concern for the truth (Frankfurt, 2005)”

  11. izen,
    Yes, I agree, some can simply be people defending/justifying their preferred position, rather than specifically trying to manipulate others.

  12. bobinchiclana says:

    I prefer “post-truth” as a term. It sums up many of the populist, self-serving politics of today!

  13. snarkrates says:

    Anders,
    Actually, the “book” was published well after the essay. Frankfurt’s essay was well received, and Princeton U. Press approached him about turning it into a book. When Frankfurt expressed reservations that the essay was to short for a book, the PUP rep replied: “Oh, you’d be surprised what we can do with fonts and spacing.” I think the irony was too much for Frankfurt to resist.

  14. izen says:

    @-MikeH
    “It presumes that there is no way of distinguishing truth from bullshit.”

    It makes no assumption about the method or basis on which people distinguish truth from bullshit, just that identifying it in otters is a tribal signifier.
    Obviously there are ways to tell truth from bullshit, the best method human society has developed involves academic research and peer-reviewed papers in reputable journals. However that criteria is not universally accepted.

    @- “I think we humans are a little bit more sophisticated than that.”

    I admire your optimism in the face of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK. Further counter-examples are available.

  15. snarkrates says:

    MikeH, Bullshit is constructed precisely so that it is never quite wrong. No matter how many facts you throw at it, it allows retreat to another redoubt by saying, “Oh, well, you’re misinterpreting what I was saying.” Bullshit breeds endless meta-Bullshit.

  16. MikeH says:

    “Obviously there are ways to tell truth from bullshit, the best method human society has developed involves academic research and peer-reviewed papers in reputable journals”

    Yes. And that allows me to agree with people on climate science with whom I would disagree with on most other political issues e.g conservtives like Angela Merkel. Tribalism exists but it is only one factor of many at play. Seeing it as the primary factor is very deterministic.

  17. dcpetterson says:

    Bullshit, like entropy, tends to increase. In fact, the two may be related; in as much as entropy is chaos within physical systems, bullshit is chaos as applied to the realm of true statements.

    Knowledge is increasing as observation and the scientific method expand the horizon of what is known. This provides increasing substance to degrade and decay into new bullshit. Bullshit needs a substrate of fact in which to grow. It cannot be produced independently. As society and technology become increasingly complex, we as humans living in society and using technology need to find ways to deal with that increasing complexity. This leads naturally to the production of increasing quantities of bullshit.

    It is unknown whether the relationship between increasing knowledge and increasing bullshit is linear or exponential, but there are likely to be positive feedback loops on top of the natural and anthropogenic forcings; bullshit begets more bullshit, both as attempts to counter existing bullshit and as reinforcing sympathetic vibrational bullshit (example: forwarding and elaborating upon bullshit that spreads in the form of chain-letter bullshit).

    In short, the production of bullshit is a natural response to the production of knowledge. It is an attempt to nullify the increase of knowledge by smothering the effect of that knowledge under layers of multi-year bullshit that collects on top of knowledge. Under the weight of new bullshit, the previous layers become frozen and eventually fossilize into accepted social norms. The idea that the multi-year bedrock bullshit has always been there is, of course, more bullshit, but this is the process by which history is re-written to conform to new bullshit.

  18. izen says:

    @-MikeH
    “Tribalism exists but it is only one factor of many at play. Seeing it as the primary factor is very deterministic.”

    I would agree that tribalism is one factor of many. I doubt this is a matter where the idea of a ‘primary’ factor is meaningful.

    Bullshit invariably has a motivated source. A person or group who are simply trying to manipulate the listeners and don’t care if what is required to do so is true, or not. Because it enables a gain or defence of money and power. The actions of Exxon on finding the science of AGW was credible was to finance bullshit to undermine that as a public perception. As they stated in their shareholder information, the danger from the general acceptance of AGW would be the adoption of environmental regulations that would damage profits. Or in a worst case scenario leave them with stranded assets. They were not the only source of anti-science bullshit, others with similar threatened interest also financed and promoted bullshit.

    However the number of paid shills is small. Those who might have a common interest with the fossil fuel business are also a minority of the people promulgating the message. I would suggest that the vast majority who repeat the zombie memes, or adopt a lukewarmer position, have no intention of manipulating others. They do not claim CO2 is saturated or surface temperature records are a hoax because it is of any direct advantage to them as an individual to undermine climate science.

    The amplification of bullshit in this way from the manipulative efforts of an interested party to the widespread adoption of it as a defended belief by a significant proportion of the population requires that it is incorporated into the membership dogma of those social groups.

    A similar situation, perhaps more clear cut, exists with young Earth Creationists. They regard the science of common ancestry of humans and apes as bullshit. The denial of science has little direct benefit to the majority of those espousing the creationist position. But failure to hold that position would disqualify them from the social group they are part of.
    You can agree with Angela Merkel because those originating the climate science bullshit have been much less successful in Europe in establishing climate science denial as an integral signifier of political allegience. It is still just barely possible for a right wing social democrat to hold climate change is a real problem without excommunication from the tribe.

  19. Bullshit is so ubiquitous that it’s apparently become necessary to distinguish certain flavours of it with alternative spellings:

    Bulshytt

    Technical and clinical term denoting speech (typically but not necessarily commercial or political) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subterfuges to create the impression that something has been said. The word, not to be confused with the broader term, “bullshit,” was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his speculative-fiction novel Anathem.

    According to Stephenson, people who use this type of rhetoric are “more prone than anyone else to taking offense (or pretending to) when their bulshytt is pointed out to them.” Ironically, people who use this seemingly confrontational term can be “excluded from polite discourse, unless they say the same thing in a different way, which means becoming a purveyor of bulshytt oneself. The latter quality probably explains the uncanny stability and resiliency of bulshytt.”
    Source: Anathem (appendix: glossary) Neal Stephenson, 2008.

  20. Steven Mosher says:

  21. Steven Mosher says:

    Philosophers need to stop bullshitting about the truth. Since Plato Philosophers have bullshitted about the truth, and made a mess of epistemology. Somebody give that guy hemlock.

  22. Dikran Marsupial says:

    ATTP wrote “Something that concerns me about posting these kind of things is that it’s easy to assume that we’re above this; that it doesn’t apply to us.”

    Very true. A good way to guard against bullshitting is to give straight answers to direct questions. If you find you are unwilling to do so, then you need to ask yourself why (and preferably give yourself a straight answer ;o).

  23. Michael 2 says:

    izen writes “Those who might have a common interest with the fossil fuel business are also a minority of the people promulgating the message.”

    I wonder if anyone here does NOT have a common interest with the fossil fuel business; such as perhaps the gasoline in your car, diesel in your truck, heating your home, energizing your computer.

    Exxon has nothing to fear from regulation — costs are passed on to consumers and a doubling of that cost allows hiding more profit. What Exxon might fear is being regulated separately from, say, BP; giving the latter an advantage.

    Exxon might fear complete abandonment of coal and oil but that seems a bit unlikely. Exxon might even encourage a nation, Germany perhaps, to try it and see what happens as a demonstration to others.

    [But SJW. -W]

  24. Harry Twinotter says:

    Michael 2

    “I wonder if anyone here does NOT have a common interest with the fossil fuel business; such as perhaps the gasoline in your car, diesel in your truck, heating your home, energizing your computer.”

    Speaking as a consumer, I don’t have a common interest with the fossil fuel business, if alternatives I prefer are available. My interest is for my car to run, trucks to run, heating my home, and powering my computer.

  25. Nothing to do with anything … Cherrypicked from:
    @CarrieWilkerson
    “Less mad.
    “More glad.
    “Because #science”

  26. izen says:

    @-Michael 2
    “I wonder if anyone here does NOT have a common interest with the fossil fuel business;”

    Defining ‘a common interest’ as ‘use of a product’ would certainly make for a very cohesive society. But I doubt many of us would feel we have a common interest with Kellog because of what we eat in the morning.

    In context, I intended to indicate businesses and people who had a common direct financial interest in fossil extraction, transport and sale. Mat Ridley of coal mining fame or Warren Buffet with interests in trains that profit from coal transport would be examples.
    As Harry points out it is the function, not the method that the consumer desires.

    @-“Exxon has nothing to fear from regulation — costs are passed on to consumers and a doubling of that cost allows hiding more profit. ”

    Costs passed to the consumer affect consumption. Energy use is no longer inelastic with regard to fossil fuel consumption, and increases in costs just make alternatives more competitive. If conforming to regulation drives costs above those of wind or solar…

    @-“Exxon might fear complete abandonment of coal and oil but that seems a bit unlikely. ”

    While we all have an ‘interest’ in the consumption and maintenance of a fossil fuel industry, the best scientific understanding is that we also have an interest in reducing the use of fossil fuels. A reduction in consumption is in direct conflict with the FF business as is the use of alternative energy sources.

    While the COMPLETE abandonment of coal and oil is unlikely, the significant reduction in the size of the business is possible and REQUIRED if targets of CO2 emissions have any chance of being met. Coal is already a dying industry, although it will continue in zombie form in some developing nations. But in the UK for example –
    http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2016/06/06/ft-uk-ports-look-beyond-fading-coal-imports/

    @-“Exxon might even encourage a nation, Germany perhaps, to try it and see what happens as a demonstration to others.”

    Except Exxon is the FF business with the least investment in any alternative energy production and is the only enterprise that has attempted fracking in Germany, your speculation seems fanciful (at odds with known reality!).

  27. toby52 says:

    The view from the windy spaces of “Bush’s Brain”, Karl Rove
    “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    Harry Frankfurt could almost have written it as a parody.

  28. With regard to Rove, here’s more information about his dirty (and they are dirty) tricks:
    http://www.seattlepi.com/local/opinion/article/Rove-s-dirty-tricks-Let-us-count-the-ways-1246665.php

    VV, I borrowed your Rove remark, first above, for a response Michael Tobis’s Medium article. If you want to see it. I’m not linking to it here, but included it recently at “We Don’t Even Agree” article, because I don’t know how to reduce the blaring visual and have done too much of that lately.

  29. Pingback: Science on the verge? | …and Then There's Physics

  30. OT alert (dammit, again!): just found John Oliver’s take on Brexit. If you don’t have time and/or find the opening snark offensive (it is, rather, as are the cameos from Farage, UKIP, and racists) at least go to the end of minute 13 and watch the revised anthem. There is some substance in the middle.

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