On Bullshit, and What We Want to Be True

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The fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
-Harry Frankfurt, ”On Bullshit”.

To say that the post-modern world in which we live is awash in a sea of bullshit is of course to state the painfully obvious. Would you every take a lawyer’s statement about the facts of a case at face value? Would you ever assume that a politician’s presentation of an issue is completely free from ideological bias or economics influence?

We are so conditioned to thinking that everything is bullshit that the default analytical posture is to question the underlying motive of anything. We do this because we acknowledge either consciously or unconsciously the truth of a situation is unknowable. What is the correct tax policy for the United States to pursue in the future? It’s impossible to know because the future is impossible to predict. And yet people who know they don’t know spend a great deal of time and effort to convince you otherwise.

So why do we care so much? Why do we care so much about politics, for example, when we know that everyone discussing it is, essentially, bullshitting us? Because the function of bullshit in public discourse is to shift power. We when participate in the argument, we participate in the shifting of power, which is itself an illusion of power. If I tried to convince you that taxing the rich is a bad idea or a good idea, all that should matter is my participation, my attempt to move the needle.

But that isn’t the interesting question. The interesting question is why do they continue to bullshit when they know we know what they are saying is bullshit.

And the answer to that question is because they know it works. And the reason it works is because we like to have what we already believe to be true validated by some external source, and because what we believe to be true is easily influence, manipulated and changed. But the reason all of this is true is much more complicated.

Let’s talk about English class.

In most English classes in high school and college, you are asked to read a book, and then offer an opinion on the book’s theme or meaning. This was always a great class because opinions are easy to come by and you can’t be faulted for your opinion.
Remember that class?

This is a slightly different English class that you probably didn’t have:
“English 102 aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed, intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction…You’ll end up doing more work in here than in other sections of 102, probably.”

That’s from the syllabus of a 1994 freshman English class taught by David Foster Wallace.
Wallace is emphasizing tunderstanding the mechanics of a thing in order to develop “informed, intelligent reasons” for your opinions about it. The reason bullshit is still peddled to a seemingly knowing and self-aware public is because the public cannot develop “informed, intelligent reasons” for the bullshit.  In other words, their response to bullshit is not based on reason, and there for it isn’t rational.  It’s irrational. Because of this ignorance, the formation of opinions among the members of the public depends on all the intangibles we’ve written about on this site ad nauseum: psychology, wish-fulfillment, fantasy, objectification, resentment, groupthink, etc. Those are all bad reasons to arrive at any conclusion, including the right conclusions.

Bullshit fills the void in discourse opened up by ignorance. And because the public is incapable of forming intelligent opinions on almost all subjects, the discourse of any topic becomes a matter of marketing. Voters are routinely asked by pollsters if they agree with a particular candidate’s statement about policy. The poll question is not asking if you think the policy is good or bad. The question is really asking if you are persuaded by the candidate’s particular presentation of the policy. Politicians rightfully do not use the polls to set policy, because the people being polled are idiots when it comes to questions of policy. Instead, they rely on the polls to calibrate their campaigning, i.e. the marketing of the policy.

This doesn’t mean that if everyone is educated, they will all agree all the time. But it does mean that the public discourse itself will proceed rationally.  A discussion about Obama’s tax policy would become a discussion about the ethics and feasibility of using the tax code to effect economic and social policy.  But that discussion will not include either of the following sentences: “Obama’s a muslim” and “Liberals want a handout.”

This happens in science to, whenever vested interest are involved. We are presented in the media with endless debates about global warming. But global warming should be a scientifically quantifiable fact. But presenting any of the mountains of data is meaningless to a public that is grotesquely scientifically illiterate. So instead we have actors and oil companies trying to sell their particular narratives to the public using television commercials. Literally.

Bullshit is not the problem, bullshit is the symptom of the problem. The problem is our collective inability to educate ourselves enough to form intelligent opinions.  We have lost the ability <i>to judge</i>. 

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23 Responses to On Bullshit, and What We Want to Be True

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    A discussion about Obama’s tax policy would become a discussion about the ethics and feasibility of using the tax code to effect economic and social policy.

    That would only be the case if the discussion were controlled by bullshit artists who want to pretend that modern economies produce a fixed amount of goods and services of a fixed value to the public, regardless of whether any money is invested, or whether anybody has a job producing actual goods and services that anybody actually has a use for.

    What glib, self-serving bullshit that is.

    • The Rambling Fool says:

      Any society produces *at minimum* a certain amount of goods and services. If this doesn’t turn out to be the case, the societies falls apart as the majority die of starvation.

      The mechanisms that drive the movement of goods and services do vary. And so does the amount of goods and services, but only in one direction (it can only increase from ‘the baseline’). In other words, we all need x amount of resources to survive. We all want to do more than ‘just survive’. We want y amount of leisure resources (or whatever) so now we have to convince any number of people that they need to consume y amount more, and that what they consume needs to come from you. Now we all ‘need’ z (x+y) amount of resources, and the cycle begins anew.

      But you cannot provide less than x without the society failing. The resources do exist, and they will get to the people in one way or another. If you tell a person that they aren’t going to get x amount of resources, they’re going to (have to) lie, cheat and/or steal until they do. If you tell enough people that they cannot have x resources, well… that’s called civil unrest.

  2. The Rambling Fool says:

    This is an interesting topic, and I think you’ve raised a lot of good points.

    There is one thing I’d contest, though. You say that bullshit isn’t rational, it’s irrational. I don’t think it’s either. I think that it is arational.

    In this post, you are talking about two completely separate cognitive phenomena. Bullshit, and immovable biases. The reason you bring them both up is because the latter depends on the former to validate itself (“THAT person agrees with me”) or to diminish the opposing view (“can’t you tell what that guy thinks is bullshit??”). Bullshit is arational. The need for validation of a perspective that one refuses to change is irrational.

  3. Red says:

    “The problem is our collective inability to educate ourselves enough to form intelligent opinions.” And why do you think this is? Not rhetorical, I’m legitimately asking for your take.

    • Somebody says:

      A big reason is that children are not taught critical thinking skills in school. Most people don’t really know what critical thinking is. They think it’s just being negative and doubting everything all the time. Knowing how to reason is just as important to basic functioning in life as reading, writing and mathematics. But people treat it like it’s some specialized abstract skill that’s only to be taught in university.

    • scooter says:

      I think this is due to the incorrigible “human nature”.

      We – say 1% of total population – can discuss and argue about it, on this or any other site, as long as we want, but nobody can make anything about the other 99% that simply doesn’t care. We may have heated discussions, and totally polarized opinions, about any topic. We can argue and quarrel, but we’re still only 1%.

      The 99% don’t want to read or discuss or educate themselves. It’s easier to just watch TV, or to go with the intellectual zeitgeist flow. It’s easier to use prepackaged, ready-to-use “intellectual” positions.

      Execuse me, my wine is wearing out. Also it’s time to rewind Land Del Rey track. Good night.

  4. Tim says:

    Isn’t this about no one having time to get a deep understanding of every issue, and having to trust authorities to give them a ready made opinion?

    What’s wrong with that? I’d much rather a voter get his orders from the evil but well studied conspiracy at fox, than not have any bias at all and have to flip a coin at the voting booth.

    Lacking actual subject knowledge we exchange opinions with others, weighting those influences according to past performance and social factors like do they have tits.

    This kind of discussion always makes me think of the dining philosophers thing, which is a nice pretentious way to win this argument if you have it at the sort of dinner party I’m not invited to.

    • Tim says:

      I mean this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stochastic_diffusion_search#The_restaurant_game
      So much for trying to appear funny and clever.

      • Somebody says:

        The stochastic diffusion search only works when people a good at analyzing results. Everyone is an expert on the type of food they like and can figure out if they should stick with what they got. But that is not true of everything. After people vote for a tax plan, can they tell what the effects were? Can they determine that the effects were caused by the tax plan and not something else? Can they determine if the effects are beneficial or harmful?

  5. TheCoconutChef says:

    Won’t there be a point at which an entire generation of politician will have been raised with only the bullshit marketing understanding of issues and won’t know how to make the difference anymore?

    I understand that this post works with the implicit assumption that someone somewhere in government knows what the deal is and that, furthermore, some of those people are politicians.

  6. operator says:

    This argument’s initial definition of bullshit – that which is stated by he who is “unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are” – begs the question of why that bullshit is being created.

    The bullshitter is lying not about the facts themselves, but about his understanding of the facts: the lie he wishes to convey is that he has knowledge and he should enjoy a better social position (more followers/customers/voters) as a result of his confabulated knowledge.

    In the context of a dinner party, perhaps it is acceptable to allow the bullshitter to operate, so long as his bullshit offends no one, for the sake of entertainment.

    In the context of business and politics, the bullshit (no matter how inoffensive it may appear) has the potential to bring ruin and death to those who accept the bullshitter’s assumed authority – and what a pity it is that people are conditioned to believe those who are good at bullshitting.

    We are so conditioned to thinking that everything is bullshit that the default analytical posture is to question the underlying motive of anything. […] The problem is our collective inability to educate ourselves enough to form intelligent opinions. We have lost the ability to judge.

    Assuming that “we” #1 refers to the dissenters who do not accept the authority of the tall, well-dressed and TV experts, you are essentially correct.

    “We” #2 appears to address all people (including those inclined to accept the bullshitter’s assumed authority) – in that case, it’s not about lacking the ability to judge: it’s about judging the bullshitter the wrong way and accepting false cues as proof of the bullshitter’s knowledge.

    The solution to the problem of the bullshitter: force individuals to become aware of the false cues and out the bullshitters by exposing their bullshit (as that linked documentary is attempting).

  7. anonpolitico says:

    This is a great argument for totalitarianism.

    • JohnJ says:

      That’s how Plato used it. Half of people are below average, therefore majority rule will always devolve into anarchy. Thus, the elite few have a responsibility to rule over the simple, for their own good.

      • TheCoconutChef says:

        Less than half people can be below average.

      • JohnJ says:

        Of course, just because it’s an argument for totalitarianism doesn’t mean that it’s invalid. Plato was right about a lot of things. But the sophists of his day didn’t care about moral right and wrong. Whatever worked was right. Whatever didn’t work was wrong.

    • Guy Fox says:

      The question of who does the educating and to what purpose is a thorny one. It can play out as 1) we’ve tried to educate everyone as well as can be done, and it hasn’t worked, so a technocracy is the way to go (sorta a la Plato); 2) if we educate everyone adequately, there’ll be no one to do society’s dirty work, so let’s not educate them *too* well (a la Marxian bogeyman); 3) we can educate everyone into a state of utter cynicism, leaving everyone too apathetic or ambivalent to do anything, making the world the oyster of the active (sorta Atlas Shrugged, but he’s shrugging off the intellectually paralyzed).

      It doesn’t really take too much education to be a good person. The core idea of Karma/the Golden Rule/the categorical imperative/Luke 6:30-42 is pretty easy to grasp. It’s bloody hard to apply consistently, but it doesn’t require much education. Education only becomes really necessary when things get really technical, and that’s when interpreting the details does become a matter of trust, if not faith, and more education won’t necessarily help. If the debate boils down to one specialist’s model’s parameters vs. those of another specialist’s model, even the specialists will have quasi-theological arguments to justify their preference (put an MLE statistician and a Bayesian in the same room together, and they’ll smite each other like a cobra and a mongoose).

      To boil it down: Education isn’t much of an answer to the problem of bullshit/critical thinking because at a fundamental/practical level, it isn’t really necessary, and at the specialist/technical level, it doesn’t really help, and it too can always be instrumentalized by the educators in the end anyway.

      • johnnycoconut says:

        What about not-really-technical but critical-thinking-related tasks, like voting?

  8. JohnJ says:

    We’ve lost the ability to judge in part because we’ve been told repeatedly that judgment is discrimination and discrimination is bad. All ideas and opinions are equal, and anyone who says otherwise is a bad person!

  9. sdenheyer says:

    I doubt anyone would argue that we need a less educated or informed citizenry, and our generation is always worse then what came before, somehow (think of your parents, at your age – do they seem awesomely informed and educated to you? Or do they just seem like you, in their circumstances/era? On that note re: the first paragraph, was there a time when lawyers were honest and politicians weren’t self-interested?) – I’ll argue nice in principle, near-impossible in practise.

    Take global warming – has anyone actually taken a look at a paper? I mean, yes, there’s a matter of fact there, but there’s also a matter of fact about how many flamingos there are in the world right now – but this is almost impossible to actually find out, and it just changed (h/t Sam Harris). What I’m getting at – climate science is freakin’ hard. I’m not a genius, but I’m not a dumb-ass, and I’m probably above-average at math – and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it – it’s arcane and complex. I might be able to figure it out, but it would take months just to learn the fundamental tools needed to understand the argument – and that’s just the evidence for current AGW, never mind the central issue, which involves figuring out the bounds of a non-linear system projected out 50 or more years into the future. But hey! Thanks to the internet, I know how ignorant I am (would my parents have had easy access to scientific papers if they weren’t in academia?). (I’m not trying to be snarky here – the fact that I’m ignorant is information about myself that I’m genuinely glad to have)

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply the same argument to the tax code.

    What the author terms “bullshit” is just a function of the fact that people aren’t that bright, and don’t have time. Relative to what we collectively know, I don’t see that this has changed much throughout history. To be truly defensive about Joe Six-pack’s info-gathering strategies, updating on the opinion of experts, even when you can’t fact-check, is valid in a Bayesian sense

  10. adbc says:


    do you ever read your essays some time after you write them? say six months?

    if not, perhaps you should. if so, do you not sometimes see problems with them?

    you’re a lousy writer, and a shallow thinker.

    • RatB says:

      You make broad, unsupported statements, don’t contribute articles for discussion, have poor grammar, and smell funny.