“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
Harry G. Frankfurt is one of the world's most influential moral philosophers. In a deeply satisfying book On Bullshit, which he followed with a more complex reading on why truth is important to us, the Princeton professor defines bullshit as something designed to impress without concern for the truth. Which is how it differs from lying — a deliberate attempt of the liar to manipulate and subvert the truth.
A recent research paper on the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit asks an important question — “who is most likely to fall prey to bullshit and why?” The researchers used applications that randomly mash together “buzzwords” into a sentence with a certain syntactic structure but no discernible meaning to tested susceptibility.
They found that people who believed in supernatural phenomena and conspiracy theories, for example, had a higher propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound. But detecting it is not only a matter of becoming more skeptical, say the researchers — we need to improve our ability to discern vagueness in statements, think more critically, work on our verbal intelligence.
As Jon Stewart said in his last show, “bullshit is everywhere.” Stewart says there are three kinds of BS:
1./ making bad things sound like good things — like “organic, all natural,” chances are, it may have been manufactured in a facility that contains BS
2./ hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit — creating complexity on purpose
3./ the bullshit of infinite possibility, where bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry — for example, “we can't do anything because we don't know everything”
The best defense, says Stewart, is vigilance, “if you smell something, say something.” It starts with awareness. We can increase our ability to detect such statements by developing a greater understanding of the subject matter. Says Frankfurt:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.
In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.
When it comes to BS, we are data-rich, theory-poor, and indifferent as to how things really are.
Frankfurt analyzes an anecdote from the personal life of philosopher Wittgenstein who dedicated himself to detecting and combating what he called disruptive “nonsense” to demonstrate how the search for truth becomes a moot point when there is no concern in finding it. The lack of concern is key.
Politics is a topic that seems to be more fertile ground for BS. In his search for explanations, Frankfurt comes across what the Oxford English Dictionary calls bull sessions, defined as “informal conversations or discussion, esp of a group of males.” In his view, what is distinctive about bull sessions is that while the discussion may be intense, the participants understand it is not “for real.”
When is BS not really BS? He says:
What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say: it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel.
The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without much anxiety that they will be held to it.
The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs.
There is no pretense of connection between what people say and what they believe. A liar must think he knows the truth to invent an effective deception. For lack of that concern, someone who sets out to BS their way through things enjoys more freedom from facts, and more room for improvisation.
Why is there so much BS? According to Frankfurt it:
is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of BS whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.
This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively of matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things are.
Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.
In other words, putting coherence with the self — it is because I say or think so — above correctness in the facts. But, says Frankfurt, nothing in both theory and experience supports the fact that we know ourselves without knowing other things. We exist only in response to them.