Piling “On Bullshit”

by Joseph Shieber

A fine example of a Charolais bull

One of the most highly publicized philosophy papers of the 2000s was a paper that was actually written almost two decades earlier. Harry Frankfurt’s paper “On Bullshit” was first published in 1986, but some astute editor at Princeton University Press, noting its aptness for the George W. Bush era, reprinted the paper as a slim book.

The effect was electric. Frankfurt’s essay appeared in January of 2005 and was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost half of the year. Among Frankfurt’s many media appearances was a notable interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart about the book’s subject matter and its unexpected success (success so surprising that the Daily Show also interviewed a representative of Princeton University Press to discuss it).

According to Frankfurt’s discussion, “bullshit” refers to intentionally misleading communication in which “the bullshitter hides … 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. … the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”

As G. A. Cohen has noted, Frankfurt’s discussion fits at most ONE of the meanings of “bullshit” enumerated in the Oxford English Dictionary entry:

bullshit n. & v. coarse sl. – n. 1 (Often as int.) nonsense, rubbish. 2 trivial or insincere talk or writing. 4- v. intr. (-shitted, -shitting) talk nonsense; bluff. bullshitter n.

Cohen suggests that Frankfurt’s target was everyday bullshitting. Indeed, Frankfurt’s essay begins with the words: “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.” For this reason, Cohen sees Frankfurt’s essay as targeting the second of the definitions given in the OED. Frankfurt, in other words, discusses bullshit that involves trivial or insincere communications — more specifically, insincere communications in which the communicator intentionally masks his insincerity.

Cohen suggests that Frankfurt’s notion of “bullshit” is less useful when analyzing academic bullshit. Such cases have less to do with researchers’ being insincere or intentionally hiding their insincerity and more to do with researchers’ being cavalier about their research methods or less interested in the truth than in gaining another publication for their vita.

For an analogous reason, Frankfurt’s notion of “bullshit” was actually a poor fit for the George W. Bush era as well. The problem with the Bush Administration wasn’t — or at least wasn’t primarily — that it was insincere; rather the problem was that it disregarded countervailing evidence and emphasized untutored intuition. It was this disregard for evidence that characterized the sort of lack of concern for the truth that made Frankfurt’s “bullshit” fertile ground for discussions of the Bush era.

The more apt term for the practices of the Bush Administration, however, wasn’t Frankfurt’s “bullshit”, but Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”, introduced some nine months later, in October 2005.

It is one of the tribulations of our current era that analyses of the phenomena of bullshit and truthiness are still germane. So it was with great interest that I read the recent paper “‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter’ (or can you?) Bullshitting frequency predicts receptivity to various types of misleading information” by Littrell, Risko and Fugelsang of the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo. (I was alerted to the existence of the paper by Emma Young’s blog post “It Turns Out You Can Bullshit a Bullshitter After All”, in the excellent BPS Research Digest.)

Littrell and his co-authors were inspired by some earlier research that indicated that those who are better at lying are also better at detecting lies (for example, here). Since much of the work on bullshit has followed Frankfurt in defining the term in relation to lying, it was natural to wonder whether frequent bullshitters would also be better at detecting bullshit.

Interestingly, recent research in psychology has involved a distinction between two different forms of bullshit. “Persuasive bullshitting” involves an intention to persuade or to impress. “Evasive bullshitting”, on the other hand, involves a “strategic circumnavigation of the truth”, the sort of lofty-sounding nonsense that a politician or diplomat might employ to avoid actually taking a position on a controversial topic.

Littrell, Risko, and Fugelsang conducted three studies to assess the connections between the propensity to engage in persuasive or evasive bullshitting and the ability accurately to detect bullshit.

In the first study, participants completed the Bullshitting Frequency Scale, which asks the participants to self-assess how likely they are to attempt to bullshit their way through a conversation on a topic they know little about (persuasive bullshit) or to bullshit “when being fully honest would be harmful or embarrassing to me or someone else” (evasive bullshit). The same participants also completed the Bullshit Receptivity Scale, as well as scales to measure their receptivity to “scientific bullshit” and fake news.

What the researchers found is that participants who self-reported a greater frequency of persuasive bullshitting were also more receptive to all three forms of bullshit — pseudo-profound bullshit, scientific bullshit, and fake news. On the other hand, there was no correlation between a greater self-reported frequency of evasive bullshitting and receptivity to the first two types of bullshit — pseudo-profound and scientific bullshit. Furthermore, a greater frequency of evasive bullshitting was in fact correlated with less receptivity to fake news.

In the second study, the researchers found that (when controlling for levels of evasive bullshitting) frequent persuasive bullshitters were more over-confident in their own intellectual abilities, despite the fact that they scored lower for cognitive ability. Evasive bullshitters, however, scored higher on tests for cognitive ability (when frequency of persuasive bullshitting was controlled for).

In the third study, Littrell and his colleagues tested whether persuasive bullshitters might have difficulty distinguishing genuinely profound from pseudo-profound statements. Indeed, this is what they found. Frequent persuasive bullshitters were unable to distinguish pseudo-profound statements from genuinely contentful ones, whereas frequent evasive bullshitters were better a distinguishing pseudo-profound from genuinely profound statements.

Although the Littrell, Risko, and Fugelsang studies are interesting in their own right, I was drawn to them more for the additional analytic framework that the distinction between persuasive and evasive bullshitting provides. Combining that with the Frankfurt and Colbert notions of bullshit and truthiness, that gives us at least four options:

Persuasive vs. evasive bullshitting, and

Persuasive vs. evasive truthiness.

I’m not sure, however, that even these options are sufficient to characterize the degradation of the truth with which the current era confronts us. So much of the manufactured outrage and artificial catastrophism doesn’t fit well with either bullshitting or truthiness.

In the case of Frankfurt’s “bullshit”, “the bullshitter hides … that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.” In the case of Colbert’s “truthiness”, the message itself isn’t offered in disregard to its meaning. Rather, in “truthiness” the contempt for truth is displayed not so much in the message itself, but in the fact that no amount of disconfirming evidence could dislodge the message.

We’ve come a long way in less than two decades. Instead, much of our current discourse seems to be pure theater in which all participants cooperate in hiding “that the truth-values of … statements are of no central interest”. In the current climate, all parties know that the messages being conveyed are not sincere. Nevertheless, they still feel that they must play their part, pretending that they all care about the “ideas” being “considered”. It’s cargo cult communication, preserving the form of an informational exchange without any of the substance.

Given this, it seems that at the very least we would have to add a category of:

Persuasive vs. evasive posturing.

One example of evasive posturing would be whataboutism, in which both the person performing the posturing and the audience know the posturing to be a deflection, but both continue to participate in the artifice of pretending to care about the specious comparison being drawn. (E.g., Email Security Practices!)

Persuasive posturing would include versions of the Big Lie, in which both the person performing the posturing and the audience know the posturing to be insincere, but both continue to participate in the artifice of pretending to ASK QUESTIONS or TAKE CONCERNS SERIOUSLY.

I’m not confident that even this additional apparatus is sufficient to deal with the avalanche of bullshit in which we’re currently drowning. It’s also likely true that sorting bullshit into different types is of limited usefulness when we’re shoveling out so much of it.