We need to talk about bullshit

[If you are offended by my use of the word ‘bullshit’: I apologise.
Please leave this post now and do not read any further]

Friends and Colleagues: We are being showered with bullshit.

My consciousness of this has been raised by a paper in the journal Judgment and Decision Making: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues. Thanks to Stephen Giblin for the link.

Before discussing sub-genres of bullshit, the authors clarify precisely what they mean by bullshit in general. They write eloquently:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Consider the following statement (a):

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure. The bullshit statement is not merely nonsense,as would also be true of the following (b), which is not bullshit:

“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract”.

The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate something. Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.

The authors focus on what they call pseudo-profound bullshit and try to identify the factors that lead people to be receptive to such statements.

We focus on pseudo-profound bullshit because it represents a rather extreme point on what could be considered a spectrum of bullshit. We can say quite confidently that the above example (a) is bullshit, but one might also label an exaggerated story told over drinks to be bullshit. In future studies on bullshit, it will be important to define the type of bullshit under investigation

Their analysis is interesting, and occasionally amusing as they generate meaningless statements using a website ‘bullshit generator

But my own interest is in the bullshit I encounter every day. It consists of syntactically correct structures about work, science or technical activities. These sentences slip through my first layer of ‘nonsense filters’. And it then requires active thinking to evaluate and reject the content – and that can be hard work.

Of course, I could use an agile methodology to incisively shortcut the usual appraisal process. And if I did that in a dynamic way, it might be more effective.

Did you see what I did there? The above paragraph is bullshit. It sounds like it might possibly mean something. But the words themselves do not convey that meaning.

They do fill up the space on the page making it appear that something has been said, but it hasn’t.

Once again the eloquence and insight of the authors helps us to see the essence of bullshit. I have edited their words below because I think their comments apply to all bullshit, and not just pseudo-profound bullshit:

Despite the lack of direct concern for truth … bullshit betrays a concern for verisimilitude or truthiness.

We argue that an important adjutant of bullshit is vagueness which, combined with a generally charitable attitude toward ambiguity, may be exacerbated by the nature of recent media. As a prime example, the necessary succinctness and rapidity of “Twitter” (140 characters per “Tweet”) may be particularly conducive to the promulgation of bullshit.

Importantly, vagueness and meaning are, by definition, at cross purposes, as the inclusion of vagueness obscures the meaning of the statement and therefore must undermine or mask “deep meaning” (i.e., profundity) that the statement purports to convey.

The concern for “profundity” reveals an important defining characteristic of bullshit (in general): that it attempts to impress rather than to inform; to be engaging rather than instructive.

Their conclusion that bullshit attempts to “impress rather than inform” seems to me to cut to the heart of it.

I have often thought that human beings are ‘meaning machines’: we seek out nuggets of meaning in the world around us, digesting information with a voracious appetite, and discarding vast amounts of irrelevant information.

But if we are exposed to too much bullshit, it clogs up our senses, and makes it harder to recognise and communicate meaning. It is a kind of intellectual pollution.

I am really grateful to these authors for taking the time to analyse the key characteristics of bullshit.

With my consciousness raised I hope to recognise bullshit more easily, and to avoid ingesting it. Or worse still – producing any.

Friends: I leave you with the words of the late great Jake Thackray singing ‘The Bull’

 

The Bull by Jake Thackray

On my farm, the bull is the king of the yard;
He’s big and bad and fast, he’s strong he’s . . . hard.
All my other animals would readily concur
That he is the one you salute, he’s the one you call “Sir”.
But my hens, a noisy, flighty flock –
Led, of course by my unsubmissive cock –
Whenever His Majesty the bull importantly goes by
They dance along behind him and they cry:
“Beware of the bull!”

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

Beware of the bull! The dancing cock is right:
Beware of whoever looks down upon you from a height.
Beware of His Honour, His Excellence, His Grace, His Worshipful,
Beware of His Highness, because of the bull.
For if the boss, the chief, the chap at the top
Should let a single lump of claptrap drop,
The greater the weight and the height he is, the harder it will go
With a grander splat! on the bleeders below.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

The hero arrives, we hoist him shoulder-high.
He’s good and wise and strong, he’s brave, he’s . . . shy.
And how we have to plead with him, how bashfully he climbs
Up the steps to the microphone – two at a time.
Then down it comes: slick, slithery pat!
If you must put people on pedestals, wear a big hat.
The tongue he’s got is pure gold, the breast is pure brass,
The feet are pure clay – and watch out for the arse.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

At long last, the revolution comes
And in no time at all we’re erecting podiums.
Comrades with chests of medals by the balcony-full;
After the Red Flag, the galloping bull.
The Saviour came especially from on high
To face up to the punters eye-to-eye.
No sooner is he dead and gone, there’s blessed pulpits-full;
Bestride the holy lamb, behold the bull.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

These well-known men, so over-glorified –
There’s one of them here his name’s on the poster outside –
And he’s up here like this, and you are all down there.
Remember his cock and his bull and mutter: “Beware!”
For when they’ve done, we clap, we cheer, we roar:
“For he is a jolly good fellow! Encore! More, more!”
How glorious it would be if before these buggers began
We all stood up together and solemnly sang:
“Beware of the bull!”

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker
And the bigger and quicker and thicker
And the bigger and quicker and thicker and slicker the bullshite falls.

 

 

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2 Responses to “We need to talk about bullshit”

  1. doug1943 Says:

    For examples, choose more or less any academic article on Mathematics Education. (And, probably, Science Education.) Okay, it’s “publish or perish”, and they authors know no one will actually be misled by the article since no one will read it. But what a waste of human energy.

  2. Peter Says:

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bullshit-Harry-G-Frankfurt/dp/0691122946
    You need the book on the subject.

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