On Bullsh*t and the Truth

I’m going out on a limb and writing a post not directly related to being bipolar, except at the end.

I have been reading a short (20 pages) but excellent essay called “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University. You can read it online here. If you’ve made it this far and you’re offended by the uncensored word “bullshit”, then go no farther. If you can look past surface appearances, it is an extremely serious essay.

Frankfurt’s main premise is that liars have a specific agenda of concealing the truth. Bullshitters are different because they are not specifically concerned with the truth. They have their rhetorical agenda, which may be compatible with the truth to a degree, or not. It doesn’t matter. If bullshitters coincidentally tell the truth, or if they coincidentally lie, all that matters is winning the argument.

According to Frankfurt both the liar and the bullshitter deceive us in representing themselves as telling the truth. The difference is that lies are specifically untrue, while bullshit is merely constructed without any particular regard for the truth. It may be false, it may be true, it may even be “truthy”–to borrow from Stephen Colbert. The bullshitter doesn’t care as long as it serves its purpose.

To quote Frankfurt:

“When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”

To me, there are bullshitters in so many debates: in politics (of course), in religion, in the various LBGTQ debates, in medical issues, and so on. Many people (not all, of course) come to their conclusions irrationally and then bullshit their rationalizations. And they see nothing wrong with doing so because winning is all that matters. It’s no way to run a world.

I’ve been guilty of bullshit, of course. In my adult life I’ve gone on three illness-fuelled crusades: one against Bill Gates and Microsoft; one against the builder of my condo; and one against a forum participant back when Ellen DeGeneres came out. In each case I produced Gigabytes of bullshit, although in the builder’s case I briefly got involved in city politics. In the case of the forum participant, we were just as bad as each other, each producing dozens posts of bullshit aimed at the other per day. I even think he might have been bipolar because he would fizzle out and go quiet for a few months, and then be back as fiery as ever.

The point is I was not being driven by the truth, but only the desire to be right. I would write anything to appear to be correct. That’s bullshit. Gradually I saw the ugliness of what I was doing, and I became a convert to pragmatism, empiricism, and rationalism. Going on meds also helped get rid of the paranoid delusions that were fuelling everything. Yet another reason why I’ll never go off.

  1. March 26, 2012 at 2:03 am

    The differences weren’t very clear here. So lying is knowing the truth and avoiding it, while “bullshit” is not even caring about it, as long as the bullshitting serves it’s purpose?

    • March 26, 2012 at 4:33 am

      I think that’s it: lying is still based on the truth while bullshiting has no concern for the truth whatsoever. Lies are always false while bullshit could be true or false.

      I didn’t give specific examples in my original post because I didn’t want to get dragged into specific arguments, but I now think that was a mistake.

      I think it is a lie to say that global temperatures in the past 20 years have not been on average higher than a century before. That is a fact that anyone can verify and it is simply either true or false. I think, on the other hand, that many arguments either for or against human-made global warming are bullshit. They are not made with a concern for the truth–but are based on prejudgements.

      If a global-warming argument says “It was hot in Toronto today, therefore global warming is true” then it is bullshit. That is not a truthful argument. That same is true if someone says “It snowed in Idaho in May, therefore global warming is false.” These arguments don’t even address the truth or falsehood of the issue. Global warming arguments have to look at global temperatures and they have to look at them over time.

      As I am writing this response I am beginning to wonder if bullshit may often be simply the result of the unconscious inability to construct a valid argument.

      • March 26, 2012 at 4:42 am

        Haha that may be the case if a bullshitter is unaware that he is bullshitting. Hell, that might be the case for my blog. What I wouldn’t give for good feedback 😀

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