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How to recognize steaming piles of humbug, quackery, balderdash - and sincerity
on 26 September 2008
This surprising essay opens with the kind of observation one would expect to emanate from a disaffected teenager's bedroom rather than an Ivy League university. "One of the salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." The difference here, of course, is that few adolescents will follow up their judgement with sixty-seven pages of awesome prose. Not a word is wasted.
The early part of the essay explores links with words such as "humbug" and "quackery", and to questions of truth and falsity. We all think we know what lying is - telling an untruth - but "a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is true, as long as he himself believes that the statement is false and intends by making it to deceive." Intention matters. "Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth... The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values." What if this concern is absent? What about someone who couldn't care less about "how things really are"? Frankfurt sees this indifference to the truth as "the essence of bullshit." Someone who is not even trying "to provide an accurate representation of reality" is bullshitting. "The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves," Frankfurt deadpans, "a certain inner strain."
We've all done it - in the pub or at dinner parties - in the hope of making an impression rather than reaching a well-argued conclusion. At work, however, it's our job to know what we're doing. The success of even the darkest arts of advertising - professionally geared to creating impressions - ultimately depends on objective facts: sales figures and profits. Someone who relies too much on bullshit will be found out in the end, if only by resentful underlings with no powers of dismissal. (Unfortunately, as Ben Goldacre documents elsewhere, bullshitters who peddle quack remedies can still make a fortune - a case of bullshit feeding off itself?)
What if our work demands that we have opinions on a diverse range of subjects, from local educational policies to global warming? Pity then our poor politicians, not always the sharpest tools in the box, whom - it often seems - we expect to bullshit for a living. The current global financial crisis is a marvellous opportunity for bullshitters, who can't resist calling for confidence in something they don't understand. Such calls are really pleas for us to leave bullshit alone - but sometimes we just need to bully bullshit that little bit harder.
The one area where we are (supposedly) undisputed experts is of course self-knowledge. We may not know much about particle accelerators but we know about ourselves. Our supremacy is unchallenged. We are masters in our own universe (however tiny). What matters is not being true to the facts but being true to ourselves. Frankfurt is sceptical. The surprising conclusion of the essay is that, insofar as such confidence is unwarranted, "sincerity itself is bullshit".
Harry Frankfurt was once a guest on the Daily Show. His appearance was incongruous in that he broke the golden rule of fast-talking television by thinking too much before he answered a question. But in the greater project of exposing bullshit in public life, he fitted right in. One of the Daily Show's trademark bullshit-detecting strategies is to juxtapose two speeches in which the same politician says opposite things. Separated by several months, each may well be plausible. Put together and they collapse into you know what.