How to Spot Bullshit: A Primer by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

We live in an age of truthi­ness. Come­di­an Stephen Col­bert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s ten­den­cy to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the Amer­i­can Dialect Soci­ety named it Word of the Year, for­mer pres­i­dent Bush’s cal­en­dar is packed with such leisure activ­i­ties as golf and paint­ing por­traits of world lead­ers, but “truthi­ness” remains on active duty.

It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly ger­mane in this elec­tion year, though politi­cians are far from its only prac­ti­tion­ers.

Take glob­al warm­ing. NASA makes a pret­ty rock sol­id case for both its exis­tence and our role in it:

97 per­cent or more of active­ly pub­lish­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists agree: Cli­mate-warm­ing trends over the past cen­tu­ry are extreme­ly like­ly due to human activ­i­ties. In addi­tion, most of the lead­ing sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions world­wide have issued pub­lic state­ments endors­ing this posi­tion.

In view of such num­bers, its under­stand­able that a sub­ur­ban Joe with a freez­er full of fac­to­ry-farmed beef and mul­ti­ple SUVs in his garage would cling to the posi­tion that glob­al warm­ing is a lie. It’s his last resort, real­ly.

But such self-ratio­nal­iza­tions are not truth. They are truthi­ness.

Or to use the old-fash­ioned word favored by philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt, above: bull­shit!

Frank­furt–a philoso­pher at Prince­ton and the author of On Bull­shitallows that bull­shit artists are often charm­ing, or at their very least, col­or­ful. They have to be. Achiev­ing their ends involves engag­ing oth­ers long enough to per­suade them that they know what they’re talk­ing about, when in fact, that’s the oppo­site of the truth.

Speak­ing of oppo­sites, Frank­furt main­tains that bull­shit is a dif­fer­ent beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a spe­cif­ic attempt to con­ceal the truth by swap­ping it out for a lie.

The bull­shit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about cre­at­ing a gen­er­al impres­sion.

There are times when I admit to wel­com­ing this sort of manure. As a mak­er of low bud­get the­ater, your hon­est opin­ion of any show I have Lit­tle Red Hen’ed into exis­tence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerg­ing from the cramped dress­ing room, unless you tru­ly loved it.

I’d also encour­age you to choose your words care­ful­ly when dash­ing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to mat­ters of pub­lic pol­i­cy, and the pub­lic good, yes, trans­paren­cy is best.

It’s inter­est­ing to me that film­mak­ers James Nee and Chris­t­ian Brit­ten trans­formed a por­tion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover nar­ra­tion for a light­ning fast stock footage mon­tage. It’s divert­ing and fun­ny, fea­tur­ing such omi­nous char­ac­ters as Nos­fer­atu, Bill Clin­ton, Char­lie Chaplin’s Great Dic­ta­tor, and Don­ald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of mis­di­rec­tion sleight of hand at which true bull­shit­ters excel?

Frank­furt expands upon his thoughts on bull­shit in his apt­ly titled best­selling book, On Bull­shit and its fol­lowup On Truth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Schools 9/11 Truther; Explains the Sci­ence of Mak­ing Cred­i­ble Claims

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the Eng­lish Lan­guage a New Exple­tive (1910)

Stephen Col­bert Explains How The Col­bert Report Is Made in a New Pod­cast

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (13)
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  • Peter Klok says:

    He just might be a bull­shit­ter him­self.

  • Young Thuga says:

    Well, accord­ing to him the bull­shit­ter is indif­fer­ent to truth. He is speak­ing about the impor­tance to truth, so I don’t see how you can bull­shit about the impor­tance of truth. That seems like it would pro­duce a con­tra­dic­tion no? How can you be indif­fer­ent to truth while speak­ing about the impor­tance and val­ue of truth?

  • Young Thuga says:

    Of course it’s pos­si­ble he’s a bull­shit­ter in his per­son­al life. But it would be ad home­nim to say that this should reflect on the argu­ment that bull­shit­ting is bad and that truth is bet­ter than bull­shit.

  • yomainboi says:

    Oh god, all i can do is stare at his mous­tache. What hap­pened there? He’s got like this slot in he’s beard for a mouth. Maby its he’s shtick. Zizek has the sew­er dweller thing going on, this guy rock­’s the mouth slot beard. A philoso­pher finds it hard to stand out these days.

  • Alexander Dacanay says:

    No need to bull­shit. The stuff’s good enough to read.

  • NikFromNYC says:

    This is dis­gust­ing, Open Cul­ture, your des­e­cra­tion of future pres­i­dent Trump’s Memo­r­i­al Day greet­ing in order to intro­duce this arti­cle:

    The biggest brand of BS in our era is the brazen cli­mate scam that ignores how near­ly every long run­ning tide gauge record fal­si­fies it by show­ing no trend upswing what­so­ev­er, one that Trump is well aware of. And that’s not even the most pro­found though, for the Open Cul­ture cel­e­bra­tion of con art prop­a­gates anoth­er form of child abuse in addi­tion to cli­mate dooms­day claims, by destroy­ing cre­ative spir­it in plac­ing an upside down toi­let in the same room as famous impres­sion­ists. Now you have cre­at­ed Trump, you did that Open Cul­ture, with your BS.

    -=NikFrom­NYC=-, PhD in chem­istry (Columbia/Harvard)

  • Jimbo says:

    Super inter­est­ing. But turned into a par­ti­san stock footage event. Both par­ties bull­shit — Democ­rats with neolib­er­al attacks on pub­lic ser­vices such as edu­ca­tion over the past 8 years, the GOP with most every­thing. But bull­shit does­n’t seem like it should be a par­ti­san issue, it should be an empir­i­cal gauge for eval­u­at­ing argu­ments.

  • Learn and Teach the pub­lic how to iden­ti­fy Fake News

  • Kidzoki says:

    “Con­sen­sus” is not sci­ence, espe­cial­ly mis­lead­ing state­ments regard­ing any alleged sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus on man-made glob­al warm­ing. Talk about bull­shit.

  • Kell Brigan says:

    Your “proof” that glob­al warm­ing is the result of human activ­i­ty is sole­ly one big appeal to author­i­ty. In oth­er words, bull­shit. Also a log­i­cal fal­la­cy.

  • Walter Miale says:

    Does­n’t Frank­furt’s case omit that bull­shit may be used not just to obscure par­tic­u­lar truths, but to dep­re­cate rea­son itself? When rea­son does­n’t count, this sets the stage for total­i­tar­i­an­ism, as Han­nah Arendt argued.

  • Charles Shelton says:

    That was­n’t a prime and was use­less. It was a chance for you to put your polit­i­cal view on dis­play with­out offer­ing any real insight. Thanks for noth­ing.

  • Vittorio Canta says:

    Dear Read­er,

    I have take the ini­tia­tive to denounce B.S. by explor­ing the art-world as a tram­po­line for the rest of the B.S. invad­ing the men­tal space of the con­formist who has lost any sense of per­spec­tive.
    Present­ly, hav­ing pre­pared a lec­ture that would touch the sub­ject by expos­ing the present real­i­ty, I can­not find a venue will­ing to face my pre­sen­ta­tion.

    Do you have an idea?


    V. Can­ta

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