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.

  • 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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