A Lamentation of Poop

I teach a capstone course for biology upperclassmen where, in a couple of lectures, we cover the subject of bullshit. So I purchased a copy of Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West’s book Calling Bullshit – the art of skepticism in a data-driven world which just arrived. I haven’t read it yet, but I thought this might be a good opportunity to do a quick (noncomprehensive) survey of the literature out there on the topic.

1) Clearly, one of the most influential pieces is the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit. In the essay, he makes the distinction between a liar and a bullshitter.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. 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 these 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 insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

A bullshitter, therefore, does not respect the truth enough to be a liar.

Frankfurt ends with a very important point which I will quote in full:

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.

These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

Perhaps the first thing we can do to not be a bullshitter is to stop bullshitting ourselves.

Note to self: add to reading list: Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt – edited by Sarah Buss and Lee Overton (esp. GA Cohen’s Deeper into Bullshit).

Note: Jörg Meibauer suggests an additional condition to the definition of bullshit, namely – “requiring that the bullshitter expresses more certainty than is adequate… to the (lack of concern for the truth)” i.e. being confident in what he or she is saying, even though he/she may not care at all about the substance of what he/she is saying.

Note: Harry Frankfurt was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show back in 2005.

2) Not only have Bergstrom and West co-authored a book on bullshit, they have a college course (hat tip to my colleague Sonal Singhal for pointing me to this resource). The website: Calling Bullshit has the syllabus and other useful resources, including a nice piece on how to read scientific papers (How do you know a paper is legit?).

3) Bergstrom and West also have a paper out in PNAS called Misinformation in and about science. It’s a very well-written paper, and one that could be easily assigned as reading in an undergraduate class. In essence, scientists are human beings like everybody else and engage in similar kinds of bullshit behavior and often victims to the same sorts of bullshittery, much like the general population and the popular media.

Some interesting nuggets:

Exaggeration in popular scientific writing misinforms the public, but it also misleads researchers. Even before the advent of online news and social media, scientific reporting in the popular press has been an important conduit for information even among professional researchers. A study based on papers published in 1978 and 1979 found that New England Journal of Medicine papers covered in the New York Times were cited at much higher rates than control papers, especially shortly after publication… Today, news articles, blogs, and social media are a valuable source of information about new research, particularly for younger scientists… To the degree that those environments provide a distorted view and influence citations.., scholars could be accordingly misled.

Retracted papers are frequently cited as legitimate even after retraction. In a recent study in radiation oncology, Daniel Hamilton… found that 92% of articles citing retracted articles subsequent to retraction cited them as if the retraction had never occurred. Presumably, this stems primarily from a lack of awareness, not deceitful intentions. The website retractionwatch.org/ lists the mostly highly cited retracted articles. A few observations are that retracted papers come from top-tier journals including New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and The Lancet; the top papers are cited thousands of times; and some papers are actually cited more after retraction than before retraction (my emphasis).

4) Reading Bergstrom and West led me to discover Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.

More here.

Also, work on bullshit and cognition – Individual differences in receptivity to scientific bullshit (pdf).

5) Ian P. McCarthy of the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University was kind enough to share with me his papers on bullshittery in the workplace:
1. This place is full of it: Towards an organizational bullshit perception scale
2. Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit

McCarthy et al. articulates different categories of workplace bullshit and introduces a four-step framework for dealing with said bullshittery. They call this framework C.R.A.P.:

a) Comprehend workplace bullshit;
b) Recognize workplace bullshit;
c) Act against workplace bullshit; and
d) Prevent workplace bullshit from occurring.

Other interesting-looking references from McCarthy’s papers:

Bullshit and Organization Studies – Christensen et al.
Post-truth Politics, Bullshit and Bad Ideas: ‘Deficit Fetishism’ in the UK – Hopkin and Rosamond.
The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life – Keyes.
Rhetoric and Bullshit – Fredal.

A cursory search suggests quite a body of work on the subject of bullshit in the workplace.