In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.
Thirty years later, this trend is anything but receding. The web in general, and social media in particular, have multiplied the number of channels where we can exercise our fundamental need to be consulted. At the same time, ‘reality’ is an increasingly opaque concept, challenged by fake news on one side and the genuine unintelligibility of a world in the midst of a technological, social and political revolution on the other.
How do we navigate in this situation? Frankfurt, as we will see later, argues for self-restraint in lack of certainty. In a previous post, I have also put forward what I defined a ‘precautionary principle’: when faced with common talk (a sub-category of bullshit) it is better take the safe option and trust our common sense. But the more I think about methods and tools to resist bullshit, the more I become forgiving of it.
It is easy to dismiss bullshit as pure noise. To treat it as the inevitable, and yet insufferable, exhaust of a world in decline. In doing so, however, we risk falling in an excellence trap: the belief that progress is a smooth climb towards the highest peak.
Maybe, a perfect world would not be a world without bullshit, but rather one where there is just the right amount of it. Maybe, to reach higher peaks of truth we sometimes need to descend into bullshit valleys. Traverse a knowledge fitness landscape, in other words, where bullshit can be adaptive.
Can we make an unapologetic case for bullshit, without descending into post-truth relativism?
The Unforgiving Stance
Frankfurt doesn’t think we can. Bullshit, in his view, has no reason and no justification. The entire essay is charged with a prejudicial revulsion towards its own object.
Bullshit, we are told, is worse than lying. Even the liar knows, and to some degree, respects what is true – after all, you cannot tell a lie without first knowing the truth. The bullshitter doesn’t and, most importantly, doesn’t care. His words are driven more by his motives than by any particular attachment to what he says. He speaks because he can and regardless of how much he knows.
Bullshit, Frankfurt says, is “indifference to the truth”. And it is this aspect that annoys him the most.
His dislike of bullshit follows from a specific understanding of truth and reality. Throughout the essay, he criticizes the “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,” he continues, “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.”
There is, for Frankfurt, no excuse for speaking without knowing what we are speaking about:
“Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”
In these circumstances, silence is to be preferred.
The unforgiving stance on bullshit arises from the premise that truth can be discerned before saying anything; that the act of inquiry (discovery) is separate from the act of speech (production). I beg to differ.
When bullshit leads to truth
I like to think of reality, knowledge and even truth as more fluid concepts. Not to deny that they exist as such, but to acknowledge that getting to them is more complicated, and messy, than a realist like Frankfurt may argue. The question, in other words, is not whether we should believe in the possibility of “identifying certain statements as true and other as false” but how, and when, we can do that.
This passage from Feyerabend’s Against Method nails the point:
“Creation of a thing, and creation plus the full understanding of a correct idea of the thing are very often part of one and the same indivisible process and cannot be separated without bringing the process to a stop”.
The Austrian philosopher labelled his approach “epistemological anarchism”. At its core lies the idea that we must be forgiving of the different sources and methods that have historically contributed to the growth of knowledge, and the progress made by humanity in its relentless search for truth. We cannot discount the value that religion, superstition, mythology and magic have brought to the process. Perhaps, we shouldn’t discount a priori the possibility that bullshit may also play a role. More explicitly, building an unapologetic case for bullshit implies seeing it as a step towards higher truths.
Feyerabend uses the example of Galileo to prove his point. He challenges the traditional representation of the Italian scientist as universal champion of truth in the face of obscurantism, and substitutes one of an opportunistic thinker who relied on rhetoric, propaganda and epistemological trickery to support his doctrine of heliocentrism.
Had Galileo been genuinely truth-oriented, he wouldn’t have found sufficient factual ground on which to build his support for Copernicus’ theories. In fact, and contrary to what most people think, the Ptolemaic system was based on much more than biblical references alone: all observations, experimental evidence and “natural interpretations” – what today we would call facts – refuted the motion of the earth.
Galileo had a vision and an objective, and he went to great lengths to defend it. This included the careful selection of some observations at the expense of others of equal value, the manipulation of experiments and the reliance on an instrument, the telescope, whose scientific reliability he very well knew had no theoretical foundation (yet).
The importance of this example, although outdated, is that it defies the image most people have of the truth holder struggling against the establishment to lift the veil of superstition and reveal what’s real. Truth is not revealed; it is discovered. And in this process, anything goes. In Feyerabend words:
“These ideas survived and now are said to be in agreement with reasons. They survived because prejudice, passion, conceit, errors, sheer pigheadedness, in short because all the elements that characterize the context of discovery, opposed the dictates of reasons and because these irrational elements were permitted to have their way.”
Because of the delicate state of new ideas – which require time to gather sufficient, and shared, evidence – the need to manipulate, twist and selectively hide certain facts is a recurrent theme in the history of knowledge. In this sense, “bullshitting your way through” might well be a necessary tool in the toolbox of the scientist, just like “fake it until you make it” is for that of the entrepreneur.
A more modern example is that of John Boyd, a familiar name for the readers of Ribbonfarm. Both his theoretical views and his communication style shows Boyd’s belief in the idea of speech (production) as an indispensable ingredient in the process of inquiry (discovery). His main legacy, the OODA loop, embodies his view of reality as an ever-changing substance.
“Yet, as we have seen, on one hand, we use observations” – he writes – “to shape or formulate a concept; while on the other hand, we use a concept to shape the nature of future inquiries or observations of reality. (…) Under these circumstances, a concept must be incomplete since we depend upon an ever-changing array of observations to shape or formulate it. Likewise, our observations of reality must be incomplete since we depend upon a changing concept to shape or formulate the nature of new inquiries and observations.”
His preference for oral over written forms of communication reflects this approach. As Grant Hammons writes in his The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security: “If one’s understanding is always imperfect, it cannot be committed to print because revision is imminent”. The accurateness of one’s storytelling becomes less important that the purpose of the story itself: moving forward in the infinite and mutually influencing loop of observation and conceptualization.
It is in this context that we need to situate Boyd’s reputation for telling stories that were full of made-up events and, sometimes, entire stories where facts and fiction mixed freely. The fine line between a bullshit artist who uses it as a truth-seeking tool and a corrosive, compulsive bullshitter who cheats himself and others also explains why Boyd is regarded simultaneously as “one of the greatest military mind of the twentieth century and a crackpot, as a great pilot and a one-trick pony, as a threat to the nation and one of its unsung heroes”.
I will get back to this point towards the end of the post. Before that, let’s turn our attention to some techniques that take advantage of bullshit to reach higher levels of understanding.
The parallels between knowledge creation, truth-seeking and entrepreneurship shed light on both how to build our unapologetic case for bullshit, and on its limitations.
If “fake it until you make it” is a key external tool in the hands of both entrepreneur and truth-seeker, its internal equivalent is the ability to suspend disbelief – another recognized super-power of early-stage founders.
In the early days of a new venture, the entrepreneur needs to be willing to silence that inner voice that keeps telling you your idea is never going to work. Similarly, significant discoveries and innovations – the ability to reach a new truth peak in the knowledge landscape – rely on our ability to detach our language, at least temporarily, from strict adherence to truth.
Edward De Bono coined a special word for this process: Po. Participants in a workshop or brainstorming session can invoke it to suspend reality. They can put forward unrealistic hypotheses, turn the context of a problem upside-down, or force a new idea onto the group. Po is a provocation; it signals the need to move forward and the willingness to defy logic to do so. It is open-ended: “let’s throw a statement in there and see where it leads us”.
Sarah Perry mentions something similar when she discusses the meaning of magical thinking as the “ability to think in ‘as if’ mode”. It can mean treating something that we believe to be untrue as true – which, according to Frankfurt, would qualify as a lie – but we can also use it when we ignore the truth, or simply when we are indifferent to it because it just doesn’t matter for our final goal. ‘As if’ thinking prescinds from the truth because it doesn’t depend on it. It is a portal to a new experience, and the only thing that matters is for us to walk through it, even if that means bullshitting our way there.
Finally, an even clearer example of the value of indifference towards the truth is the act of improvisation. The spontaneous, often gibberish-level, storytelling typical of improvisation doesn’t need or care about the truth. It flows unbounded from our inner self and stimulates our ability to think and express thoughts we don’t even know we have.
Bullshit and improvisation are so tightly related that it can be difficult to distinguish the two. There isn’t a good bullshitter who isn’t also a great improvisor.
These forgiving stances towards bullshit share a fundamentally opportunistic view. Contrary to Frankfurt’s precautionary principle – if unsure, don’t speak – they tolerate and even encourage the risk of incurring into bullshit in exchange for potential high upside, an innovative thought, a brilliant idea or yet a whole new scientific discovery. Accepting bullshit becomes thus a form of knowledge optionality.
A Tale of Two Bullshitters
Looking at bullshit as exploiting optionality allows me to make some generalizations about the environment or situations where bullshitting turns out to be the right strategy, and the archetypal ‘smart unapologetic bullshitter’.
Optionality – paraphrasing Taleb – is “the property of asymmetric upside with correspondingly limited downside”. In situations where the negative payout of being wrong is lower than the positive payout of reaching a discovery, bullshit works. De Bono’s controlled brainstorming sessions are an extreme example of this.
On the other hand, when the asymmetry is reversed – large negative and small positive payout – bullshit can be deadly. Think of a co-pilot asked to check the altitude of a mountain on the route: definitely not the right time to bullshit, get the map out – if you have one – or fly high.
More interesting, and more revealing for our purpose, are situations with a symmetrical payout. Let’s use a monetary example for the benefit of explanation. Say you can decide how much risk you want to take – how much bullshit is allowed – and you’ll receive some money if you are right while it will cost you the same amount if you are wrong. Taking more risks allows you to increase the payout. For a 90% chance of being right, the payout is $1 - you get 1$ for a right answer, and you lose 1$ for a wrong one. For an 80% chance the payout is $2. For a 70% chance, it is $3 and so on. Plotting the expected value of each scenario gives us a curve which peaks at 75% hit rate and $2.5 payout. Any additional bullshitting beyond this point gives you a worse outcome, no matter the payout.
This tells us a few things:
Adopting a risk-averse, unforgiving strategy results often in premature optimization or keeps us at a local optimum.
It can be profitable to increase the bullshit level if that also means increasing the payout.
There is a limit to this. No level of payout compensates for too much bullshit.
Let’s put it all together.
The smart unapologetic bullshitter recognises situations where bullshit can be a means towards a higher truth. She is unafraid of crossing adaptive bullshit valleys to reach higher truth peaks, and she exploits such chances. This description is today best embodied by the prototypical serendipity-seeking entrepreneur who understands that the first, likely lousy idea doesn’t have to be right. It is sufficient if it can allow her to raise money – bullshitting the VC of the moment – while buying time for the right idea to show up. A famous episode comes to mind: Peter Thiel and Max Levchin talking to their investors just a few weeks after they had raised the first money for what would eventually become PayPal: “Hi, John. Hi, Pete. We changed our business plan. Sorry, we are not going to do that: we are going to do this.”
The corrosive bullshitter, on the other hand, is the one for whom bullshit becomes a way of living. An endless button-pushing, self-reinforcing attitude that doesn’t extract signals from noise but compounds it. The one whose bullshit causes unnecessary harm to others and creates systemic risks from which not even a bunker in New Zealand, ironically, may provide enough shelter.
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