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Corporate bullshit as a communication method

A propaganda war of elite with rank-in-file folks

News Tactful communication Recommended Links Diplomatic Communication Propaganda: Journalism Vacation from Truth Doublespeak
Diplomatic Communication Socratic Questions  Surviving a Bad Performance Review Bootlickocracy  Managing Managers Expectations In Foreign Events Coverage The Guardian Presstitutes Slip Beyond the Reach of Embarrassment
  Female Sociopaths The Techniques of a Female Sociopaths The Fiefdom Syndrome Gabor's Checklist Corruption of the language
Slackerism  Ten Commandments of the IT Slackers Society Dictionary of corporate bullshit Talleyrand quotes Humor Etc
  "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry."

Harry G. Frankfurt,

 "We do not talk to say something, but to obtain a certain effect."

Goebbels


Introduction

Recently editorial cartoon by Tom Toles published in Chronicle of Higher Education depicted a bearded academic offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: "Incomplete implementation of strategized programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development."

But while it is less typical in  academic environment that the cartoon suggests, corporate BS a dominant method of communication in large corporations. Corporate bullshit is a deliberate choice. Obscure verbiage is used to to hide the fact that they have nothing to say or to hide unpleasant truth. Actually the meaning is wider then just deliberate obscurity, nonsense trying to pretend to have a meaning.  Urban Dictionary defines  corporate bullshit  the following way:

A new language that looks and sounds just like English, but is actually lies and propaganda spewed forth by big corporations that just want people to be good consumers and give them their money.

Often accompanied by Legalesein barely readable fine print, or spoken rapidly.

Should you send a complaint to a big corporation, you can expect to be handed back a sheet of paper with corporate bullshit on it.

It is not entirely new phenomenon, just a variation of Doublespeak adapted to corporate environment but it lately became pervasive and all-encompassing method of communication used in corporate environment.  It's all about spin and there are several different flavors:

The term itself conveys that same semantic as a more modern term "corporate communication" means in less offensive manner. John Kay called it is an empty language for empty-headed executives. But it is probably more complex phenomenon then just that. Looks like both politicians and the corporate brass are legitimately afraid to talk to "proles" and the society and need BS as a lubricant.  The assumption is that the objects, the prols (and the society as a whole) are a bunch of brain-dead, totally clueless, apathetic schmucks, which can "eat"  any meaningless collection of words or sounds presented, no matter how devoid of any useful info, absurd or ridiculous.

And if they can recognize what is politely called "spin", so be it. Who cares. They will be brainwashed anyway. We have as one Amazon commenter put it

...a culture pervaded by spin and spin doctors, self-serving political pundits, dubious and unscientific beliefs, subjective bias masquerading as objective truth, hypocritical hornblowing hacks with hidden agendas, masterfully manipulative, mudslinging muckrakers of mass deception...

Recently several books on the topic were published.  Professor Frankfurt, pointed in his tiny book on the subject that BS is about manipulating perception of what is said ("getting away with what he says"). It is an art of manipulating people's behavior in organizations and corporations to get the desirable for BS artist outcome. In other words, BS is a vulgar name for corporate propaganda. As we all know, the latter is often worse then outright lie. And its dominance means that we are living in the Age of Spin where political, social and technological issues are manipulated and distorted according to the desired for the elite end rather than for their real truth or validity.  That creates a certain danger for society and is a sign of decay and degradation of social structure both in society and corporations.

As such BS is typically a deceptive misrepresentation, typically using pretentious words (such as "Your call is important to us", "corporate vision", "right-sourcing", "team", "game-changing", see Corporate Bullshit Generator). Being a propaganda it is directed to spinning the audience in the direction the BS artist desire. There is a fuzzy line between hiding or distorting the truth (liar) vs. presenting one side of the story and ignoring the truth altogether (BS artist). Or masking both the truth and the real intention. According to Wikipedia (Propaganda):

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of the community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.

As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.

The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political, religious or commercial agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare.

Please note that propaganda is a form of ideological or commercial warfare. So BS is also related to the concept of corporate psychopath (see The psychopath in the corner office): insincerity is the hallmark of this pathology. Their personality attributes include "superficial charm, unreliability, untruthfulness, and insincerity, [a] lack of guilt, remorse, or shame" as well as pathological lying, egocentricity and selfishness. In short, the same traits as any gifted BS artist.

In his short book "On Bullshit" (which was first published as an article and is available for free from linguistik.tu-berlin.de ) Professor of Princeton University, a philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt tried to point some distinctions between lying and "BSing",  but I am unconvinced with his line of thinking and find it not only simplistic, but factually wrong (for example, lying by omission is still lying). The key problem with his views is that he does not understand a close relation between BS and corporate propaganda.

Instead of this simple definition (BS=propaganda), Frankfurt  tries to impose an artificial and arbitrary distinction along the following lines: the liar's focus is external; he lies to avoid the consequences of truth, or to enjoy the benefits of conscious deception. Both motivations require an awareness and appreciation of the truth. The BS artist focus is more on spinning the audience in the necessary direction.

But in no way propaganda is completely different to "ends justifying means" paradigm of liar. In both case the goal is to obscure the reality to make the achievement of particular goals possible, truth be damned. Or in more modern terms,  both try to to create "an artificial reality", as in "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." (Attributed to Karl Rove). In a narrow sense BS is about hiding real intentions and/or level of knowledge (own incompetence), imitating fake sincerity or some combination of thereof.  

In other words, the BSer's focus is on misrepresenting both himself/herself and the reality. Contrary to Frankfurt views, that does not exclude outright lying, although skillful propagandist tries to minimize it and use it as the weapon of last resort. It also involves a false pretence of knowledge (TV pundits is a classic example here), of sincerity, or care ("I feel you pain"), etc.  In narrow sense that Frankfurt defines it, BS is closely related to bluffing: 

"B.S. is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of B.S. is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled - whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others - to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant."

In this situation a BS artist typically tries to appear sincere and knowledgeable where in reality he/she is neither. According to the author, the very lack of sincerity is a great danger. Frankfurt thinks that the key reason of proliferation of BS today is that the notion of honesty and truth has been replaced by a belief in the importance of creation of the illusion of knowledge and sincerity ( along the lines of Machiavelli recommendations for prince, or Taleyrand quote "Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts").  As John Kay noted (An empty language for empty-headed executives; 12 July 2005, Financial Times):

But in more broad meaning of corporate propaganda is based on a skillful manipulation of the capabilities of human language, using it as a tool of misinforming people, hiding the real picture, instead of illuminating it. 

When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay on Politics and the English Language in 1946, public bullshit was political bullshit. There is still a lot of that about. Election campaigns in Britain, constitutional arguments in Europe, and global summits in Scotland have produced political bullshit in quantity.

But the worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus. In the last year, books by the Australian writer, Don Watson, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s, and my colleague Lucy Kellaway have attempted, in very different ways, to dissect this phenomenon.

Lies and spin communicate, but what they communicate is false. The defining characteristic of bullshit is that it does not attempt to communicate at all. Bullshit has the vocabulary and syntax of ordinary language, but not the meaning. The metaphor is not apt. What we describe as bullshit is more like candy floss – when you bite into it, there is nothing there.

The symptoms of bullshit are familiar. The repetition of stock phrases which can be parroted without thought – change drivers, organizational transformation. Words are given meanings different from their ordinary sense – government spending is called investment. Bullshit creates new words – empowerment, creovation™ – but these do not define original ideas, but describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning. Bullshit is characterized by prolixity – “serving customers better” becomes “striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space”.

XXI century can probably be called "the age of disinformation", although the process started long ago with the first totalitarian regimes in  Italy, Germany and Russia. In this sense the cold war was won by the USSR, because one of the most despicable features of the regime -- complete vacation from truth by mainstream press -- is now almost completely replicated in western countries. It is not accidental that a nickname for BBC is British Bullshit Corporation.  It is also typical in the dynamics of power in large global corporations. In "The Fable of the Sharks" by Eduard Gracia noted:

"For each and every one of us who try to make a living in this our uncertain world, the most insidious if not the biggest danger is that of failing to distinguish between fact and "BS", between information and manipulation."

If you are alarmed the proliferation of BS in our culture today and legions of BS artists in mass media, political scene and corporate environment, who are constantly painting pictures. which have only a tangential connection to reality, you are not alone.   Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, put his finger on the Bush administration's particular style of lying years ago:

If the truth was too precious to waste on politics for Bush I and a challenge to overcome for Clinton, for our current George Bush it is simply boring and uncool. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered.

Each new Congress, each new administration is clearly more bullshit-heavy than its predecessors.

The danger of brainwashing

Like any propaganda the key danger of constant BS is brainwashing. The quantity eventually turns in quality.  If left unaddressed, bullshit leads to such an altered perception of reality that we will not know what reality is. In some way being indifferent to the truth could be worse than being opposed to the truth. In other words corporate propaganda involves more profound manipulation of the reality then the outright lying. It creates and maintains an alternative reality, the feat which surprisingly is typical for totalitarian societies and theocracies.

Few would think about Nazism as the purveyor of BS, but Frankfurt analysis makes this line thinking entirely logical.  Here is a Hermann Göring quote (Wikiquote):

Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country

The same was actually true about Bolshevism, which was infused with propaganda that nobody has had taken seriously and still that was force fed by all communication channels. While BS is more easily detectable than a lie, at least from a common man perspective, it is much more dangerous as it acts as opium, anesthetizing us to the cruelty and absurdity of the reality. And this actually is what corporate management and party leaders want. In a way, the psychology of the BS artist is the psychology of a corporate executive or party functionary, or more correctly a corporate psychopath.

Faking reality

The key trick that bullshit artists use is to impress the listener (or the reader) with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that might be true or false, but which directed at obscuring the situation,  the facts of the matter being discussed. In other words “the bullshitter is faking reality

This line thinking was well described in NYT review of his book (Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity, February 14, 2005):

Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is called "On Bull - - - - ."

The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry."

... ... ...

What is [bull], after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth.

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."

The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what he says," Mr. Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to [bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."

And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull] is one in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are." It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.

The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance. "All that is solid," as Marx once wrote, "melts into air."

... ... ...

..."I used the title I did," he added, "because I wanted to talk about [bull] without any [bull], so I didn't use 'humbug' or 'bunkum.' "

Research was a problem. The closest analogue came from Socrates.

"He called it rhetoric or sophistry," Mr. Frankfurt said, "and regarded philosophy as the great enemy of rhetoric and sophistry."

"These were opposite, incompatible ways of persuading people," he added. "You could persuade them with rhetoric" - or [bull] - "with sophistic arguments that weren't really sound but that you could put over on people, or you could persuade them by philosophical arguments which were dedicated to rigor and clarity of thought."

... ... ...

"Why," he wondered, "do we respond to [bull] in such a different way than we respond to lies? When we find somebody lying, we get angry, we feel we've been betrayed or violated or insulted in some way, and the liar is regarded as deceptive, deficient, morally at fault."

Why we are more tolerant of [bull] than lying is something Mr. Frankfurt believes would be worth considering.

"Why is lying regarded almost as a criminal act?" he asked, while bull "is sort of cuddly and warm? It's outside the realm of serious moral criticism. Why is that?"

One of the most telling signs of bullshit is twisting of the language. Even if you are in a technical position, you may still find yourself dealing with sales people and other corporate types. You may also discover that they speak a different language and use an arsenal of corny phrases that might just give you the hives.

 Samples of corporate bullshit

Below are some samples of "corporate bullshit" (see Dictionary of corporate bullshit):


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[Nov 12, 2016] MC MCSE Corporate Speak Dictionary for programmers

Even if you are in a technical position, you may still find yourself dealing with sales people and other corporate types. You may also discover that they speak a different language and use an arsenal of corny phrases that might just give you the hives. This article is a glossary of our 35 favorite terms and phrases.
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The obscenity that's corporate jargon is my pet hate. So imagine the response to Hewlett-Packard chief Mark Hurd's spin on the company's decision to lay off 14,500 workers, or one in 10 of its employees. ''The majority of the head-count reductions will be achieved trough involuntary actions," he said in a New York Times report. It was bad enough that sacking someone morphed into ''downsizing'' and ''rightsizing''. Now they're calling it ''involuntary action''.

With his terrific anti-jargon book now hitting the American market, Paul Keating's former speech writer Don Watson has a web site asking people to send in weasel words.

[Sep 26, 2014] Why Academics' Writing Stinks By Steven Pinker

September 26, 2014 | The Chronicle Review | Comments (326)

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese. An editorial cartoon by Tom Toles shows a bearded academic at his desk offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: "Incomplete implementation of strategized programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development." In a similar vein, Bill Watterson has the 6-year-old Calvin titling his homework assignment "The Dynamics of Inter­being and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes," and exclaiming to Hobbes, his tiger companion, "Academia, here I come!"

No honest professor can deny that there’s something to the stereotype. When the late Denis Dutton (founder of the Chronicle-owned Arts & Letters Daily) ran an annual Bad Writing Contest to celebrate "the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles," he had no shortage of nominations, and he awarded the prizes to some of academe’s leading lights.

But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

Though no doubt the bamboozlement theory applies to some academics some of the time, in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.

The most popular answer inside the academy is the self-serving one: Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter. Every human pastime—music, cooking, sports, art—develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to use a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in one another’s company. It would be tedious for a biologist to spell out the meaning of the term transcription factor every time she used it, and so we should not expect the tęte-ŕ-tęte among professionals to be easily understood by amateurs.

But the insider-shorthand theory, too, doesn’t fit my experience. I suffer the daily experience of being baffled by articles in my field, my subfield, even my sub-sub-subfield. The methods section of an experimental paper explains, "Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word." After some detective work, I determined that it meant, "Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false." The original academese was not as concise, accurate, or scientific as the plain English translation. So why did my colleague feel compelled to pile up the polysyllables?

A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority. People often tell me that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth. In Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword masochistically analyzed the literary style in a sample of 500 scholarly articles and found that a healthy minority in every field were written with grace and verve.

Instead of moralistic finger-pointing or evasive blame-shifting, perhaps we should try to understand academese by engaging in what academics do best: analysis and explanation. An insight from literary analysis and an insight from cognitive science go a long way toward explaining why people who devote their lives to the world of ideas are so inept at conveying them.

In a brilliant little book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that every style of writing can be understood as a model of the communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation. They distinguish, in particular, romantic, oracular, prophetic, practical, and plain styles, each defined by how the writer imagines himself to be related to the reader, and what the writer is trying to accomplish. (To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a male generic writer and a female generic reader.) Among those styles is one they single out as an aspiration for writers of expository prose. They call it classic style, and they credit its invention to 17th-century French essayists such as Descartes and La Rochefoucauld.

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which "the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naďveté about his own enterprise."

Thomas and Turner illustrate the contrast as follows:

"When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside—and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? … Classic style similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions about its enterprise. If it took those questions up, it could never get around to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject."

It’s easy to see why academics fall into self-conscious style. Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self-­consciousness:

Metadiscourse. The preceding discussion introduced the problem of academese, summarized the principle theories, and suggested a new analysis based on a theory of Turner and Thomas. The rest of this article is organized as follows. The first section consists of a review of the major shortcomings of academic prose. …

Are you having fun? I didn’t think so. That tedious paragraph was filled with metadiscourse—verbiage about verbiage. Thoughtless writers think they’re doing the reader a favor by guiding her through the text with previews, summaries, and signposts. In reality, meta­discourse is there to help the writer, not the reader, since she has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like directions for a shortcut that take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save.

The art of classic prose is to use signposts sparingly, as we do in conversation, and with a minimum of metadiscourse. Instead of the self-referential "This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity," one can pose a question: "What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?" Or one can co-opt the guiding metaphor behind classic style—vision. Instead of "The preceding paragraph demonstrated that parents sometimes give a boy’s name to a girl, but never vice versa," one can write, "As we have seen, parents sometimes give a boy’s name to a girl, but never vice versa." And since a conversation embraces a writer and reader who are taking in the spectacle together, a classic writer can refer to them with the good old pronoun we. Instead of "The previous section analyzed the source of word sounds. This section raises the question of word meanings," he can write, "Now that we have explored the source of word sounds, we arrive at the puzzle of word meanings."

Professional narcissism. Academics live in two universes: the world of the thing they study (the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, the development of language in children, the Taiping Rebellion in China) and the world of their profession (getting articles published, going to conferences, keeping up with the trends and gossip). Most of a researcher’s waking hours are spent in the second world, and it’s easy for him to confuse the two. The result is the typical opening of an academic paper:

In recent years, an increasing number of psychologists and linguists have turned their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent research on this process will be reviewed.

No offense, but few people are interested in how professors spend their time. Classic style ignores the hired help and looks directly at what they are being paid to study:

All children acquire the ability to speak a language without explicit lessons. How do they accomplish this feat?

Of course, sometimes the topic of conversation really is the activity of researchers, such as an overview intended to introduce graduate students or other insiders to the scholarly literature. But researchers are apt to lose sight of whom they are writing for, and narcissistically describe the obsessions of their federation rather than what the audience wants to know.

Apologizing. Self-conscious writers are also apt to kvetch about how what they’re about to do is so terribly difficult and complicated and controversial:

The problem of language acquisition is extremely complex. It is difficult to give precise definitions of the concept of language and the concept of acquisition and the concept of children. There is much uncertainty about the interpretation of experimental data and a great deal of controversy surrounding the theories. More research needs to be done.

In the classic style, the writer credits the reader with enough intelligence to realize that many concepts aren’t easy to define, and that many controversies aren’t easy to resolve. She is there to see what the writer will do about it.

Shudder quotes. Academics often use quotation marks to distance themselves from a common idiom, as in "But this is not the ‘take-home message,’ " or "She is a ‘quick study’ and has been able to educate herself in virtually any area that interests her." They seem to be saying, "I couldn’t think of a more dignified way of putting this, but please don’t think I’m a flibbertigibbet who talks this way; I really am a serious scholar."

The problem goes beyond the nose-holding disdain for idiomatic English. In the second example, taken from a letter of recommendation, are we supposed to think that the student is a quick study, or that she is a "quick study"—someone who is alleged to be a quick study but really isn’t?

Quotation marks have a number of legitimate uses, such as reproducing someone else’s words (She said, "Fiddlesticks!"), mentioning a word as a word rather than using it to convey its meaning (The New York Times uses "millenniums," not "millennia"), and signaling that the writer does not accept the meaning of a word as it is being used by others in this context (They executed their sister to preserve the family’s "honor"). Squeamishness about one’s own choice of words is not among them.

Hedging. Academics mindlessly cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say. Those include almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue. (Does that mean you would argue for your position if things were different, but are not willing to argue for it now?)

Consider virtually in the letter of recommendation excerpted above. Did the writer really mean to say that there are some areas the student was interested in but didn’t bother to educate herself, or perhaps that she tried to educate herself in those areas but lacked the competence to do so? Then there’s the scientist who showed me a picture of her 4-year-old daughter and beamed, "We virtually adore her."

Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal. If someone tells you that Liz wants to move out of Seattle because it’s a rainy city, you don’t interpret him as claiming that it rains there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just because he didn’t qualify his statement with relatively rainy or somewhat rainy. Any adversary who is intellectually unscrupulous enough to give the least charitable reading to an unhedged statement will find an opening to attack the writer in a thicket of hedged ones anyway.

Sometimes a writer has no choice but to hedge a statement. Better still, the writer can qualify the statement—that is, spell out the circumstances in which it does not hold rather than leaving himself an escape hatch or being coy as to whether he really means it. If there is a reasonable chance that readers will misinterpret a statistical tendency as an absolute law, a responsible writer will anticipate the oversight and qualify the generalization accordingly. Pronouncements like "Democracies don’t fight wars," "Men are better than women at geometry problems," and "Eating broccoli prevents cancer" do not do justice to the reality that those phenomena consist at most of small differences in the means of two overlapping bell curves. Since there are serious consequences to misinterpreting those statements as absolute laws, a responsible writer should insert a qualifier like on average or all things being equal, together with slightly or somewhat. Best of all is to convey the magnitude of the effect and the degree of certainty explicitly, in unhedged statements such as "During the 20th century, democracies were half as likely to go to war with one another as autocracies were." It’s not that good writers never hedge their claims. It’s that their hedging is a choice, not a tic.

Metaconcepts and nominalizations. A legal scholar writes, "I have serious doubts that trying to amend the Constitution … would work on an actual level. … On the aspirational level, however, a constitutional amendment strategy may be more valuable." What do the words level and strategy add to a sentence that means, "I doubt that trying to amend the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it"? Those vacuous terms refer to meta­concepts: concepts about concepts, such as approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, prospect, role, strategy, subject, tendency, and variable.

It’s easy to see why metaconcepts tumble so easily from the fingers of academics. Professors really do think about "issues" (they can list them on a page), "levels of analysis" (they can argue about which is most appropriate), and "contexts" (they can use them to figure out why something works in one place but not in another). But after a while those abstractions become containers in which they store and handle all their ideas, and before they know it they can no longer call anything by its name. "Reducing prejudice" becomes a "prejudice-­reduction model"; "calling the police" becomes "approaching this subject from a law-enforcement perspective."

English grammar is an enabler of the bad habit of writing in unnecessary abstractions because it includes a dangerous tool for creating abstract terms. A process called nominalization takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, or –ation. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. Helen Sword calls them "zombie nouns" because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead. The phrase "assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word," for example, is infested with zombies. So is "prevention of neurogenesis diminished social avoidance" (when we prevented neurogenesis, the mice no longer avoided other mice).

The theory that academese is the opposite of classic style helps explain a paradox of academic writing. Many of the most stylish writers who cross over to a general audience are scientists (together with some philosophers who are fans of science), while the perennial winners of the Bad Writing Contest are professors of English. That’s because the ideal of classic prose is congenial to the worldview of the scientist. Contrary to the common misunderstanding in which Einstein proved that everything is relative and Heisenberg proved that observers always affect what they observe, most scientists believe that there are objective truths about the world, and that they can be discovered by a disinterested observer.

By the same token, this guiding image of classic prose could not be farther from the worldview of relativist academic ideologies such as postmodernism, poststructuralism, and literary Marxism, which took over many humanities departments in the 1970s. Many of the winning entries in the Dutton contest (such as Judith Butler’s "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure ….") consist almost entirely of metaconcepts.

For all its directness, classic style remains a pretense, an imposture, a stance. Even scientists, with their commitment to seeing the world as it is, are a bit postmodern. They recognize that it’s hard to know the truth, that the world doesn’t just reveal itself to us, that we understand the world through our theories and constructs, which are not pictures but abstract propositions, and that our ways of understanding the world must constantly be scrutinized for hidden biases. It’s just that good writers don’t flaunt that anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

The other major contributor to academese is a cognitive blind spot called the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term comes from economics, but the general inability to set aside something that you know but someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind that psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, mind-blindness, failure to mentalize, and lack of a theory of mind. In a textbook demonstration, a 3-year-old who sees a toy being hidden while a second child is out of the room assumes that the other child will look for it in its actual location rather than where she last saw it. Children mostly outgrow the inability to separate their own knowledge from someone else’s, but not entirely. Even adults slightly tilt their guess about where a person will look for a hidden object in the direction of where they themselves know the object to be. And they mistakenly assume that their private knowledge and skills—the words and facts they know, the puzzles they can solve, the gadgets they can operate—are second nature to everyone else, too.

The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day. And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.

Obviously, scholars cannot avoid technical terms altogether. But a surprising amount of jargon can simply be banished, and no one will be the worse for it. A scientist who replaces murine model with rats and mice will use up no more space on the page and be no less scientific. Philosophers are every bit as rigorous when they put away Latin expressions like ceteris paribus, inter alia, and simpliciter, and write in English instead: other things being equal, among other things, and in and of itself.

Abbreviations are tempting to thoughtless writers because they can save a few keystrokes every time they have to use the term. The writers forget that the few seconds they add to their own lives come at the cost of many minutes stolen from their readers. I stare at a table of numbers whose columns are labeled DA DN SA SN, and have to riffle back and scan for the explanation: Dissimilar Affirmative, Dissimilar Negative, Similar Affirmative, Similar Negative. Each abbreviation is surrounded by inches of white space. What possible reason could there have been for the author not to spell them out?

A considerate writer will also cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in "Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant," rather than the bare "Arabidopsis" (which I’ve seen in many science papers). It’s not just an act of magnanimity; a writer who explains technical terms can multiply his readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk. Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all.

And when technical terms are unavoidable, why not choose ones that are easy for readers to understand? Ironically, the field of linguistics is among the worst offenders, with dozens of mystifying technical terms: themes that have nothing to do with themes; PRO and pro, which are pronounced the same way but refer to different things; stage-level and individual-level predicates, which are just unintuitive ways of saying "temporary" and "permanent"; and Principles A, B, and C, which could just as easily have been called the Reflexive Effect, the Pronoun Effect, and the Noun Effect.

But it’s not just opaque technical terms that bog down academese. Take this sentence from a journal that publishes brief review articles in cognitive science for a wide readership:

The slow and integrative nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviorally by observations such as the "rabbit illusion" and its variants, where the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is influenced by poststimulus events arising several hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.

The authors write as if everyone knows what "the rabbit illusion" is, but I’ve been in this business for nearly 40 years and had never heard of it. Nor does their explanation enlighten. How are we supposed to visualize "a stimulus," "poststimulus events," and "the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived"? And what does any of that have to do with rabbits?

So I did a bit of digging and uncovered the Cutaneous Rabbit Illusion, in which if you close your eyes and someone taps you a few times on the wrist, then on the elbow, and then on the shoulder, it feels like a string of taps running up the length of your arm, like a hopping rabbit. OK, now I get it—a person’s conscious experience of where the early taps fell depends on the location of the later taps. But why didn’t the authors just say that, which would have taken no more words than stimulus-this and poststimulus-that?

Scholars lose their moorings in the land of the concrete because of two effects of expertise that have been documented by cognitive psychology. One is called chunking. To work around the limitations of short-term memory, the mind can package ideas into bigger and bigger units, which the psychologist George Miller dubbed "chunks." As we read and learn, we master a vast number of abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit that we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes at a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks.

The amount of abstraction a writer can get away with depends on the expertise of his readership. But divining the chunks that have been mastered by a typical reader requires a gift of clairvoyance with which few of us are blessed. When we are apprentices in our chosen specialty, we join a clique in which, it seems to us, everyone else seems to know so much! And they talk among themselves as if their knowledge were conventional wisdom to every educated person. As we settle into the clique, it becomes our universe. We fail to appreciate that it is a tiny bubble in a multiverse of cliques. When we make first contact with the aliens in other universes and jabber at them in our local code, they cannot understand us without a sci-fi universal translator.

A failure to realize that my chunks may not be the same as your chunks can explain why we baffle our readers with so much shorthand, jargon, and alphabet soup. But it’s not the only way we baffle them. Sometimes wording is maddeningly opaque without being composed of technical terminology from a private clique. Even among cognitive scientists, for example, "poststimulus event" is not a standard way to refer to a tap on the arm.

The second way in which expertise can make our thoughts harder to share is that as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of. This transition is called functional fixity. In the textbook experiment, people are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks, and are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax won’t drip onto the floor. The solution is to dump the thumbtacks out of the box, tack the box to the wall, and stick the candle onto the box. Most people never figure this out because they think of the box as a container for the tacks rather than as a physical object in its own right. The blind spot is called functional fixity because people get fixated on an object’s function and forget its physical makeup.

Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idio­syncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle their readers; it’s just the way they think. The specialists are no longer thinking—and thus no longer writing—about tangible objects, and instead are referring to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails. A psychologist calls the labels true and false "assessment words" because that’s why he put them there—so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence. Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an "assessment word" is.

In the same way, a tap on the wrist became a "stimulus," and a tap on the elbow became a "poststimulus event," because the writers cared about the fact that one event came after the other and no longer cared that the events were taps on the arm. But we readers care, because otherwise we have no idea what really took place. A commitment to the concrete does more than just ease communication; it can lead to better reasoning. A reader who knows what the Cutaneous Rabbit Illusion consists of is in a position to evaluate whether it really does imply that conscious experience is spread over time or can be explained in some other way.

The curse of knowledge, in combination with chunking and functional fixity, helps make sense of the paradox that classic style is difficult to master. What could be so hard about pretending to open your eyes and hold up your end of a conversation? The reason it’s harder than it sounds is that if you are enough of an expert in a topic to have something to say about it, you have probably come to think about it in abstract chunks and functional labels that are now second nature to you but are still unfamiliar to your readers—and you are the last one to realize it.

The final explanation of why academics write so badly comes not from literary analysis or cognitive science but from classical economics and Skinnerian psychology: There are few incentives for writing well.

When Calvin explained to Hobbes, "With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog," he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice. The naďve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill. Exorcising the curse of knowledge is no easier. It requires more than just honing one’s empathy for the generic reader. Since our powers of telepathy are limited, it also requires showing a draft to a sample of real readers and seeing if they can follow it, together with showing it to yourself after enough time has passed that it’s no longer familiar and putting it through another draft (or two or three or four). And there is the toolbox of writerly tricks that have to be acquired one by one: a repertoire of handy idioms and tropes, the deft use of coherence connectors such as nonetheless and moreover, an ability to fix convoluted syntax and confusing garden paths, and much else.

You don’t have to swallow the rational-­actor model of human behavior to see that professionals may not bother with this costly self-­improvement if their profession doesn’t reward it. And by and large, academe does not. Few graduate programs teach writing. Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and author, most recently, of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, just out from Viking.

[Jun 02, 2013] Fear the Embarrassing Bodies webcam by Alistair Dabbs

The Register

Anonymous Custard

House!

A multi-tiered, hybrid approach that differentiates between infrastructure and service-level competition can drive an optimum balance between national economic interests, free-market economics and a healthy telecommunications industry, that is able to provide affordable leading edge ICT services so necessary for economies going forward.

That's a full house on my bullshit buzzword bingo card...

[May 27, 2013] Chris Hedges On the State of Modern Journalism

Move to an image based culture is one of signed of triumph of corporate BS in modern society.
May 9, 2013 | Jesse's Café Américain

Chris Hedges - The State of Journalism University of Western Ontario - YouTube

On March 13, 2013, the Faculty of Information and Media Studies Undergraduate Students' Council (FIMSSC) at The University of Western Ontario proudly presented Chris Hedges and his talk on the state of journalism and his book "Empire of Illusion", the second event in the FIMS Undergraduate Speaker Series, sponsored in part by the FIMS Undergraduate Student Fund.

Chris Hedges is an American journalist specializing in American politics and society. Hedges is also known as the best-selling author of several books including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002)—a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction—Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), Death of the Liberal Class (2010) and his most recent New York Times best seller, written with the cartoonist Joe Sacco, "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt" (2012).

Chris Hedges is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than fifty countries, and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The New York Times, where he was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years (1990--2005).

In 2002, Hedges was part of the team of reporters at The New York Times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper's coverage of global terrorism. He also received in 2002 the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University[2] and The University of Toronto. He writes a weekly column on Mondays for Truthdig and authored what The New York Times described as "a call to arms" for the first issue of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the newspaper giving voice to the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, New York City.

In this talk, Hedges explores the relationship between dominant media institutions and recent socioeconomic trends by discussing some of his experiences as journalist for The New York Times, as well as some of the topics covered in his book, Empire of Illusion.

Special thanks to the film crew for making this video possible: Tyler Benning, Cody McFarland, and Nicole Landsiedel.

[May 26, 2013] An empty language for empty-headed executives by John Kay

John Kay

Most bullshit is simply to fill space, written by word processor, read by nobody, this material is generally innocuous. The worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus. If bullshit tells you nothing else, it tells you something about the organisation that excretes it.

When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay on Politics and the English Language in 1946, public bullshit was political bullshit. There is still a lot of that about. Election campaigns in Britain, constitutional arguments in Europe, and global summits in Scotland have produced political bullshit in quantity.

But the worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus. In the last year, books by the Australian writer, Don Watson, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s, and my colleague Lucy Kellaway have attempted, in very different ways, to dissect this phenomenon.

Lies and spin communicate, but what they communicate is false. The defining characteristic of bullshit is that it does not attempt to communicate at all. Bullshit has the vocabulary and syntax of ordinary language, but not the meaning. The metaphor is not apt. What we describe as bullshit is more like candy floss – when you bite into it, there is nothing there.

The symptoms of bullshit are familiar. The repetition of stock phrases which can be parroted without thought – change drivers, organisational transformation. Words are given meanings different from their ordinary sense – government spending is called investment. Bullshit creates new words – empowerment, creovation™ – but these do not define original ideas, but describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning. Bullshit is characterised by prolixity – “serving customers better” becomes “striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space”.

Why do people talk or write when they have nothing to say? Sometimes there are good reasons. When the Queen pays a royal visit, her remarks tell people nothing other than that she is present, but that purpose is important. Some of what senior executives do has this symbolic role. Such speeches are properly short, and banalities suffice.

These representative occasions are sometimes used to good effect, by orators who connect with the emotions of their audiences. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is still inspirational, and Ken Livingstone’s words on the London bombings last week showed some of the same gift for language. But people who lack poetic skill are wise to stick to tested clichés.

So most bullshit is simply to fill space. Sometimes people do not want to speak but are required to. The growing culture of audit and accountability has stimulated such obligatory communication – read any corporate risk assessment or statement of auditors’ responsibilities. Written by word processor, read by nobody, this material is generally innocuous.

But the purpose of bullshit is often deceptive. The squirming politician, forbidden to lie but unable to tell the truth, must bullshit. And so must Martin Lukes. He cannot describe what he and co-colleagues are doing because they are not doing anything: their time is spent in office politics and in diverting the resources of the company to their own interests. The popularity of the joke reveals that most employees of large organisations recognise some reality in this account. Less venally, a senior executive is unwilling to talk substantively about corporate strategy but too vain to remain silent. And so he rambles on, repeating long words and exhausted phrases.

‘Why don’t they get up and walk out?’ asked a distinguished academic, sitting next to me as we waited our turn to speak at a corporate event: layer of bullshit was piled on accumulated layer. They didn’t get up and walk out partly because the conventions of the corporate world differ from those of universities. But not all the audience had noticed that the words they heard meant nothing. If you are asked to report on implementation milestones towards key performance indicators, you are obliged to reply in the same language. Before long you speak this way yourself.

Proper academic training, which emphasises substance over form, is an antidote, and many universities still provide it: business schools, where both faculty and students must disguise how little they know, sometimes do the opposite. The most powerful enemy of bullshit is ridicule, and the most powerful ally of bullshit is the corporate conformity that makes such ridicule impossible. The more authoritarian the culture, the more bullshit. If bullshit tells you nothing else, it tells you something about the organisation that excretes it.

[May 26, 2013] On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

Amazon.com

A Kid's Review

Such Rich Possibilities, September 10, 2005

As other reviewers have noted, Frankfurt begins by etymologizing over the word, comparing it to 'humbug' and 'hogwash'; he cites various instances of it in the OED; he explores the nuances of variants like 'bull session', and so on.

Essentially, he argues that BS differs from lies insofar as the BSer isn't out to deceive exactly, but is instead more in changing the context of the issue under discussion or in generalizing about it so as to cover up his ignorance and/or incompetence, which is simple enough to understand albeit not completely satisfying, as Frankfurt seems to know, since he evokes BS as a culture-wide phenomenon with myriad manifestations, none of which he touches on or even names with any real degree of particularity. (And this simple definition that he seems to settle on doesn't quite jibe with a rather extended and not particularly interesting anecdotal example about Wittgenstein that makes up much of the text in the middle of the essay.)

His style is something like reading one side of a Socratic dialogue, but one without any, well, sparkle-- a quality that by its absence Frankfurt seems to be, intentionally or unintentionally, equating with BS. Is it a coincidence that, besides the title that promises a snappy narrative, the best thing about the essay is its clear, simple, unpretentious, jargon-free (and humor-free) analysis? that the essay seems dull? Perhaps he's making a point in it. Or perhaps he isn't.

And the essay seems to wrap up suddenly, I would suspect like many high school and college students' papers do, and you can almost hear the sigh of relief that it's over, the last paragraph filled out with some borderline BS about the typical un-fixedness and fluidity of human personality that tragically makes even our attempts at sincerity into falsehoods, a pseudo-philosophical ending that, if sincere, implicitly undermines the last twenty five pages you just read, since his stripped-down style and simple analytical methodology clearly seems to aim at sincerity.

And so the abrupt ending is either the most provocative and important and interesting and comical, or, the worst, laziest, and most laughably bad part of the essay. Perhaps it is indeed a real point that Frankfurt hasn't explored more fully, which I tend to doubt-- and I hope that I'm right-- since he`s the Ivy leaguer. Or perhaps his essay and ending is a sly, intentional imitation of philosophical BS that's supposed to let us see him winking at us fellow philosophers and BSers if we pay close attention. Or perhaps Frankfurt couldn't decide whether or not he wanted to really illuminate BS or indulge in it,the essay ultimately a callow exercise in will-to-power over his readers, which might explain the `ten dollars for this BS?' response of some who`ve bought it.

Or perhaps he just wasn't up to the task that could have made a more entertaining or more profound essay that could live up to his moderately taboo and extraordinarily fertile title.

David Boyle (Ann Arbor, MI, U.S.A.)

Frankfurt's Bull Session on "Bull----", February 26, 2005

Philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt, of Princeton and other universities, has recently published a small hardcover book, "On Bull----" with a title that this present author refuses to spell it out in full. (This reviewer had the experience of going to a Borders bookstore and seeing the book placed in a high-profile area where children could see it, with its title on the cover and all.) Couldn't the book have been called "On Dishonesty" or, "On Verbal Hustling" or something instead of "On Bull----"?) And, in any case, is Frankfurt's little work (c. 80 pages) a species of what it claims to condemn, as other Amazon reviewers have noted?

In essence, what the book says, as this reviewer understands it, is that bull---- (a frequent phenomenon these days) may be even worse than lying, since bull----ting shows one doesn't even care if one's telling the truth or not, and may also reflect a modernistic and nihilistic lack of confidence that there is an objective reality.

(Why it would take an entire book to say this is another question.)

One must at least credit Frankfurt for noting that characteristics of bull---- are "lack of connection to a concern with truth", and also being "__phony__". Apparently, then, he does decry apathy-about-truth, and also decries phoniness, as indeed any philosophy professor worth his bread and butter should.

That's not all, though; on analysis, things start to get interesting. Harry Frankfurt (also seemingly known as "Henry G. Frankfurt" back when he published "Demons, Dreamers and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descarte's [sic] Meditations") seems to have omitted any mention that "On Bull----" is in large part work done no later than 1988, when an essay of the same name, "On Bull----", was published in the collection "The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays by Harry G. Frankfurt".

At this point, a quick look at another part of 1988's "The Importance of What We Care About" might be instructive. Frankfurt says there, of equality, that "What is important from the moral point of view is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others."

Who decides what is "enough", though? What about problems of envy, power, unease (e.g., the time spent in wondering and investigating why one should have more than another), or, believe it or not, simple injustice? (Cf. the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal.")

Frankfurt's near-namesake, the legal "hot dog" and U.S. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, himself had questions about equality: for example, he asked his future fellow justice, Thurgood Marshall, during _Brown v. Board of Education_ arguments, what Marshall meant by "equal," whereupon Marshall replied, "Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place."

Eventually, Justice Frankfurter, despite his questions about equality, supported Marshall in the _Brown_ case and voted for desegregation, apparently deciding that "equality" is a better standard than merely "enough". In that light, Harry Frankfurt's stated ideas on equality become more puzzling.

The above commentary, on equality, is not a diversion but an illustration; it lets us see the track of Frankfurt's philosophy. How it reflects on "On Bull----" is up to readers of this review, but this reviewer felt readers should have some of Frankfurt's other work for comparison.

--The disturbing closing words of "On Bull----" are that "...sincerity itself is bull----." While Frankfurt apparently means that mere sincerity is no substitute for following objective reality (e.g., Frankfurt could have noted that the 9/11 suicide bombers were maybe "sincere", but severely deluded), his work should have emphasized that both attention-to-facts AND sincerity are important, as common sense should dictate.

In sum: "On Bull----", old wine in new bottle, may not be completely valueless, but for someone of Harry G. Frankfurt's supposed stature, it deserves at most one star, maybe half a star. Instead of something deep, like the Hindu laws of Manu, we get merely the laws of manure, and in a version which raises questions it may not have meant to raise.

Stephen F. Davids (Elk Grove, CA United States)

Don't Believe Anything I Say, August 31, 2005

Prof. Frankfurt's analysis almost makes us overlook the fact that his book is a species of, ahem, "humbug." (Read his concluding discussion of sincerity!) His definition of "humbug" leaves out an essential component. In the Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera defined kitsch as the negation of, ahem, "stuff": anything unpleasant, disgusting, or evil. "Humbug" is the verbal equivalent of kitsch, because it denies that there is a normative right-ness to the world that is worth achieving. It exalts glibness over rigorous moral inquiry.

I propose the following alteration of Prof. Frankfurt's definition: "Humbug" consists of facially-plausible statements made with a self-aggrandizing purpose, and intended to obscure and distort a messy reality.

In positing that the speaker of "humbug" is unconcerned with truth, Prof. Frankfurt misses out on the fullness of his subject. In the 1990s movie Hero, Dustin Hoffman announced a near-cosmic credo, telling his son that all of life is "humbug," and the secret is finding the level of "humbug" that one can comfortably accommodate. This is the essence of socio-political "humbug," from "Mission Accomplished" to Colin Powell at the UN to "I feel your pain." Such "humbug" is almost exclusively associated with the Establishment.

Thanks to hip-hop culture, "humbug" has undergone a transformation that also eludes Prof. Frankfurt. In the 1980s, the corruption "boo-shee" was used for anything that is now labeled as "twisted" or "freaked up" (since "whack" has fallen from grace).

This usage is an expression of frustration and disgust that someone or something has gone in a direction that the speaker considers unfortunate. "Humbug" therefore always implies a dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the speaker of "humbug" yearns (albeit manipulatively) for a different reality. Small wonder that, as Prof. Frankfurt observes, there is so much of it nowadays.

Michael Caracappa (Charlotte NC)

The business of America is BS, April 16, 2011

To put it even more succinctly than did Harry G. Frankfurt: The business of America is BS. Every leading university should have a center of BS studies, since BS is "one of the most salient characteristics of our culture," yet goes largely unanalyzed. The theoretical unpinnings of BS are notably absent. BS has not "attracted much sustained inquiry." Frankfurt rendered a great public service by meticulously and wittily scoping out the dimensions and charactericistics of BS, in the end arriving at its very essence.

Frankfurt's goals in his brief monograph were modest: He aimed to say something helpful, though not decisive, about BS and give only a rough account of what BS is. He provides few concrete examples or illustrations. Although he is quite convinced there is a lot of it, he isn't prepared to state categorically that there is more BS today than in the past. He leaves to the conscientious student the task of determining why an outright lie tends to upset us more than BS.

Frankfurt makes only a half-hearted attempt to explain why there is so much BS: "BS is unavoidable [sic] whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about." An obvious example of talking without knowing was Barack Obama's informing us that deep-water drilling for oil was safe. A week later came the BP drilling fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico. Undetered, a year later Obama publicly embraced safe, clean nuclear energy as a cornerstone of his energy policy. A few days after that confident pronouncement, Japan experienced a partial core meltdown at its Fukushima nuclear power complex.

But all elected politicians engage in BS, because telling the unvarnished truth and thereby alienating whole swaths of constituents would be politically suicidal. So-called senior scholars at our prestigious think tanks throw the bull because their real, unadvertised purpose is to promote the ideology of their rich backers. Lawyers, of course, say whatever it takes to win the case or burnish the image of their clients. The same holds for lobbyists, who might name a political pressure group of coal-plant operators, the "Clear Skies Initiative."

We see repeatedly that drug and medical device manufacturers bury studies that show harm and publish studies that show benefits, studies written by researchers with secret financial ties to the companies themselves. Business school academics in the secret pay of their finance-industry clients publish supposedly disinterested studies on the virtues of deregulation and free markets.

Public school administrators and teachers achieve large gains in student performance by rigging the student evaluation tests. Public school history textbooks have prestigious authors' names on their covers but are secretly written by marketing hacks. Government regulators see their mission as promoting and protecting "their" industries instead of safeguarding the public. Food retailers reduce the size of the package, then exclaim "New Lower Price!" even though the price per unit of weight is at an all-time high. It's getting ever harder to see the forest for the BS. Frankfurt's treatise couldn't be more timely or more urgently needed.

Sean P. Pidgeon (Morristown, NY USA)

Good Essay; Deals with the problem of Postmodernism and Sophistry, January 11, 2007

"The Industrial Revolution reminds me of a story called the little puppy who lost his way...the difference is that the puppy was a dog, but the industry, my friends, that was a revolution. Knibb High football rules!"--Billy Madison

In 2005, Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, received a good amount of press, including an appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, for his treatise titled "On BS". Just 67 succinct pages, his opening paragraph gets straight to the point:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much BS. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize BS and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. (pg. 1)

We know, Frankfurt says, that there is way too much BS out there, but we do not have a unified theory about what exactly BS is. Frankfurt proposes here to develop a "theoretical understanding of BS (pg. 2)".

A word that comes close to BS in practical meaning is "humbug", a "more polite, as well as less intense (pg. 5)" way of saying BS, in that sense that one could go back and forth between saying, `that is humbug' or `that is BS' in response to another's exaggerated claim. But, even that does not work, for humbug is, according to Max Black (The Prevalence of Humbug. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), who Frankfurt cites, defined as "deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes (pg. 6)." Yet, as Frankfurt goes on to claim, BS is different than a deceptive misrepresentation.

To explain BS, Frankfurt begins by citing an encounter between Fania Pascal and the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the 1930's. Fania remembers:

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: "I feel just like a dog that has been run over." He was disgusted: "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like." (pg. 24)

It is possible, Frankfurt says, that Wittgenstein was just joking with her, showing faux repulsion, like when we say to someone with a broken leg, "it could be worse; if you were a horse, we'd have to shoot you." However, Frankfurt does not think this so, because Pascal knew Wittgenstein well. He was entirely serious.

Was this because Pascal was lying? Hardly. Common sense would tell her that a dog that has been run over would be in a state of unpleasantness, a state not unlike her own after having her tonsils taken out. Wittgenstein is taken aback, however, not in that he thinks she lied. He knows better. It is that she could not possibly know what it feels like to be a dog run over. She is making a comparison that she does not have the facts to make. Wittgenstein's reaction to Pascal's cry of distress may be "absurdly intolerant. Be this as it may, it seems clear what that reaction is. He reacts as though he perceives her to be speaking about her feeling thoughtlessly, without conscientious attention to the relevant facts. Her statement is not `wrought with greatest care.' She makes it without bothering to take into account at all the question of its accuracy (pg. 31)." Frankfurt continues. "[Pascal's] fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying (pg. 32)."

BS'ing is not, then, lying or trying to deceive. A BS'er is someone who has no regard at all for the truth. A liar at least knows what the truth is, or thinks he knows what the truth is, and, knowing that, deliberately goes against it. A BS'er may know the truth, or may not, but either way, does not care about it, does not, may I say it, give a [care] about the truth. The BS'er takes "no interest in whether what she says is true or false (pg. 33)." "It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth--this indifference to how things really are--that I regard as the essence of BS (pgs. 33-34)."

We all make analogies of the sort that Frankfurt would classify as BS. Sometimes, it is not a big deal. When I say, for example, "I am sweating like a whore in church" or "I am out like a boner in sweatpants" or "I am off like a prom-dress," I am not making a comparison with no regard for the truth. I know, and everyone knows, that the word `sweating' in the first saying has two different meanings, the first being the sweating one does after physical exertion, the other a use of the word sweating as a synonym for nervousness or anxiety. `I am out' and `I am off' are ways of saying `goodbye,' `I am leaving', but they are contrasted with `out' and `off' in a different setting so as to set up an entendre to bring about humor. This is not BS'ing. This is using humor to show how silly BS'ing really is by using comparisons that really cannot be made. This is why Billy Madison's speech in the final event of the academic decathlon to determine whether he or Eric get the company is funny. Billy knew nothing about the Industrial Revolution, so he felt the need to BS, and his comparison between the Industrial Revolution and the story of the little puppy who lost his way is so absurd that it could not possibly work as BS (though, the movie being an Adam Sandler comedy--the best kind--the entire audience buys it except for the Principal).

There are other areas of life where we have a tacit understanding that what is going on is BS, but we choose to go along anyways. When guys and girls meet, the flirting and tension are underlined by an understood BS where both know that this is the subtle way of getting to know a person on an initial level, before deciding whether to get to know the person later on a real level. A similar BS level exists in required societal events such as work cocktail parties or extended family get-togethers. And, this can be okay. Sometimes, and with some people, we do not want to truly open up to. But, the problem arises when we move onto serious issues.

BS'ing is a more common way of saying, unless I have read Frankfurt's book wrong, what we used to call sophistry. The Sophists were the opponents of Socrates and the real philosophers. Sophists had no concern with truth, and the way things really are. Their goal was to use rhetoric to get what they wanted. For them, the ends justified the means. Even though this way of thinking was discredited by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and later by Christianity, it still exists. Sadly, the Enlightenment's call for truth is inherently illogical as it is predicated on the subjective and the return to the call of the Sophist Protagoras to have man be "the measure of all things" rather than God.

If man is the measure of truth, and right and wrong, then truth and justice end up being not objective things that we are called to strive to know and follow, but just either that which each man decides for himself, leading to chaos, or that which the majority or the elite power molders decide upon, leading to tyranny. With the postmodernist turn, not only is BS'ing unconcerned with truth, but, along with Pontius Pilate, who asks, "what is truth?", denies that objective truth even exists, leaving the "art" of BS as the only worthwhile endeavor. He who can convince others to "buy" his meaning in a meaningless world wins. Yeah, there really is a lot of BS out there.

R. Anthony Lee

It depends on what you were expecting. June 11, 2006

I confess that when I bought this book, I expected it to be a sort of quasi-satiric send-up of bulls**t. Then by about p. 10, I began thinking it was a really serious scholarly treatment of the subject. (I mean after all - a professor emeritus of moral philosophy at Princeton?) But as I got further into it, and after reading about 20 of the 140 reviews of the book on Amazon (how many books get 140 reviews?), I began to get the picture. It is indeed a humorous book--not a quasi-satiric har-har kind of joke book, but a very dry sort of academic humor. In fact, I believe it's an academic put-on--in fact, bulls**t about bulls**t. It is highly self-referential in the sense that a great deal of what it says about bulls**t is applicable to the book itself.

Most of the reviewers who figured this out gave it a low rating because they felt they had been conned by the catchy title and resented paying ten dollars for what is little more than a short essay conflated into a publishable format. In some cases, there might have been some degree of humor-impairment involved, but in most, I think it was simply disappointment and the feeling of having been cheated. But I think that misses the point of academic put-ons.

We hardly need to be told that there's a lot of bulls**t in today's culture, but I think it's relevant here to note that a lot of it is found in scholarly literature that sounds like bulls**t to anyone not privy to the particular discipline it is targeted to, but is sincerely meant to be taken seriously by its authors. (Frankfurt's last sentence, tellingly, is, "sincerity itself is bulls**t.") This can lead to fairly serious issues about misrepresentation, which is one of the central elements in Frankfurt's definition of bulls**t. If one perceives a work like this as intending to be taken seriously, then one has a right to feel that it has misrepresented itself and to be pretty disgusted at being taken in. But if one perceives it as a put-on and appreciates it on that level, then misrepresentation is not a problem.

A more serious example is known by the name of the Sokal Affair (see the Wikipedia article under that title). In this case (quoting from that article): "[Alan] Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a pseudoscientific paper for publication in a postmodern cultural studies journal, as an experiment to see if a humanities journal would, in Sokal's words, `publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions' " There was a great brouhaha over all this because the journal felt Sokal had misrepresented his article as a piece of serious scholarship, and Sokal felt that anyone with good sense should have been able to tell it was bulls**t. Frankfurt's book may suffer from some of this ambiguity, and it may not be worth ten dollars (and certainly won't cause a major brouhaha), but if you can swallow the cost and appreciate the rather peculiar sort of humor involved, you may find it worthwhile.

Barron Laycock "Labradorman" (Temple, New Hampshire United States)

A Thoughtful Look At Contemporary Affairs!, May 20, 2005

The first book that sprang to mind as I read through this sometime hilarious, yet often perceptive short tome was Talcott Parson's ponderous, turgid, and nearly unreadable two-volume sociological treatise on the "Structure of Social Action", a book that became legend to the counteless undergraduate students majoring in sociology who found themselves obligated to struggle through it in order to fulfill the requirement for a Social Theory course. Academic C. Wright Mills later rendered a scathing albeit comical critique of the Parsonian style in a clever and insightful book, "The Sociological Imagination" in which he warned, as does the present author, of the dangers implicit in high-sounding language not clearly grounded in solid and observable reality.

Thus inoculated at a relative early stage of my academic experience about the tendency to use language to persuade and propagandize rather than to illuminate and accurately portray the state of the solid bloody landscape of modern society, I enjoyed the author's observations of how everything from the purchase of automobiles to voting for the president is corrupted by the ever-present scourge of bullshit in our culture. What Mr. Frankfurt succeeds so marvelously in depicting is the way in which almost every salient aspect of contemporary society has been dominated and trivialized by this use of language to alter our perceptions in ways that have nothing to do with the observable truth.

Thus, an anti-environmental clear-cutting lumber program devastating to the National Forests is offered by the Bush Administration as a "Healthy Forests" initiative, or an invasion of a sovereign nation such as Afghanistan is depicted as an exercise in "Democracy-building". Never mind the fact that the new President of Afghanistan is a former executive officer of the international oil cartel now attempting to control the land within Afghanistan to facilitate the construction of a cross-country pipeline; he is described as an Afghan patriot. Of course, the examples one can employ are not merely political or social or economic; they are endemic to our devolving society and to our so-called contemporary culture.

Frankfurt's book offers a theory as to what this "scourge of bullshit" represents, how it operates, and why it has flourished in the last several decades. And since all of us had so much personal experience dealing with aspects of the phenomenon, it is difficult to either deny or sidestep the points he makes so well. The most frightening aspect seems to be that in spite of our recognition of the problem, there seems to be little appetite for dealing directly with it, or for any meaningful attempt to eradicate it, or any energy organized toward movement beyond its effects, most likely because it is by now so deeply embedded in the cultural style of our society that it is impossible to separate from the fabric of our culture. Anyone who can consider Michael Jackson an artist has to have a hard time figuring out where the so-called truth ends and the bullshit begins. Alas, this is an entertaining, edifying, and immeasurably valuable book, and one that deserves your attention. Enjoy!

Fluffy Sausage "Homer Simpson" (Tampa)

Yes- NO BS here, May 16, 2006

... Individuals who distort, self-promote, and blather are all around us; it's worth taking the time to study them. Hopefully we can inoculate ourselves against some of the damage that they cause.

What's really interesting about Frankfurt's approach is that he quickly makes delineations between bullsh-t and words that are often used as synonyms for it, such as lying, humbug, nonsense, hot air and even "bull session." There are some great quotations in it as well like the one from Wittgenstein. Overall, it's a good humored but provocative read. It's certainly worth the five or six bucks that you'll pay for it on Amazon.

Carl Flygare (San Jose, CA USA)

On Bulls_it - The Fifth Element, October 27, 2006

Cable news, politics, religion, advertising, entertainment, the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything - all are infused with the malodorous miasma of bulls_it -- the real force that binds our galaxy together and allows popular culture as we know it to exist.

As a philosopher (popularly perceived as purveyors of elitist, academic bulls__it) Frankfurt is no bulls_itter himself (wink), and this deeply superficial treatise invokes St. Augustine, Pound, and Wittgenstein; superb examples of bulls_hit by citation. An insightfully outtasight postulate inclusively distinguishes bulls_it from other forms of humbug or puffery by contrasting "indifference to how things really are" (bulls_hit) with lying, which is by necessity false" - at least from a certain point of view. The bulls_it artist "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bulls_it is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are." Profound insight or execrable exegesis, paper or plastic. Deep thought is a stern duty imposed by a harsh, uncaring, universe.

Frankfort softly declaims that the rise of bulls_it has been assisted by "forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality." He also notes that "the production of bulls_it is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts" - an observation summarizing the rise of neo-conservative and fundamentalist bulls_it.

Heaping piles of bulls_it are also investigated - a "contemporary proliferation" is noted even as the author confesses that he can't assume that the "incidence is actually greater now." Even 19 years ago, when this book was written, "The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bulls_it so unmitigated," he writes, "that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept." - all of this before Karl Rove and the shrub burst upon the scene.

Unfortunately a quantitative vs. qualitative analysis of bulls_it eludes the author's grasp. Currently available logical, mathematical, philosophical, and scientific tools are presented with intractable challenges when asked to evaluate the relative bulls_it of "Hannity and Colmes" vis-a-vis the "O'Reilly Factor."

Theology, the ur-disciple of bulls_hit is especially blind and helpless. Where would Frankfurt put President Bush's claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction: is he an "honest man" (bulls_it alert), a "liar," or the accomplished bulls_itter who "does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly?" Throwing quotes around is cerebrally-correct, but any real bulls_itter must answer the big questions.

"On Bulls_it" is short, sweet (if not smelling), and apropos - the most profound examples of bulls_it usually go unnoticed, but not this one. In describing bulls_it Frankfurt's missive becomes bulls_it; sophistry in the service of philosophy as bulls_it is to truth. Should be required reading for anyone old enough to vote. And yes this entire review is bulls_it, except for every last word.

Sabad One

5 stars for marketing for a book with a few insights, February 21, 2005

I can see why this book is causing some mixed reviews... I fundamentally agree with the Amazon reviewers that think this is a book whose object somehow also includes itself. It is also true that you can find much of this book online, if you just do a quick search with Google. So, there is no serious need to purchase this booklet, which I guess may still be an interesting addition to one's library, maybe something to attract your guests' attention if you leave it on the coffee table in your dining room. I suspect this is the reason why this book is so popular. Days after the New York Times published a review, you already have to wait two or three weeks before receiving it from Amazon. It sold rather quickly. I wonder if the same would have happened if the title had been "On nonsense", or "On the prevalence of superficial thoughts", or something like this, with only a brief remark about the fact that the title also referred to what we call B.S.

But you WILL find here some "deep thougths" such as the following: "Why is there so much B.S.? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is B.S. may not have increased." Or "B.S. is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of B.S. is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled - whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others - to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant." So, it seems to me that this booklet is just a collection of thoughts about the general fact that people of all kinds and periods find easier to talk superficially about things, rather than spending time looking for depth. But, at the end of the day, we *all* are to some extent *always* talking about "matters of which they are to some degree ignorant". There is nothing that we completely and absolutely know. Not even ourselves. The author rightly points out that "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.". Overall, it seems to me that it's just all nonsense, to some extent (including this review, of course), at least if you do not believe in some God.

So, even if I can think of many better ways to spend the nine bucks this booklet costs, I can also think of many worst ways. I am not really sure the author's theory on B.S. makes any sense, but reading a few pages of this book may generate in your mind some interesting thoghts about the nature of reality, truth and lies.

magellan (Santa Clara, CA)

A brief comment, May 1, 2005

Using philosophical methods of analysis derived from areas such as ordinary language philosophy and modern analytical philosophy, prof. Frankfurt takes us on a tour of bullsh_t in all its diverse and dubious linguistic and cultural glory, or perhaps infamy. Two philosophers whose ideas serve as the philosophical background and framework for his approach are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Max Black (whose essay on Korzybski and General Semantics is a classic). Frankfurt also discusses St. Augustine's breakdown of lies into 8 different types, which is interesting as well. As the professor notes, bullsh_t in its various forms seems to be almost ubiquitous in our society these days, and as a result, he came to the conclusion that a more rigorous philosophical consideration and analysis of the issue was warranted.

The result was this fun little book. In the Age of Spin where political and social issues are manipulated and promulgated according to the desired end rather than for their real truth or validity, prof. Frankfurt's little book is a breath of fresh air, incisively cutting through the pervasive propagandistic miasma of our time to expose it for what it really is--a culture pervaded by spin and spin doctors, self-serving political pundits, dubious and unscientific beliefs, subjective bias masquerading as objective truth, hypocritical hornblowing hacks with hidden agendas, masterfully manipulative, mudslinging muckrakers of mass deception (okay, enough alliteration--sorry about that :-)), and in general, a surfeit of unrepentent and unrequitted bullsh_tters extraordinaire who the professor ably skewers on his philosophical petard. This book is a sure tonic for all those tired of our culture's pervasive pandering of bullsh_t in all its most insidious and pungent forms.

***Philosophical footnote: In Wittgenstein's famous book, the Tractatus Logico Philophicus, he says at one point, "Whereof one cannot speak, whereof that one must remain silent." Unfortunately, too many bullsh_tters don't heed Wittgenstein's sage advice, hence the need for prof. Frankfurt's timely, concise, and well done little book. :-)

Peter Renz (Brookline, MA United States)

Bull Sessions versus Bullshit?, April 8, 2005

The BS artist, as Frankfurt explains, is one for whom the truth or falsity of statements is of no concern; the only issue is whether or not his audience is being spun in the direction the bullshiter desires. The bullshit artist only cares about the outcome; he wants your vote, or your money, or your support, or your adulation. BS is the enemy of all who respect facts or orderly thinking. BS is at odds with the ideas of truth and falsity. A liar begins with a clear idea of what is true and what is false, while a BSer doesn't care about truth or reason.

Manipulative BS pollutes the environment. We are awash in it. It is marked by urgent or extravagant claims that are meant to push us to adopt or reject programs such as: tax cuts, war, high-stakes testing, governmentally sponsored "personal accounts" to "supplement" Social Security. The claim that the US should bar importation of prescription drugs from Canada in order to protect public health is BS. The purpose of such a prohibition would be to protect the profit streams of drug companies. Enron's business plan contained a measure of BS. It was never really clear just how that company was going to make the profits it had projected. What marks these campaigns is that they are carried on without serious regard for the truth. The conclusions come first and the assertions or argument are just whatever might be helpful in persuading others to get in line and support the bullshiter's proposal.

You are wondering why I have used such weak examples, instead of those crowding into your mind. You have your examples. Frankfurt gives you a framework to fit them into. Get the book and see.

I mentioned Frankfurt's book to Martin Gardner, whose "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science" was the first marvelous attack on BS I read. He suggested Penn and Teller's television show and DVDs titled "Bullshit!". Thanks to Martin and Amazon, I am now enjoying Penn and Teller along with Frankfurt.

The positive side of bull is the bull session. Here, as Frankfurt notes, we let ourselves float dubious or wild ideas and see where they lead us. Shooting the bull is different from bullshiting your listeners. The participants in a bull session know the wild schemes proposed may be impossible or impractical; still, some of these ideas lead to success.

Here's to more bull sessions and less bullshit.

J. Davenport "author of *Will as Commmitment ... (Maplewood, NJ USA)

Great Essay, but contradicts the author's theory of care., April 3, 2005

This review is from: On Bullshit (Hardcover) The essay "On Bullshit" first appeared in Raritan in 1986, and was reprinted in shorter form in Harpers soon after. It attracted some attention, and was included in Frankfurt's 1988 collection. But in philosophy, Frankfurt is better known for his work on free will, autonomy, and human motivation. This essay was well-worth reprinting, since it is very insightful, and bears comparison to Kierkegaard's famous critique of "the aesthetic" life-view. For just as the "bullshitter" does not care about the truth-value of his utterances (as opposed to the liar, who does), Kierkegaar'd aesthete does not care about the ethical status of his decisions. Frankfurt's analysis of "bullshit" is thus the analog of Kierkegaard aestheticism in the area of intellectual vices. There are obvious connections to Heidegger on "idle talk," and Sartre on bad faith as well.

However, there is one major problem: in his recent book on *The Reasons of Love,* Frankfurt argues that the caring which defines our volitional identity is neither justified not limited by practical reason embodying objective norms independent of our caring. This implies, unfortunately, that a person who does not care about truth -- or even who cares about perfecting the art of bullshitting -- is not irrational, even if we dislike their attitude. The essay "On Bullshit" is more objectivist in its outlook, and thus in deep tension with Frankfurt's mature theory of the relation between cares and practical reason. I think "On Bullshit" is right, and *The Reasons of Love* is wrong!

Phineas Phinque

Lies and BS, February 19, 2012

As of this date, February 2012, the Republican debates have shown how important Professor Frankfurt's skinny little book really is. On the stage were several candidates. Some believed what they were saying, some were telling lies, and others couldn't care less if what they were saying was true or not. Their audience was of one mind, however. They heard what they wanted to hear. BS triumphed.

Frankfurt has stated that his book is not political at all, but it circulated in manuscript form among his academic colleagues for years before he decided to publish it at a time when we were hearing about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein planning 9/11, and cutting taxes will increase revenue.

This book makes you see that BS artists are more dangerous than liars could possibly be. BS lurks behind "truthiness" and "weasel words," that are often harder to recognize than outright lies. "On Bullbleep" should be required reading for politicians, business leaders, advertisers, and most of all voters and consumers.

Old Book Worm

Weird pairing, but come to think of it..., June 1, 2005

BS is pervasive, and I don't think anyone needed this book to know that. But, I did discover places BS presided that I didn't think of until reading this book. Now, the problem is that you get carried away and then BS is everywhere, which makes the definition of BS less useful. That sort of reductionism doesn't really help to spot BS, choose your battles against BS, or even accept it. According to On BS, this review is BS to some degree, and really so is On BS itself. Where does that leave us? Einstein's theory of BS relativity?

I'm not sure why Amazon paired On BS with God Without Religion, since they cover very different subjects, but having said that, there is a kind of BS that we see in our religious congregations that's the same in the political or business arena, just using different words. I'm not talking about the numerous beliefs human beings hold onto that show superiority complexes compensating for feelings of inferiority, but the BS that comes out among church goers and New Agers in kindness that can kill, love that is artificially sweet, and in social affectation on prozac, making you feel that all is alright, even if you're being economically exploited by your favorite politician. You're "treasure" is elsewhere. Uh huh. That kind of BS IS worse than lying. Ironically, God Without Religion starts with a quote by John Kennedy who says that the real enemy of truth is not the lie, but the myth because it is persuasive and realistic. In other words, the enemy according to our fallen president is the BS that makes us feel good, not the outright lies. BS can be dangerous, so it is probably best to know the really dangerous BS in the world and never mind the harmless kind. In that regard, Amazon did a GREAT pairing.

Phyllis Antebi Ph.D (IRVINE, CALIFORNIA, US)

Methods of Deception, January 22, 2013

Unfortunately, B.S. artists are not few nor are they far between. In our most intimate relationships, we encounter them. In our professional dealings, as well; especially where money is concerned. And, last but not least, in our politics, the proverbial B.S. artist reins supreme. What are we to make of this peril? Frankfurt first defines what distinguishes this artist from, for example, the compulsive liar, whose artistry is of a more deliberate and focused type. In "a careless and self-indulgent manner, ... never finely crafted, never any meticulous concern with detail, utterly without "thoughtful self-discipline", the B.S. artist is only in some ways, "short of lying" but in other ways, more lethal to our well being. Don't just take my word for it, if philosophical argument is more your cup of tea, then read this marvelous essay, "On B.S."

If you like psychology you can explore the concept of Personality Disorders. Names like Hervey Cleckley, "The Mask of Sanity", and Robert Hare, "Without Conscience" come to mind. One might also consider the concept of "loose associations". This psychological construct is defined as a 'form of thought disorder' , closely related to cognitive derailment' characterized by speech that shifts between topics ...", ("Oxford Dictionary of Psychology",2009, p.431). B.S. may be similar to a thought disorder since B.S is, 1. not well thought out, 2. there is a lack of concern with facts or evidence, and 3. the idea of sincerity is minimally relevant.

B.S. has more to do with its effect than its process per say. "Insidiously disruptive forms of nonsense", "unconcern with the truth", "mindlessly without regard for how things really are", Frankfurt tells us are the hallmarks of this pathology. Most important to note, is that B.S. is "emptied of all informative content". Not everyone takes an interest in whether or not what they say is true or false. If you are like me and consider the truth value of ideas relevant, this book, then, is written just for you!

Hubert Shea (Shanghai, China)

Pouring ridicule on our contemporary world circumvented by Bulls***, June 12, 2009

In this book, Professor Frankfurt undertakes a tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis of what is "bulls***". To him, bulls*** is a loosely expressed term and a vast and amorphous phenomenon. The realm of politics, public relations, and advertising world is replete with instances of bulls*** but little work has been done on studying its real meaning.

Professor Frankfurt attempts to differentiate bulls***'s characteristics with other pertinent terms such as humbug, lie, and bluff. Humbug is homogeneous to lie in terms of the property of misrepresentation but humbug is heterogeneous to lie since the perpetrator of humbug is primarily designed to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in his mind but he does not think he knows the truth whereas a liar requires a conviction that he knows the truth and tries to conceal it. In terms of property of misrepresentation, humbug is germane to bulls*** but it does not grasp central characteristics of bulls*** in full.

By adopting Wittgenstein's biographical materials in Pascal story, Professor Frankfurt develops an independent account of bulls***. First, bulls*** is analogous to hot air. What come out from the mouth of a bulls***ter is mere vapor and what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. Second, the essence of lie is its degree of falsity but bulls*** is a matter of its fakery. We cannot accuse a bulls***ter of lying but of making gibberish of another sort because bulls*** is produced without concern with the truth but it needs not be false. A bulls***ter is neither on the side of true nor on the side of the false. Third, the focus of bulls*** conversation is more panoramic than particular and a bulls***ter has much more freedom because he is not obliged to design his fakery under the guidance of truth.

The adage "never tell a lie when you can bulls*** your way through" implies that our attitude towards bulls*** is more benign than our attitude towards lying but bulls*** is a great enemy of truth than lies are. It is unavoidable and stimulated whenever circumstances require someone to speak about a topic which exceeds his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. Moreover, Professor Frankfurt maintains that people in the contemporary world do not believe in the existence of objective reality so that they can evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world without any concern of the truth.

This book is not too lengthy and Professor Frankfurt attempts to employ the term and phenomenon of bulls*** to pour ridicule on our human nature. With a high degree of intellectual humor and cutting-edge insights, this book is highly recommended to readers who are interested in thinking hard about the paradox of our contemporary world circumvented by bulls***.

PDXJoanna (Oregon)

A Must read For Those Lost In Nuance, June 18, 2005

Mr. Frankfurt writes of bull-excrement as though it ascends to the level of deliberative lying, which generally is typified by forethought and an intent to profit. If such elements were prevalent in BS, that term would not have found its way into our daily lexicon as a euphemism for "jawing." As in, "We just sat around Bsing all day." People in America "shoot the excrement," not the lies. Frankfurt contends that the BSer has a complete disregard for whether what he is saying is germane to facts in the physical world. By that definition, all discussions of faith and God, and ones belief in the same, would fall under the subtext, BS. An elitist evocation if I ever heard one.

Mr. Frankfurt states that, for the BSer, sincerity, or staying true to ones subjective experience, is often favored in lieu of objective truth. BS is not a complete disregard for objective truth, but rather an accepted consensus that it is unfeasible for all subject matters to be empirically scrutinized by the masses...you know, us great unwashed. My contention is that they should not have to be in order for us to participate in the public discourse. Anecdotal experience is often all one has to go on. Not to mention that most subject matters, excepting the most regimented, like math, are often not fully fleshed out in academia or, worse yet, are fraught with contradictory findings...and will be throughout our lifetimes. I suppose for Mr. Frankfurt and his ilk, it is more honest to argue a lie portending to be the truth by flawed scientific analysis than it is to defend a truth supported only by faith or subjective experience. Must we all wade through the voluminous pretense of academic sludge before we can voice our opinion on it? I've never read any empirical studies on the palatability of dog excrement, but I feel quite confident employing my subjective experience to dissuade my child from trying it. Or should I tell him, "Sorry son, but I have no objective truth on the subject to impart to you at this time."

I googled variations on the word BS and was treated to an eclectic group of people who, depending on which side of the excrement you stand, were branded with the tagline, BSer. They ranged from the famous (Clinton and Limbaugh) to the infamous (The CIA & Kenneth Bucchi). I decided to explore the latter and concluded that Bucchi is probably just a BSer (subjective reconstruction of a truth clouded by traumatic experience), the CIA, a liar or ass-coverer (collectively), and CNN, which stood at the center of the storm that swirled around the two, a marginalizer...one who attempts to minimize the gravity of the BS by minimizing its impact or significance.

[Aug 11, 2012] Jargon busters

2005

The obscenity that's corporate jargon is my pet hate. So imagine the response to Hewlett-Packard chief Mark Hurd's spin on the company's decision to lay off 14,500 workers, or one in 10 of its employees. ''The majority of the head-count reductions will be achieved trough involuntary actions," he said in a New York Times report. It was bad enough that sacking someone morphed into ''downsizing'' and ''rightsizing''. Now they're calling it ''involuntary action''.

With his terrific anti-jargon book now hitting the American market, Paul Keating's former speech writer Don Watson has a web site asking people to send in weasel words.

Get the shovel

July 13, 2005

Maybe it's just a sign of the times, maybe there's just too much around in business and politics, but it's no surprise that two books on crap are getting so much attention. Harry G Frankfurt, an emeritus professor at Princeton, has been getting a fair bit for his reworked essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt says there is a difference between lies and bullshit. It's impossible to tell a lie without knowing what the truth is. ''Bullshit is a greater enemy of truth'' because the liar knows what's true, whereas the bullshitter just ignores it, especially when required to talk about something they know nothing about. Bullshit is just a steaming pile of words with no meaning. Laura Penny's Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit moves in the same direction.

Consider this:

"There is so much bullshit that one hardly knows where to begin. The platitudinous pabulum that passes for stirring political rhetoric is bullshit. The scripted, question-proof events that pretend to be spontaneous exchanges are bullshit. The committee-crafted persona and the focus-grouped fad and the rule of the polls are straight-up bullshit. The disease hysteria du jour is bullshit, and so is the latest miracle pibly just more cheap, plasti bullshit. We endure bullshit in the course of our workaday lives, in the form of management-speak memos about optimizing strategic objectives and result-based, value-added service delivery. We tolerate bullshit in common life-maintenance transactions, like banking and shopping.

Most of what passes for news is bullshit, and even if you are so fortunate as to find things worth watching or reading, the content you desire will be punctuated with shills for things you don't need, like ginormous automobiles and toxic faux foodstuffs.''

Now there's more from economist John Kay who points out that it's all part of that infuriating management-speak.

"The symptoms of bullshit are familiar. The repetition of stock Computer security prases which can be parroted without thought change drivers, organisational transformation. Words are given meanings different from their ordinary sense: government spending is called investment. Bullshit creates new words: empowerment, creovation - but these do not define original ideas, but describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning.

Bullshit is characterized by prolixity: “ serving customers better"ť becomes "striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space".

pragmatic fallacy

The pragmatic fallacy is committed when one argues that something is true because it works. For example, astrology works, numerology works, therapeutic touch works. What 'works' means here is not clear. At the least, it means that one perceives some practical benefit in believing that it is true, despite the fact that the utility of a belief is independent of its truth-value. At this level "works" seems to mean "I'm satisfied with it," which in turn might mean "I feel better" or "It explains things for me." At most, "works" means "has beneficial effects" even though the evidence may be very weak for establishing causality.

The pragmatic fallacy is common in "alternative" health claims and is often based upon post hoc reasoning. For example, one has a sore back, wears the new magnetic or takionic belt, finds relief soon afterwards, and declares that the magic belt caused the pain to go away. How does one know this? Because it works!

There is a common retort to the skeptic who points out that customer satisfaction is irrelevant to whether the device, medicine, or therapy in question really is a significant causal factor in some outcome. Who cares why it works, as long as it works? You can argue about the theory as to why it works, but you can't argue about the customer satisfaction. They feel better after using the product. That's all that matters.

It isn't all that matters. Testimonials are not a substitute for scientific studies, which are done to make sure that we are not deceiving ourselves about what appears to be true. It is especially necessary to do controlled studies of alleged pain relievers to avoid self-deception due to the placebo effect, post hoc reasoning or the regressive fallacy. We may not want to question too deeply the felt relief, but we must question the cause of that relief.

It is easy to understand why someone with "terminal" cancer who seeks out an "alternative" treatment and finds the cancer goes into remission soon afterwards would attribute miraculous causal efficacy to the "alternative" treatment. However, if the "alternative" treatment is not really the cause of the remission, then others who seek the treatment will be filled with false hope. Of course, those patients who try the same treatment but who die anyway are not around to tell their story. Their surviving loved ones may even claim that the only reason the treatment did not work was because the patient came to it too late. The only way to know for sure whether the treatment has causal efficacy is to study its application under controlled conditions. Testimonials regarding how well the treatment works may be heartfelt, but they can be dangerously misleading.

occult statistics

Occult statistics are statistics used as the handmaiden of occult theorizing, in much the same way that philosophy was used by theology during medieval times, viz., to justify beliefs in supernatural beings and occult forces.

Parapsychologists, astrologers, theologians, and others who seek anomalies to guide them to transpersonal wisdom and insight into the true nature of the universe, are now able to use computers to do extremely complex statistical analyses of monumental masses of data. When they find a statistically significant correlation between or among variables, they are extremely impressed and consider the discovery to be proof of the occult or the supernatural. To the occult statistician there is no such thing as a spurious correlation.

For example, William Dembski's The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities is said to "provide a mathematical foundation for the types of statistical inferences parapsychologists use to identify paranormal phenomena. In particular, the book shows how to deal with statistical experiments whose p-values are extremely small (like those that regularly come up in parapsychology experiments). This work is clearly relevant to Carl Jung's idea of synchronicity. [It] promises to put synchronicity on a solid scientific footing" (Rabi Gupta, personal correspondence).

Likewise, The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program led by Robert Jahn, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, claims that in their experiments where human operators try to use their minds to influence a variety of mechanical, optical, acoustical, and fluid devices, they have gotten results that can't be due to chance and "can only be attributed to the influence of the human operators."

Legions of parapsychologists, led by such generals as Gary Schwartz and Dean Radin, have also appealed to statistical anomalies as proof of ESP. Statistician Jessica Utts of the University of California at Davis gave her imprimatur to U.S. government studies of ESP and remote viewing. Many occultists have claimed that certain dreams must be clairvoyant and cannot be explained by coincidence because they defy the laws of probability.

It was not long ago that astrologers were claiming that Gauquelin had found the Holy Grail with his statistics showing the so-called "Mars effect." More recently, millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs published Die Akte Astrologie, which uses data analyzed by professors of statistics at the University of Munich to prove astrology is true.

Obviously, this list could go on and on, and could include the Bible Code and various proofs of the existence of God on the grounds of improbability that chance could explain the nature of the universe or some complex aspect of it such as the genetic code.

skeptics unimpressed by occult stats

Skeptics are unimpressed with arguments that assert improbabilities for what has already happened. Whatever has already happened is obviously not an impossible event. Accurately calculating the odds of either the genetic code or the universe occurring by "chance," i.e., by natural laws alone without the design of a divine being, is impossible. Analogies to a monkey typing up Hamlet by chance, or to a Mona Lisa being "created" by nature, are irrelevant and notably without impact on skeptics.

Skeptics are not very impressed by statistical anomalies generated by those in quest of occult forces. Sometimes parapsychological colleagues have discovered that statistics were generated by fraudulent means, e.g., the work of Walter J. Levy at Rhine's Institute of Parapsychology (Williams 191, 319). The history of ESP research is a paradigm of dishonesty and incompetence (Rawcliffe, Randi), though it should be mentioned that the two major incidents of fraud (Levy and that of S. G. Soal), though suspected by skeptics, were uncovered and reported on by true believers. Skeptics have noted many times while investigating the statistical claims of paranormal researchers that there are often significant problems with subjective validation, confirmation bias, optional starting and stopping, the clustering illusion, the regressive fallacy, etc.

Sometimes the variables being correlated are ambiguous or vaguely defined, if defined at all, so that practically anything can count in support of the occult hypothesis. What is a "rebel"? Sometimes the methods of finding patterns are deceptive and inappropriate, e.g., finding hidden messages in texts. As John Ruscio notes, "If you look in a fantastic number of places, and count anything that you stumble upon as supportive evidence, you are guaranteed to discover meaning where none exists" (45).

Skeptics have noted that many times something seems to be statistically improbable when, in fact, it is not improbable at all. Some spurious correlations are due to lack of clarity regarding the variables; others are due to incorrect calculation of the odds. Both errors are common occurrences regarding so-called clairvoyant dreams.

Finally, skeptics are unimpressed with artificially evoked statistical anomalies because such anomalies are expected to occur with some frequency given the vast number of trials that are made.

Correlating just a couple dozen variables with one another will produce a matrix containing nearly 300 correlation coefficients. By convention, results that occur at a level expected by chance just 5 percent of the time are called "statistically significant." We can therefore expect about fifteen spuriously significant correlations within every matrix of 300 (Ruscio, 45).

Each of those spurious correlations is a temptation to see causal connections where there are none and to engage in post hoc theorizing to explain non-existent mysterious forces.

See also Bible Code, clustering illusion, confirmation bias, ESP, Forer effect, law of really large numbers, Mars effect, numerology, optional starting and stopping, post hoc fallacy, regressive fallacy, remote viewing, and selective thinking.


further reading

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't' So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

Hansel, C.E.M. ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Re-evaluation (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1980).

Hansel, C.E.M. The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Huff, Daryl. How to Lie with Statistics (W.W. Norton & Company, 1954).

McDonald, John."200% Probability and Beyond: The Compelling Nature of Extraordinary Claims in the Absence of Alternative Explanations," Skeptical Inquirer, January/February, 1998.

Paulos, John Allen. A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (Anchor Books, 1996).

Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Vintage Books, 1990).

Rawcliffe, Donovan Hilton. Occult and Supernatural Phenomena(New York: Dover Publications, 1988).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Ruscio, John. "The Perils of Post-Hockery," Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 1998.

Williams, William F. Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (Facts-on-File, 2000).

ad hoc hypothesis

An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of ESP researchers have been known to blame the hostile thoughts of onlookers for unconsciously influencing pointer readings on sensitive instruments. The hostile vibes, they say, made it impossible for them to duplicate a positive ESP experiment. Being able to duplicate an experiment is essential to confirming its validity. Of course, if this objection is taken seriously, then no experiment on ESP can ever fail. Whatever the results, one can always say they were caused by paranormal psychic forces, either the ones being tested or others not being tested.

Martin Gardner reports on this type of ad hoc hypothesizing reaching a ludicrous peak with paraphysicist Helmut Schmidt who put cockroaches in a box where they could give themselves electric shocks. One would assume that cockroaches do not like to be shocked and would give themselves shocks at a chance rate or less, if cockroaches can learn from experience. The cockroaches gave themselves more electric shocks than predicted by chance. Schmidt concluded that "because he hated cockroaches, maybe it was his pk that influenced the randomizer!" (Gardner, p. 59)

Ad hoc hypotheses are common in defense of the pseudoscientific theory known as biorhythm theory. For example, there are very many people who do not fit the predicted patterns of biorhythm theory. Rather than accept this fact as refuting evidence of the theory, a new category of people is created: the arhythmic. In short, whenever the theory does not seem to work, the contrary evidence is systematically discounted. Advocates of biorhythm theory claimed that the theory could be used to accurately predict the sex of unborn children. However, W.S. Bainbridge, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, demonstrated that the chance of predicting the sex of an unborn child using biorhythms was 50/50, the same as flipping a coin. An expert in biorhythms tried unsuccessfully to predict accurately the sexes of the children in Bainbridge's study based on Bainbridge's data. The expert's spouse suggested to Bainbridge an interesting ad hoc hypothesis, namely, that the cases where the theory was wrong probably included many homosexuals with indeterminate sex identities!

Astrologers are often fond of using statistical data and analysis to impress us with the scientific nature of astrology. Of course, a scientific analysis of the statistical data does not always pan out for the astrologer. In those cases, the astrologer can make the data fit the astrological paradigm by the ad hoc hypothesis that those who do not fit the mold have other, unknown influences that counteract the influence of the dominant planets.

Using ad hoc hypotheses is not limited to pseudoscientists. Another type of ad hoc hypothesis occurs in science when a new scientific theory is proposed which conflicts with an established theory and which lacks an essential explanatory mechanism. An ad hoc hypothesis is proposed to explain what the new theory cannot explain. For example, when Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift he could not explain how continents move. It was suggested that gravity was the force behind the movement of continents, though there was no scientific evidence for this notion. In fact, scientists could and did show that gravity was too weak a force to account for the movement of continents. Alexis du Toit, a defender of Wegener's theory, argued for radioactive melting of the ocean floor at continental borders as the mechanism by which continents might move. Stephen Jay Gould noted that "this ad hoc hypothesis added no increment of plausibility to Wegener's speculation." (Gould, p. 160)

Finally, rejecting explanations that require belief in occult, supernatural or paranormal forces in favor of simpler and more plausible explanations is called applying Occam's razor. It is not the same as ad hoc hypothesizing. For example, let's say I catch you stealing a watch from a shop. You say you did not steal it. I ask you to empty your pockets. You agree and pull out a watch. I say, "Aha!, I was right. You stole the watch." You reply that you did not steal the watch, but you admit that it was not in your pocket when we went into the store. I ask you to explain how the watch got into your pocket and you say that you used telekinesis: you used your thoughts to transport the watch out of a glass case into your pocket. I ask you to repeat the act with another watch and you say "ok." Try as you will, however, you cannot make a watch magically appear in your pocket. You say that there is too much pressure on you to perform or that there are too many bad vibes in the air for you to work your powers. You have offered an ad hoc hypothesis to explain away what looks like a good refutation of your claim. My hypothesis that the watch is in your pocket because you stole it, is not an ad hoc hypothesis. I have chosen to believe a plausible explanation rather than an implausible one. Likewise, given the choice between believing that my headache went away of its own accord or that it went away because some nurse waved her hands over my hand while chanting a mantra, I will opt for the former every time.

It is always more reasonable to apply Occam's razor than to offer speculative ad hoc hypotheses just to maintain the possibility of something supernatural or paranormal.

See also cold reading, communal reinforcement, control study, Occam's razor, placebo effect, post hoc fallacy, selective thinking, self-deception, testimonial evidence, and wishful thinking.


further reading

reader comments

Gardner, Martin. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (New York: Quill, 1983).

Gould, Stephen Jay. Ever Since Darwin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979).

Anecdotes are unreliable for various reasons. Stories are prone to contamination by beliefs, later experiences, feedback, selective attention to details, and so on. Most stories get distorted in the telling and the retelling. Events get exaggerated. Time sequences get confused. Details get muddled. Memories are imperfect and selective; they are often filled in after the fact. People misinterpret their experiences. Experiences are conditioned by biases, memories, and beliefs, so people's perceptions might not be accurate. Most people aren't expecting to be deceived, so they may not be aware of deceptions that others might engage in. Some people make up stories. Some stories are delusions. Sometimes events are inappropriately deemed psychic simply because they seem improbable when they might not be that improbable after all. In short, anecdotes are inherently problematic and are usually impossible to test for accuracy.

Thus, stories of personal experience with paranormal or supernatural events have little scientific value. If others cannot experience the same thing under the same conditions, then there will be no way to verify the experience. If there is no way to test the claim made, then there will be no way to tell if the experience was interpreted correctly. If others can experience the same thing, then it is possible to make a test of the testimonial and determine whether the claim based on it is worthy of belief. As parapsychologist Charles Tart once said after reporting an anecdote of a possibly paranormal event: ⌠Let's take this into the laboratory, where we can know exactly what conditions were. We don't have to hear a story told years later and hope that it was accurate.■ Dean Radin also noted that anecdotes aren't good proof of the paranormal because memory ⌠is much more fallible than most people think■ and eyewitness testimony ⌠is easily distorted■(Radin 1997: 32).

Testimonials regarding paranormal experiences are of little use to science because selective thinking and self-deception must be controlled for in scientific observations. Most psychics and dowsers, for example, do not even realize that they need to do controlled tests of their powers to rule out the possibility that they are deceiving themselves. They are satisfied that their experiences provide them with enough positive feedback to justify the belief in their paranormal abilities. Controlled tests of psychics and dowsers would prove once and for all that they are not being selective in their evidence gathering. It is common for such people to remember their apparent successes and ignore or underplay their failures. Controlled tests can also determine whether other factors such as cheating might be involved.

If such testimonials are scientifically worthless, why are they so popular and why are they so convincing? There are several reasons. Testimonials are often vivid and detailed, making them appear credible. They are often made by enthusiastic people who seem trustworthy and honest, and who lack any reason to deceive us. They are often made by people with some semblance of authority, such as those who hold a Ph.D. in psychology or physics. To some extent, testimonials are believable because people want to believe them. Often, one anticipates with hope some new treatment or instruction. One's testimonial is given soon after the experience while one's mood is still elevated from the desire for a positive outcome. The experience and the testimonial it elicits are given more significance than they deserve.

Finally, it should be noted that testimonials are often used in many areas of life, including medical science, and that giving due consideration to such testimonials is considered wise, not foolish. A physician will use the testimonies of his or her patients to draw conclusions about certain medications or procedures. For example, a physician will take anecdotal evidence from a patient about a reaction to a new medication and use that information in deciding to adjust the prescribed dosage or to change the medication. This is quite reasonable. But the physician cannot be selective in listening to testimony, listening only to those claims that fit his or her own prejudices. To do so is to risk harming one's patients. Nor should the average person be selective when listening to testimonials regarding some paranormal or occult experience.

See also ad hoc hypothesis, Occam's razor, cold reading, communal reinforcement, control study, placebo effect, post hoc fallacy, selective thinking, self-deception, subjective validation, and wishful thinking.


further reading

reader comments

Radin, Dean. (1997). The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins.

Stanovich, Keith E. How to Think Straight About Psychology, 3rd ed., (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

Texas-sharpshooter fallacy

The Texas-sharpshooter fallacy is the name epidemiologists give to the clustering illusion. Politicians, lawyers and some scientists tend to isolate clusters of diseases from their context, thereby giving the illusion of a causal connection between some environmental factor and the disease. What appears to be statistically significant (i.e., not due to chance) is actually expected by the laws of chance.

Of the thousands of studies of cancer-clusters investigated by scientists in the United States, "not one has convincingly identified an underlying environmental cause" (Gawande).

The term refers to the story of the Texas sharpshooter who shoots holes in the side of a barn and then draws a bull's-eye around the bullet holes. Individual cases of disease are noted and then the boundaries are drawn (Gawande).


further reading

Gawande, Atul. "The Cancer-Cluster Myth," The New Yorker, February 8, 1999, pp. 34-37.

Gilovich, T., R. Vallone, and A. Tversky. "The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences," Cognitive Psychology, 17, 295-314.

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't' So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

ad hoc hypothesis

An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of ESP researchers have been known to blame the hostile thoughts of onlookers for unconsciously influencing pointer readings on sensitive instruments. The hostile vibes, they say, made it impossible for them to duplicate a positive ESP experiment. Being able to duplicate an experiment is essential to confirming its validity. Of course, if this objection is taken seriously, then no experiment on ESP can ever fail. Whatever the results, one can always say they were caused by paranormal psychic forces, either the ones being tested or others not being tested.

Martin Gardner reports on this type of ad hoc hypothesizing reaching a ludicrous peak with paraphysicist Helmut Schmidt who put cockroaches in a box where they could give themselves electric shocks. One would assume that cockroaches do not like to be shocked and would give themselves shocks at a chance rate or less, if cockroaches can learn from experience. The cockroaches gave themselves more electric shocks than predicted by chance. Schmidt concluded that "because he hated cockroaches, maybe it was his pk that influenced the randomizer!" (Gardner, p. 59)

Ad hoc hypotheses are common in defense of the pseudoscientific theory known as biorhythm theory. For example, there are very many people who do not fit the predicted patterns of biorhythm theory. Rather than accept this fact as refuting evidence of the theory, a new category of people is created: the arhythmic. In short, whenever the theory does not seem to work, the contrary evidence is systematically discounted. Advocates of biorhythm theory claimed that the theory could be used to accurately predict the sex of unborn children. However, W.S. Bainbridge, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, demonstrated that the chance of predicting the sex of an unborn child using biorhythms was 50/50, the same as flipping a coin. An expert in biorhythms tried unsuccessfully to predict accurately the sexes of the children in Bainbridge's study based on Bainbridge's data. The expert's spouse suggested to Bainbridge an interesting ad hoc hypothesis, namely, that the cases where the theory was wrong probably included many homosexuals with indeterminate sex identities!

Astrologers are often fond of using statistical data and analysis to impress us with the scientific nature of astrology. Of course, a scientific analysis of the statistical data does not always pan out for the astrologer. In those cases, the astrologer can make the data fit the astrological paradigm by the ad hoc hypothesis that those who do not fit the mold have other, unknown influences that counteract the influence of the dominant planets.

Using ad hoc hypotheses is not limited to pseudoscientists. Another type of ad hoc hypothesis occurs in science when a new scientific theory is proposed which conflicts with an established theory and which lacks an essential explanatory mechanism. An ad hoc hypothesis is proposed to explain what the new theory cannot explain. For example, when Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift he could not explain how continents move. It was suggested that gravity was the force behind the movement of continents, though there was no scientific evidence for this notion. In fact, scientists could and did show that gravity was too weak a force to account for the movement of continents. Alexis du Toit, a defender of Wegener's theory, argued for radioactive melting of the ocean floor at continental borders as the mechanism by which continents might move. Stephen Jay Gould noted that "this ad hoc hypothesis added no increment of plausibility to Wegener's speculation." (Gould, p. 160)

Finally, rejecting explanations that require belief in occult, supernatural or paranormal forces in favor of simpler and more plausible explanations is called applying Occam's razor. It is not the same as ad hoc hypothesizing. For example, let's say I catch you stealing a watch from a shop. You say you did not steal it. I ask you to empty your pockets. You agree and pull out a watch. I say, "Aha!, I was right. You stole the watch." You reply that you did not steal the watch, but you admit that it was not in your pocket when we went into the store. I ask you to explain how the watch got into your pocket and you say that you used telekinesis: you used your thoughts to transport the watch out of a glass case into your pocket. I ask you to repeat the act with another watch and you say "ok." Try as you will, however, you cannot make a watch magically appear in your pocket. You say that there is too much pressure on you to perform or that there are too many bad vibes in the air for you to work your powers. You have offered an ad hoc hypothesis to explain away what looks like a good refutation of your claim. My hypothesis that the watch is in your pocket because you stole it, is not an ad hoc hypothesis. I have chosen to believe a plausible explanation rather than an implausible one. Likewise, given the choice between believing that my headache went away of its own accord or that it went away because some nurse waved her hands over my hand while chanting a mantra, I will opt for the former every time.

It is always more reasonable to apply Occam's razor than to offer speculative ad hoc hypotheses just to maintain the possibility of something supernatural or paranormal.

See also cold reading, communal reinforcement, control study, Occam's razor, placebo effect, post hoc fallacy, selective thinking, self-deception, testimonial evidence, and wishful thinking.


further reading

reader comments

Gardner, Martin. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (New York: Quill, 1983).

Gould, Stephen Jay. Ever Since Darwin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979).

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Don Watson: Gobbledygook

When was the last time you heard a politician use words that rang with truth and meaning? Do your eyes glaze over when you read a letter from your bank or insurance company? Does your mind shut down when your employer starts talking about 'making a commitment going forwards' or speaks of 'enhancing the bottom line'? Every day we are confronted with a debased, depleted sludge: in the media, among corporations, in the public services and cultural institutions, at work, and out of the mouths of our leaders. There is a new public language that has been forced on us that makes no sense to outsiders and confounds even those who use it. It is a dead language, devoid of lyricism, emotion, complexity or nuance. Meanwhile, in step with managerial thinking, opinion polls and an impossibly demanding media, our political leaders employ this new language of cliches, jargon, platitudes and weasel words to hide or twist the truth.

Don Watson can take it no longer. In Death Sentence, he takes a blowtorch to the words - and their users - that sterilise the language and kill imagination and clarity. Scathing, funny and brilliant, Death Sentence is a small book that is as timely as it is profound.

Harry G. Frankfurt: On Bullshit (free original article, written in 1988, that was later published as a book in unchanged form)

A conversation with Harry G. Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, published by Princeton University Press

Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit on bullshit 050314 

Harry G. Frankfurt on Bullshit 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being A Novel (9780061148521) Milan Kundera Books

Doublespeak the corruption of language and mind - - Bilan



Etc

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Society

Groupthink : Two Party System as Polyarchy : Corruption of Regulators : Bureaucracies : Understanding Micromanagers and Control Freaks : Toxic Managers :   Harvard Mafia : Diplomatic Communication : Surviving a Bad Performance Review : Insufficient Retirement Funds as Immanent Problem of Neoliberal Regime : PseudoScience : Who Rules America : Neoliberalism  : The Iron Law of Oligarchy : Libertarian Philosophy

Quotes

War and Peace : Skeptical Finance : John Kenneth Galbraith :Talleyrand : Oscar Wilde : Otto Von Bismarck : Keynes : George Carlin : Skeptics : Propaganda  : SE quotes : Language Design and Programming Quotes : Random IT-related quotesSomerset Maugham : Marcus Aurelius : Kurt Vonnegut : Eric Hoffer : Winston Churchill : Napoleon Bonaparte : Ambrose BierceBernard Shaw : Mark Twain Quotes

Bulletin:

Vol 25, No.12 (December, 2013) Rational Fools vs. Efficient Crooks The efficient markets hypothesis : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2013 : Unemployment Bulletin, 2010 :  Vol 23, No.10 (October, 2011) An observation about corporate security departments : Slightly Skeptical Euromaydan Chronicles, June 2014 : Greenspan legacy bulletin, 2008 : Vol 25, No.10 (October, 2013) Cryptolocker Trojan (Win32/Crilock.A) : Vol 25, No.08 (August, 2013) Cloud providers as intelligence collection hubs : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2010 : Inequality Bulletin, 2009 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2008 : Copyleft Problems Bulletin, 2004 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2011 : Energy Bulletin, 2010 : Malware Protection Bulletin, 2010 : Vol 26, No.1 (January, 2013) Object-Oriented Cult : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2011 : Vol 23, No.11 (November, 2011) Softpanorama classification of sysadmin horror stories : Vol 25, No.05 (May, 2013) Corporate bullshit as a communication method  : Vol 25, No.06 (June, 2013) A Note on the Relationship of Brooks Law and Conway Law

History:

Fifty glorious years (1950-2000): the triumph of the US computer engineering : Donald Knuth : TAoCP and its Influence of Computer Science : Richard Stallman : Linus Torvalds  : Larry Wall  : John K. Ousterhout : CTSS : Multix OS Unix History : Unix shell history : VI editor : History of pipes concept : Solaris : MS DOSProgramming Languages History : PL/1 : Simula 67 : C : History of GCC developmentScripting Languages : Perl history   : OS History : Mail : DNS : SSH : CPU Instruction Sets : SPARC systems 1987-2006 : Norton Commander : Norton Utilities : Norton Ghost : Frontpage history : Malware Defense History : GNU Screen : OSS early history

Classic books:

The Peter Principle : Parkinson Law : 1984 : The Mythical Man-MonthHow to Solve It by George Polya : The Art of Computer Programming : The Elements of Programming Style : The Unix Hater’s Handbook : The Jargon file : The True Believer : Programming Pearls : The Good Soldier Svejk : The Power Elite

Most popular humor pages:

Manifest of the Softpanorama IT Slacker Society : Ten Commandments of the IT Slackers Society : Computer Humor Collection : BSD Logo Story : The Cuckoo's Egg : IT Slang : C++ Humor : ARE YOU A BBS ADDICT? : The Perl Purity Test : Object oriented programmers of all nations : Financial Humor : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2008 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2010 : The Most Comprehensive Collection of Editor-related Humor : Programming Language Humor : Goldman Sachs related humor : Greenspan humor : C Humor : Scripting Humor : Real Programmers Humor : Web Humor : GPL-related Humor : OFM Humor : Politically Incorrect Humor : IDS Humor : "Linux Sucks" Humor : Russian Musical Humor : Best Russian Programmer Humor : Microsoft plans to buy Catholic Church : Richard Stallman Related Humor : Admin Humor : Perl-related Humor : Linus Torvalds Related humor : PseudoScience Related Humor : Networking Humor : Shell Humor : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2011 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2012 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2013 : Java Humor : Software Engineering Humor : Sun Solaris Related Humor : Education Humor : IBM Humor : Assembler-related Humor : VIM Humor : Computer Viruses Humor : Bright tomorrow is rescheduled to a day after tomorrow : Classic Computer Humor

The Last but not Least


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Last modified: February, 21, 2017