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Open for Debate

Bullshit You Can Believe In

5 November 2018

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. So begins Harry Frankfurt’s rightly celebrated essay On Bullshit, raising the important questions of precisely what bullshit is and why there is so much of it around.

That sentence is particularly poignant now, three decades after it was first published. For the explosion of social media has facilitated industrial-scale bullshit production and distribution that is corroding the public discourse at the heart of democratic politics.

Frankfurt argues that the essential feature of bullshit is a lack of concern for the truth. The liar takes care not to speak the truth. But the bullshitter, argues Frankfurt, does not care about the truth or falsehood of what they are saying. In this sense, the bullshitter has less respect for the truth than the liar.

Not all speech unconcerned with the truth counts as bullshit. Jokes can also have this feature. It might once have happened that a horse walked into a bar and the barman asked ‘why the long face?’, but the person telling that joke neither knows nor cares whether it did.

Jokes like this do not conceal their disregard for the truth. They are playful precisely because they enact the presentation of information but make clear that it is merely an act.

Bullshit does conceal its disregard for the truth. It aims to persuade an audience of something. It can be used, for example, to give the impression that the speaker is an expert on the topic being spoken about.

It is tempting to describe all the fake news that has characterised recent political discourse as bullshit. Its producers seem not to care about the truth. Their aim is only to persuade the audience to back some policy or politician.

While this may be a fair description of the overall attitude of some campaigners, it does not follow that each of their fake news stories is an instance of bullshit. Perhaps these people do believe and care about some of their false claims. And perhaps some of their claims are lies.

Precisely what would make a fake news story an instance of bullshit? Frankfurt intended his essay as a preliminary sketch to stimulate further thought. One way to sharpen his conception of bullshit is to emphasise the psychological theme of his analysis.

That is my strategy in my recent paper ‘Liar!’, where I argue that the ‘hard core’ of bullshit is that the speaker neither believes nor disbelieves what they are saying. It seems likely that much fake news fits this description: the person creating it has no settled belief about whether it is true.

But this kind of fake news also presents a challenge to this psychological conception of bullshit. For the immediate aim of fake news is to bring the audience to believe what is said, in order to bring them to support some political candidate or cause.

So when this kind of fake news succeeds, its audience believe the bullshit. And if they sincerely express this belief, they are spreading bullshit. The psychological conception of bullshit therefore looks mistaken: there can be bullshit where the speakers believe what they are saying.

On the basis of this consideration, my colleague Chris Heffer has advanced an epistemic conception of bullshit in a recent post on this blog. Heffer argues that bullshit is ‘pathological discourse arising from a reckless disregard of evidence’.

This ‘epistemic negligence’ comprises the speaker having a duty to check whether their claim is true, but not doing this duty and not indicating that they have not checked.

Does this epistemic conception of bullshit cover the sincere spreading of fake news? Are these three criteria of epistemic negligence all met whenever a speaker sincerely believes the bullshit they are saying?

If an otherwise highly reputable news source was duped into publishing a fake news story, perhaps due to one journalist’s brief moment of uncharacteristic epistemic negligence, then the audience of that news source might believe and spread that fake news.

It is difficult to see how those speakers, who rightly trust this reputable news source, could be accused of epistemic negligence. But they would be spreading bullshit. It would not be their fault that they are spreading bullshit, but that is what they would be doing.

We can resolve this problem by considering the relation between the noun and the verb. The person sincerely repeating some bullshit news story is not bullshitting. To bullshit is to produce bullshit. This person is merely speaking bullshit that was produced by someone else.

So the noun is defined by the verb. Bullshit is whatever is the outcome of bullshitting. But the verb is not defined by the noun. You can speak bullshit without bullshitting. It is therefore the verb that needs to be defined by the philosophical analysis of bullshit.

This means that the epistemic conception is best understood as claiming only that epistemic negligence is essential to producing bullshit, not that it is essential to spreading bullshit. It does allow that you can spread bullshit without being epistemically negligent, so long as someone else produced that bullshit.

But the same move undermines the argument against the psychological conception. We should understand this conception as holding that bullshitting is when the speaker neither believes nor disbelieves what they are saying. It allows that you can sincerely spread bullshit produced by someone else.

We should thus understand philosophical conceptions of bullshit as attempts to articulate directly what it is to bullshit, only indirectly to describe what bullshit is. So the phenomenon of sincerely and non-negligently spreading bullshit does not challenge either the psychological or the epistemic conception.

Which is the correct conception of bullshit? It may turn out that there is more than one variety. Or perhaps further consideration will show that only one of these conceptions, or maybe some other one, is correct. We therefore still face Frankfurt’s fundamental question: what, precisely, is bullshit?

Photo in the Public Domain (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Dennis Sloan)