By: Victoria Heath
Leo Tolstoy, the Russian literary once wrote, “Yes, it is possible to sabotage the things that can erase us, but not without joy on our side. The complexity of the present time seems to demand an awakening of our hopes if we are going to survive.”
Actually no, he never wrote that.
In fact, that was a bullshit statement from the website, The New Age Bullshit Generator, and it was created by a computer. Did you think it was profound though? Did you believe it was an insightful observation of reality written by a true genius?
At first, that quote does seem legitimate, in part because Tumblr and Instagram are filled with similar ‘existential’ aphorisms cleverly imposed over pictures of deserted beaches and mystic clouds. In reality though, this faux-Tolstoy quote was just bullshit that manipulated your optimistic soul using buzzwords.
Don’t worry though—you’re not the only one that falls for bullshit. Last year, Canadian PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook, decided to conduct a study examining how often people believed bullshit statements. In the study, Pennycook points out that ‘bullshit’ is different from ‘nonsense’ in that it “implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.”
With his team, Pennycook surveyed 800 people and conducted four tests using The New Age Bullshit Generator. He found that 27% of the participants regularly believed that the statements generated by the algorithm were “profound.” In fact, they were just “buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence” that retained “syntactic structure.” So: bullshit.
The Era of Bullshit.
Harry Frankfurt, an American philosopher and the writer of “On Bullshit,” argues that we’re in fact living in the ‘Era of Bullshit,’ in which people “just talk” so they can “get paid,” from salesmen to politicians. They talk about things they know nothing about, saying whatever their audience wants to hear, and whatever makes them appear knowledgeable. Bullshit is an “alternative to truth” that requires no critical thinking, and for the most part, is wildly entertaining. Therefore people come to accept it as truth.
Frankfurt says that bullshit is actually more “insidious” than lying, because while liars “substitute the truth,” eventually the truth can be revealed, while bullshitters “manipulate the listener,” and have no concern for the truth. In 2016 Pennycook wrote, “Often their goal is to say something without saying anything, to appear competent and respectful without concerning themselves with the truth.” Listeners may suspect that something is bullshit, but the statements are often so vague that they are not able to identify what exactly is wrong.
Ultimately, if bullshit becomes the ‘norm’ of society (which Frankfurt believes it has in the United States), then respect and concern for the truth is lost. Reality thus becomes unidentifiable.
For Frankfurt, the debate regarding climate change in the United States is the perfect example of how bullshit has eroded the respect for truth and fact. Climate change deniers believe that global warming isn’t a real phenomenon because “it doesn’t fit into their political or economic agenda,” despite the fact that many studies prove otherwise. So they start talking bullshit. A good example is Ted Cruz’s assertion that “climate isn’t a science, it’s a religion.”
In fact, the entire U.S. election exemplifies the danger of bullshit, and those who create it. Bullshit has permeated politics, religion, education, and even the news. It’s everywhere. Therefore Frankfurt urges everyone to guard against it and “reject it,” because we need reality.
“We live in the real world, we depend upon it, we need it, we need to know about it – and if we don’t have the truth then we can’t do those things,” he adds.
Combating the bullshit is pretty simple, just start thinking more critically.
Watch the video below to listen to Frankfurt’s full interview with Think Nice about his book.