Some people are prone to running their mouth, saying things without an iota of concern about its truth or falsehood because their goal isn’t really to communicate information. Their whole point is just to have something to say. This heedless attitude is the hallmark of what philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls Bullshit.
First, bullshitting is not lying. Even if both the liar and the bullshitter are trying to get away with something, lying is a conscious act of deception whereas bullshitting is unconnected to a concern for truth. It is impossible for someone to lie unless they think they know the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.
Furthermore, a lie is necessarily false, but bullshit may happen to be a mix of truth and falsehood. Bullshitters are simply indifferent to facts, reasons, truth, and logic. This indifference is the true essence of bullshit.
And since bullshitters ignore truth instead of acknowledging and subverting it, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies.
Some people are natural-born bullshitters. These folks are convinced that they must have opinions about anything and everything — so they make it a point to speak quite extensively about things they know nothing about. These are the folks who never do the work required to have an opinion.
The classic example is Donald Trump — whose disregard for self-consistency or facts pervades his speeches in a way that departs from the usual strands of bullshit we find in politics. His speeches have very little to do with what he says, and everything to do with the vibe or attitude he tries to cultivate. Trump doesn’t talk, he tawks.
Trump is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His focus — unlike an honest person or a liar — is not on the facts at all. His interest lies only in getting away with whatever he says. Like all professional bullshitters, he does not care whether the words that come out of his mouth align with reality or not. He just picks them out or makes them up to suit his purpose as he goes.
This clear contemptuous indifference of bullshitters towards reality is shocking — sometimes frightening. You see, a liar can at least be challenged or backed into a corner with enough evidence and careful reasoning. They might dance around a straight answer to deliberately mislead you, but with enough facts even the best lies can be pinned down and undressed.
A professional bullshitter, on the other hand, is immune to all the “inconveniences” of reality. For example, Trump happily lived in denial about the existence of the Coronavirus even when the US death toll broke records — thereby making the common folks bear the consequences of his bullshitting.
Now, Trump is the Sachin Tendulkar of bullshitting. He is in a league of his own, and has built his brand around bullshitting, so his purpose is understandable. But surprisingly, common folks like you and I also bullshit now and then.
Truth is, we often aren’t consciously aware of our lack of concern for evidence in some situations — especially when we are socially obligated to talk about things we know nothing about. Think “business” meetings. Speaking (albeit without adding any value) is good signalling in groups and some folks excel at it.
If I have to be completely honest, I have done it multiple times — not in meetings but in social gatherings. You see, I’m an introvert and I hate small talk (talks without any agenda), especially with strangers. Once in a while when I’m forced to “mingle” with random people I try to humour myself by bullshitting around. I ask “intelligent” questions, give “thoughtful” inputs, and “contribute” to the conversation without caring much about it.
In India, the most common topics in social gatherings revolve around politics in some form or the other, so it’s pretty easy to bullshit around. Other guests are most probably doing the same.
You see, we are very likely to bullshit when we expect to receive a social “pass” for doing so — which means we expect to get away with no repercussions.
But this type of bullshitting is harmless, and in some way beneficial as well. Like me, people often engage in some form of random bullshitting as part of a social bonding experience. This is harmless as long as it doesn’t encourage bullshitting while discussing important topics. For example, you’ll never see me bullshit when there’s an agenda. My circle of bullshitting is limited only to unnecessary small talks.
But occasionally, we have to take proactive measures to reduce the chances of somebody getting away with bullshitting, especially in high-stakes situations such as interviews. In such cases we often have to double down with a barrage of questions to figure out the depth of the person’s thoughts.
You see, someone who has done the work can present an answer or an idea at multiple levels. They will be able to go down to the nuts and bolts of a problem and also zoom out to see the big picture at the same time. If they are faking, they’ll get stuck somewhere. So yes, talking, questioning, and probing helps detect if somebody is bullshitting.
But you can’t question all bullshitters. How do you know if the leader of a state or a nation is bullshitting? Shrewd bullshitters can be virtually undetectable. As a rule of thumb, people who sell an easy answer to a hard problem are bullshitters. Think all self-help books, investment guides, or Trump building a wall to increase jobs. Anything that sounds too easy or too simple is probably bullshit.
Some classic examples can be found in India where several politicians and godmen have suggested simple methods such as taking a dip in the holy (yet extremely polluted) water of the Ganges, drinking “gaumutra” or cow urine, applying “gobar” or cow dung as a lotion on the body to fight off coronavirus. Although in their defence, I’m not exactly sure if it’s bullshitting or a sign of sheer stupidity.
All that is fine. But, what if we want to prevent ourselves from bullshitting? There may be instances when we want to engage in harmless bullshitting, but what if we want to prevent ourselves from bullshitting unknowingly so that we don’t waste other people’s time? Can we do something about it? You bet!
One approach I can think of is to figure out the values (or lack thereof) involved when you are engaged in a conversation. While conversing, speakers and listeners follow a set of unsaid maxims. What is said can be measured by quantity, quality, relevance, and manner.
Bullshitting is the act of breaking one or more maxims of conversation. For example, if the words convey not enough or too much information (quantity), are intentionally false or lack evidence (quality), are irrelevant to the current topic or issue (relevance), or are too obscure, ambiguous, or unnecessarily wordy (manner), there’s a good chance this is bullshit.
The bottom line is this. You don’t need to know the answers to all the questions in life. But don’t bullshit (yourself or others) that you do. Any smart person can spot an amateur bullshitter, and professional bullshitters either don’t scale or don’t work with smart folks in the long run. Be my guest if you are okay with that. Otherwise, if you don’t know something, just say you don’t know. You can always learn and get back. Don’t bullshit!