It’s almost 15 years since the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published his bestselling book, On Bullshit. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” he observed. Frankfurt defined bullshitting as distinct from lying: a lie is deliberate and focused; to lie one must first know what is true. The bullshitter, in contrast, may have no idea what is true but is unconcerned by this. “His eye is not on the facts at all… except in so far as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
We’ve been exposed to a lot of more bullshit since Frankfurt first charted the phenomenon. The rapid pace of online news and conversation seldom rewards intellectual humility or equivocation – if you want to be heard it’s better to offer a bullshit “hot take” than a more considered one. Social media has allowed for the mass production of bullshit: the extraordinarily broad expertise of the prolific Twitter commentator; the performative enthusiasm of LinkedIn profiles; and the faux-authenticity of Instagram and the subsequent rise of the personal brand, the “influencer” and the over-sharing politician. Several recent high-profile cases – including the blood-testing company Theranos, the disastrous Fyre Festival and Anna Delvey, the fake heiress – owed their initial success to a willingness to push to new extremes the kind of bullshit we fall for every day in boardrooms, on social media and at networking events.
Consider, too, the rapid rise of bullshit politics. Donald Trump undoubtedly lies, but often he speaks without knowing or caring what is true. He is, as the New Republic writer Jeet Heer presciently observed in 2015, the ultimate bullshit artist, a person who “works to erase the very possibility of knowing the truth”. The reality TV star’s political rise illustrates the power and seduction of bullshit. How else could the inheritor of $413m (according to the New York Times) style himself as an anti-establishment champion of the white working class? For his followers, Trump delivers vague reassurances – we’re doing great, the economy is so, so good right now – and the comfort that inconvenient truths are either “fake news” or the product of “witch hunts”.
The Brexit campaign was also bolstered not just by made-up statistics and bare-faced lies but by bullshit. The Brexiteers’ blustering insistence that disentangling Britain from the European Union would be easy and instantly rewarding and their labelling of dissenting views as “scaremongering”, revealed a disturbing lack of interest in the truth.
Yet there has been little empirical research into bullshitting, something a group of social scientists from University College London and the Australian Catholic University have tried to rectify. For a paper published by the Institute of Labor Economics in April, they surveyed 40,550 teenagers from nine Anglophone countries and asked them, as part of a larger maths exercise, to rate on a scale of one to five their knowledge of various mathematical concepts, three of which – “proper number”, “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fraction” – don’t exist. The researchers gathered information on respondents’ gender, socio-economic background, immigrant status, academic ability and various character traits, such as their self-reported popularity or ability to solve problems.
Across all the countries surveyed, teenage boys were more likely to profess a knowledge of fictitious maths concepts than girls, and young people from “more advantaged” socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to bullshit than less privileged teenagers.
Bullshitters were more likely to express confidence in their skills, even when they were of equal academic ability, and to believe they are popular at school. There was also a substantial difference between countries. The US and Canada recorded the highest percentage of bullshitters, followed by Australia, New Zealand and England, with Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland at the bottom of the list. Interestingly, these gender and wealth gaps were more pronounced in countries where bullshitting is less common; in the US and Canada, it seems, everyone bullshits a lot.
There were several limitations to the study. We don’t know whether being a bullshitter at 15 corresponds to being one later on in life, or whether people who bullshit about their maths knowledge tend to do so in other areas. The survey can’t tell us whether the self-professed experts at “subjunctive scaling” are bullshit artists or hapless amateurs; or how bluffing on a school maths test might correlate with professional success in the future.
It is, though, readily apparent that being a bullshitter can be hugely advantageous in a job interview, as well as in many professions: politics, business, sales, marketing, PR and, of course, journalism. This is why the link between socio-economic status and bullshitting is so interesting: are privileged teenagers more likely to bullshit because they’re following the example of their professionally successful parents? Does affluence make teenagers more assertive, therefore more likely to believe they can get away with bullshit? Is greater assertiveness also why men bullshit more than women? If artful bullshitting is often the key to professional success, would it serve social equality to encourage women and less affluent teenagers to bullshit more?
Bluffing and misinformation are social ills. Bullshit has contributed to today’s alarming political polarisation, the sense that the right and left cannot even agree on the fundamental facts. It has fuelled the anti-science movement, and the ideologically motivated scepticism of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers.
It is hard to combat: when people buy into bullshit, simply repeating the facts – on the Mueller inquiry, or Brexit negotiations – does little to change their minds. We need to find new ways to reward those who remain committed to the truth.
Sophie McBain is the NS’s North America correspondent
This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes