On Bullshit


[Update: After I posted this I came across a great study –  “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” [PDF] – freshly published in November 2015. Well worth a read. I also recently came across this old but great post from Scott Berkun “How to Detect Bullshit“]

Because I see so much of this  on Facebook, I wanted to post the classic essay “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt.


Here is Wikipedia on the essay:

“On Bullshit (2005), by Harry G. Frankfurt, is a philosophical essay that presents a theory of bullshit that defines the concept and analyzes the applications of bullshit in the contexts of communication. As such, bullshit can be neither true nor false; hence, the bullshitter is someone whose principal aim — when uttering or publishing bullshit — is to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that are neither true nor false, and so obscure the facts of the matter being discussed. In contrast, the liar must know the truth of the matter under discussion, in order to better conceal it from the listener or the reader being deceived with a lie; while the bullshitter’s sole concern is personal advancement and advantage to their own agenda.”


Here are some quotes:

Humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and its point.


Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is surely humbug. …the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather…the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him.


…Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth –  this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.


…The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.


Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretence that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth.


It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.


…Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He 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, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.


One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.


Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit 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. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s  affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.


The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of scepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit  of an alternative ideal, sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.


Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.


See also

Wikipedia’s great article on Lies that described the many types of lies.

The BBC Ethics page on Lying

St Augustine on the 8 types of lie


The War on the Exceptional

Is there a war on the exception (radical) to the detriment of humanity?

Start with this “In Our Time” episode on Kierkegaard, the read these two essays by Anthony Judge:


“Eristic, from the ancient Greek word Eris meaning wrangle or strife, often refers to a type of argument where the participants fight and quarrel without any reasonable goal.

The aim usually is to win the argument and/or to engage in a conflict for the sole purpose of wasting time through arguments, not to potentially discover a true or probable answer to any specific question or topic. Eristic is arguing for the sake of conflict as opposed to the seeking of conflict resolution.” via Eristic – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

See also “The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument (1831:

The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument is an acidulous and sarcastic treatise written by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in sarcastic deadpan.[1] In it, Schopenhauer examines a total of thirty-eight methods of showing up one’s opponent in a debate. He introduces his essay with the idea that philosophers have concentrated in ample measure on the rules of logic, but have not (especially since the time of Immanuel Kant) engaged with the darker art of the dialectic, of controversy. Whereas the purpose of logic is classically said to be a method of arriving at the truth, dialectic, says Schopenhauer, “…on the other hand, would treat of the intercourse between two rational beings who, because they are rational, ought to think in common, but who, as soon as they cease to agree like two clocks keeping exactly the same time, create a disputation, or intellectual contest.” via The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument

How to ask good questions

Surprisingly important skill that most of us are bad at. In a nutshell:

  • Don’t ramble on—terminate the sentence at the question mark.
  • Get comfortable with silence.
  • Start with “who, what, when, where, how, or why” for more meaningful answers.
  • Don’t fish for the answer you want.
  • Stop nodding if you don’t understand—ask a follow-up instead.
  • If you get a non-answer, approach it again from a different angle.
  • Rephrase the answer in your own words.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.

Read on: http://www.fastcompany.com/3003945/one-conversational-tool-will-make-you-better-absolutely-everything 

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

VUCA is an acronym used to describe or reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. The common usage of the term VUCA began in the late 1990s and derives from military vocabulary[1] and has been subsequently used in emerging ideas in strategic leadership that apply in a wide range of organizations, including everything from for-profit corporations[2] to education.[3]

via Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


Last night I had a deeply irritating problem with synching nvAlt and Simplenote. It forced me to look through my hundreds of note fragments looking for the problematic note. 

I came across an old note about Raymond Williams’ book “Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society“. 

Williams is a fairy extreme leftists (sympathised with Pol Pot) but the book is wonderful. 

Here are a few excerpts: 

Aberrant decoding:  An anti-structuralist term that recognises that audiences et messages in different ways to the ones intended.  ‘Encoding’ is the term used to describe the way in which media practitioners construct messages so that they can be understood by the widest possible audience, almost always the aim of media professionals. ‘Decoding’ is the term used to describe how people read these messages.  In communication theory there is an approach which claims that messages are encoded (produced) through one set of meaning structures and are therefore necessarily decoded (received) in the same linguistic framework and with the same meaning structures    

Anomie:  Normlessness (a product of sodal disintegration).    

Aporia:  A seemingly irresolvable logial difficulty or serious perplexity.    

Canon:  A list of approved texts, orginally of a religious character.      

Civil society: Everything in society that is not government    

Cultural capital  The transmission of privileges from one generation to the next.    

Dominant/Residual/Emergent : The factions wlthln cultures that are always in a state of conflict.        

Doxa:  A broader term than ideology, meaning somethihg close to comnon-sense or everyday assumptions.    

Enonce/enondation : The distinction between speaking and the effects of that act.    

Episteme:  The dominant mode of organising thought at a given tiistorical time.    

Essentialism:  The belief that people, groups or objects have fixed, ate characteristics. A combination of social and cultural characteristics that together form a distinctive socal identity.    

Feedback:  A term describing the reception and response of a message.    

Flaneur: The observer.    

Governmentality : Michel Foucault devised the term ‘governmentality to describe the increasing tendency over the past two centuries for the state to intervene in the lives of its citizens    

Habitus:   A system of shared sodal dispositions and cognitive structures.    

Hegemony:  The exerdse of cultural and social leadership by a dominant group.    

Hermeneutics:  Understanding how understanding works: a theory of interpretation.  Its basic philosophical meaning refers to translating something not understooda textinto a comprehensible form. We might say it refers to the process of interpretation, and it was generally used to describe the interpretation of biblical texts. Its current usage refers to our understanding of how understanding takes place, particularly in relation to how readers understand the meaning of works of art and literature.    

Metanarrative:  Stories about stories (Jean-Fran ois Lyotard).    

Metaphor/metonymy:  Metaphor: the substitution of one term for another.  

Metonymy: the substitution of an element of a term for the term itself.    

Moral panic : A media spiral in which sodal control and hysteria escalate social problems.    

Phenomenology:  A philosophical approach that concentrates on the meaning of experiences.    

Subaltern:  The underclass; the oppressed in colonial societies.    


The book is available at Amazon.com 

Raymond Williams on Wikipedia

Excerpts on Culture and Popular

The Downside of Stories

Interesting speech on “the heuristic narratological basis of self-delusion”,  “the stories and metaphors we seduce ourselves with”.

Transcript is here: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/8w1/transcript_tyler_cowen_on_stories/

Here is one extract from the transcript.

Another set of stories that are popular – if you know Oliver Stone movies or Michael Moore movies. You can’t make a movie and say, “It was all a big accident.” No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together. So you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people plotting things together, just like when you’re watching movies. This, again, is reason to be suspicious.

He is so right. Our narrative bias feeds the engine of Ideological belief, which always holds that there are oppressors and oppressed and that the oppressors are intentionally oppressing, usually via conspiracy.

Complex systems, emergent properties, mistakes and unforeseen second or third order effects are discounted. Narrative bias demands agency, and that serves Ideology, the dominant political mode of our time.

New Mindhacker book released (and I contributed to it)

Mindhacker US edition cover

Completely forgot to announce that the new Mindhacker book was released on 6th September 2011, featuring a very long (over 4000 words) hack by authored by me (“Hack 73: Take a Semantic Pause”).

The book is actually a delight to read, especially for techie hacker types.

Congratulations to the authors Ron and Marty Hale-Evans. They represent an ideal of the polymathic autodidact omnologist.

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level is  available from Amazon and bookstores.