Brian Boyd: Bullshit can be more dangerous than lies in politics
A liar cares about truth - he must, to conceal it from his audience. The bullshitter is indifferent
Dr Harry Frankfurt is the professor of bullshit at Princeton University. The esteemed analytic philosopher rose to this position due to a now famous essay he wrote, entitled On Bullshit, in 1986. Now regarded as a cult classic, Dr Frankfurt had to extend his essay into book form due to demand. The subsequent On Bullshit book was published in 2005 and sold so well it appeared for 27 weeks in the New York Times’ bestseller list.
The paragraph above contains bullshit in that a 10-second Google search will show that there is no such thing as a professor of bullshit at Princeton University. But everything else stated is demonstrably true.
It’s simply the case that Dr Frankfurt is colloquially known as the “Professor of Bullshit” whenever he and his brilliant work are alluded to in the media. His real job title is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton.
But that doesn’t matter because as Dr Frankfurt explains himself: “Bullshit is trying to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression in a way that obscures the fact of the matter.”
And it’s crucial to our understanding of bullshit, says Dr Frankfurt, that we differentiate it from lying. The liar cares deeply about the truth; he has to in order to conceal it from his listeners and readers. The bullshitter is indifferent to the truth; he will say anything to suit his purpose – invariably his personal advancement.
To use a clear recent example: the economist Tim Harford, a great admirer of Dr Frankfurt’s work, looked at a tweet by Donald Trump from November of last year. The tweet was an infographic about crime which had it that 81 per cent of white murder victims were killed by black people. The source of this figure was given in the tweet as “the Crime Statistics Bureau – San Francisco”.
Trump’s tweet (he is followed by 8.6 million people) was further retweeted 8,000 times and found great favour with the “angry white men” who are the bedrock of his support. But the Crime Statistics Bureau – San Francisco does not exist and never has done. And the correct official figure released by the FBI is that more than 80 per cent of white murder victims are killed by other white people.
When Trump was later challenged by a journalist about the tweet and something so mundane as evidence was applied to Trump’s “fact”, Trump replied: “Hey am I gonna check every statistic?”
As Harford summarised: “Trump did not check whether the numbers were true because he did not much care one way or the other. This is not a game of true and false. This is a game of politics.”
It wasn’t that Trump was lying per se; bullshitters avoid lying as lies can be refuted. The bullshitter will, as noted above, say anything to suit his purpose: make up a crime bureau that does not exist and pluck figures out of the sky – in this case to state that black people spend an inordinate amount of their daily lives murdering white people.
But Trump isn’t even a good bullshitter. Hillary Clinton is far better, which is why she will win the November election. Clinton is so indifferent to the truth, as the really good bullshitters are, that noted columnist Charles Krauthammer said of her: “Nothing she says ever is true three weeks later.”
That’s the beauty of bullshit: it’s a magic wand of obfuscation. Because bullshit doesn’t reside along the traditional truth/lie axis, you can simply counter claims that you are bullshitting by applying further layers of bullshitting. It’s a magical realm where, as Lewis Carroll once noted, words mean what you choose them to mean.
The Bob Dylan of bullshitting is the United Kingdom’s health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. As pointed out, again by Tim Harford in the Financial Times, Hunt wanted to change the work contracts of UK doctors to get more weekend work out of them. In July last year, Hunt said you are 15 per cent more likely to die if you are admitted to a hospital at the weekend as opposed to on a weekday, adding “6,000 people lose their lives every year because (of this)”.
In November last year, Hunt told parliament “there are 11,000 excess deaths because we do not staff our hospitals properly at weekends”. In January of this year, he said: “If you have a stroke at the weekends, you’re 20 per cent more likely to die.”
UK independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact was so alarmed by Hunt’s ever-escalating death figures it formally asked his office to correct the parliamentary record that contained his “facts”. In their reply, Hunt’s office said the figures had been a “rough approximation”. Last month, Hunt said he had “lessons to learn” from how he behaved during the doctors’ dispute. Not least that people in the UK appear to die in round numbers, one hopes.
Tony Blair’s 2003 Iraq dossier about weapons of mass destruction contributed to hundreds of thousands of innocent people losing their lives. It was prize-winning bullshit. Last year, Blair told CNN: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.” This is just an Englishman’s version of “Hey, am I gonna check every statistic?”
We will soon face the possibility of a Trump presidency, the UK leaving the EU, a post-Assad Syria and perhaps even another general election in this country.
It is not the lies that hurt us – we are used to them – it’s the bullshit that will kill us. As our professor of bullshit at Princeton warns: “The bullshitter does not reject the authority of the truth – he simply pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a far greater enemy of the truth than lies can ever be.”