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Pseudo-Profound Bullshit

In this context, we do well to reject the bullshitters of this world, but we do our understanding a disservice if we are sceptical to a fault.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.

— Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (2005)

When I was in prep school, yes, I went to one of those schools, my history teacher introduced us to the notion of fakes. Statements or artefacts which purport to be the real thing but are in fact counterfeit. The example given was of a trip he made to Rome some years earlier. During it, a merchant outside the Coliseum tried to sell him a genuine ancient Roman coin.

At first blush, it looked plausible. The metal seemed old, and the markings faded. There was a passable bust of an Emperor on one side and the depiction of two soldiers on the other. The tell, or what give it away, was that along with a Latin inscription, there was a date. 35 B.C. If true, the coin would have been quite miraculous, as it prefigured the birth of Christ.

Through a simple mix of historical knowledge and elementary deduction, a process which is often neglected, my history master was able to apprehend a fake. Other examples of this are the way statements pertaining to revolution are perceived differently if reputed to be by Lenin, as in Vladimir, or Jefferson, as in Thomas; how the quality of the same wine is rated when different price tags are attached; or the preference of violinists for new model violins over the famed Stradivarius when no makers mark is provided. But perhaps the most challenging genre is that of pseudo-profound bullshit. Interestingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, academic circles have differentiated this type of bullshit from the run-of-the-mill kind.

There is a tendency in modern academia to imagine that when something is ‘not a new phenomenon,’ that its beginnings are to be found in the oldest journal article a search will return — usually something from the 1970s or 1980s. But those awake and aware to the history of language and philosophy will apprehend that under the name obscurantism, pseudo-profound bullshit has a pedigree far older than the twentieth century. A pedigree as old as language itself.

I’ll save the long and illustrious history of obscurantism for another time because what animated this muse was an article I came across in The Times, giving a précis of a recent study that concluded: ‘when it comes to sorting the pretentious from the profound it’s not what is said but who is saying it that counts.’ As in the above examples of quotations, wine and violins, there is much truth to the power of provenance. But the article misses a trick in that it doesn’t account for context.

The OED has it wrong in defining bullshit as ‘stupid or untrue talk or writing; nonsense.’ This is because a better definition would be from American English of the early twentieth century in which bullshit is defined as ‘eloquent and insincere rhetoric’ (my emphasis). A concept that likely derives from the Middle English ‘bull’ meaning ‘false talk, fraud’:

Sais christ to ypocrites … yee ar … al ful wit wickednes, tresun, and bull.

— “Cursor Mundi”, Northumbrian, early 14c.

Philosophers have devoted numerous tracts to trying to expose or understand the bullshitter, but my interest here lies in the realm of the bulshitee — the people who are taken in. A musing redolent with meaning given my social media feed is saturated with people agonising about the ‘algorithm’ and lamenting how many people are taken in by system. My thesis here is that it isn’t the algorithm — though that doesn’t help — rather it is the bulshitee’s innate tendency to believe the lie.

While the causes and antecedents may be multifarious, there seem to be two latent causes or conditions that contribute to a person’s tendency to accept what is told. The first condition follows Spinoza,[1] who argued that to understand an argument or proposition, a person must first accept it. Only later, can a person see the conflict or error in the assertion and take against the position. A notion William James would later describe as: ‘All propositions, whether attributive or existential, are believed through the very fact of being conceived.’[2] This is not to misrepresent Spinoza, or James, and imagine they thought everyone believes everything they hear. It is merely to acknowledge the thinking that the act of disbelief or falsification of an idea is a secondary psychological position that follows the hearing. Or at least it does in people not of a gullible disposition.

The second factor is closely related to the first, in that it is the tendency to confuse what is incomprehensible or vague and indistinct with what is profound. As Dan Sperber put it: ’All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp”.[3] In such instances, the receiver of the bullshit has not engaged their capacity for discernment, and thus doesn’t see that the statement or assertion should prompt conflicting responses to the data. In other words, the individual fails to perceive the need for scepticism.

The antidote to being a bulshitee is both simple and hard — read widely and think deeply. Be sure to engage both stages of comprehension: the capacity to accept and sit with an idea — so one truly understands it; and engaging the secondary psychological mechanism of disbelief when the views of the speaker don’t accord with third party verifiable data.

To these two aspects I would add a caution. Engaging scepticism may prevent you from being a bullshitee, but it can harden your capacity to accept a greater truth. One that may not accord with your world view, but is true, nonetheless. In this context, we do well to reject the bullshitters of this world, but we do our understanding a disservice if we are sceptical to a fault.

Goodnight and good luck.

Photo by Javier Balseiro on Unsplash

[1] Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics and Selected Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley and Seymour Feldman (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1982).

[2] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1890), 290.

[3] Dan Sperber, “The Guru Effect,” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1, no. 4 (2010): 583.

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