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The Science of Bullshit: 5 Notes on How to Deal With Nonsense

Detecting bullshit isn’t a superpower. Refuting it is. At least if we buy into Brandolini’s Law, which states that refuting bullshit is an order of magnitude harder than merely producing it. The adage coined by Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini has fascinated me ever since I was accepted to MIT at the age of nine. By the time I graduated a year later, I had sold my business ideas of manufacturing electric cars and privatising space exploration to a friend for a symbolic dollar. Wondering what to do next, I was pleased to learn there’s actually a whole science of bullshit studying the field.

The science of bullshit tries to answer some of the most burning questions troubling researchers and the public alike. Are bullshitters more intelligent? Can you bullshit a bullshitter? And how should you deal with workplace bullshit? Here are five lessons from the frontier of an obscure research field.

1. Bullshit Defined

The beginnings of the science of bullshit can be traced back to 1986. When philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt wrote his seminal essay On Bullshit, which he went on to turn into a bestselling book of the same name. To this day, Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit is still used in the field.

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.

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

So the main characteristic of a bullshitter is an indifference to truth. In a sense, Frankfurt established bullshitting as its own scientific brand; distinguishing it clearly from truth-telling and the flat-out lie. That being said, not all bullshit is created equally. In his 2021 book, The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, social psychologist John V. Petrocelli fleshes out the different levels of gobbledegook.

The degree to which something qualifies as bullshit is inversely proportional to the degree to which the claim is based on truth, genuine evidence, and/or established knowledge.

John V. Petrocelli

2. Are Bullshitters More Intelligent?

The science of bullshit seems to have had a recent revival. A case in point is this study from May 2021 that looked into Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence. Canadian psychologists Martin Harry Turpin et al. asked participants to produce bullshit in the form of sound yet fake explanations for various concepts. These were then rated to calculate the producers’ “bullshit ability”. Researchers found:

that those more skilled in producing satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit score higher on measures of cognitive ability and are perceived by others as more intelligent.

So bullshitters seem indeed more intelligent. Not only that, Turpin and colleagues hypothesised that highly-skilled bullshit might serve the function of “navigating social systems”. The better your bullshit game, the more successful you are?

3. Can You Bullshit a Bullshitter?

Let’s turn to those at the receiving end of misleading information. “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” a common saying goes. Detecting deception and utter hogwash is a valuable skill to have. But are those regularly exhibiting a willful indifference to the truth more likely to sense it?

A study from February 2021 indicates that people who bullshit more often and for effect are more prone to being misled themselves. In their own words, the Canadian psychologists suggest:

that frequency of persuasive bullshitting (i.e., bullshitting intended to impress or persuade others) positively predicts susceptibility to various types of misleading information and that this association is robust to individual differences in cognitive ability and analytic cognitive style.

In other words, you can indeed bullshit a bullshitter. And it may even be easier than bullshitting those who take the truth more seriously. Everyone is susceptible, no matter how smart they are.

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4. The Bullshit Blind Spot

In another recent effort to move forward the science of bullshit, psychologists Shane Littrell and Jonathan Fugelsang from the University of Waterloo, Canada looked into bullshit detection. Their paper found signs of Dunning-Kruger-like effects in people who are more receptive to bullshit. Those who tend to fall for it, grossly misjudge their ability to detect baloney, a phenomenon they dubbed the Bullshit Blind Spot:

People least able to detect bullshit believe they are significantly more skilled at detecting bullshit compared to everyone else, suggesting that highly bullshit receptive people may have a “bullshit blind spot.”

Littrell and Fugelsang

5. The Science of Workplace Bullshit

Finally, let’s take a look at a practical application of the science of bullshit. Suggesting that corporations are home to some of the world’s top-performing bullshitters is probably not a controversial idea. Luckily, Canadian researchers McCarthy et al. have looked into workplace bullshit back in 2020. Here’s how they suggest it comes about:

Workplace bullshit comes into existence when one or more members of an organization are intent on pursuing an underlying agenda of their own, such as protecting themselves against criticism or perceived threats, or attempting to benefit themselves in the pursuit of opportunities.

That agenda may be exclusively self-serving, or it may be intended to serve the organization; it can have selfish or selfless motives. The bullshitter makes a decision to further that agenda through communicative acts and decides on a message and a medium that will help them to achieve that agenda.

To combat workplace bullshit, the scientists developed the C.R.A.P. Framework (I’m not making this up). It helps you distinguish between lying and bullshitting and discusses evidence-based strategies to cut through misleading information. Deploying it, corporate leaders can:

comprehend [workplace bullshit], they can recognize it for what it is, they can act against it, and they can take steps to prevent it from happening in the future.

The C.R.A.P. Framework also comes with a handy classification chart of different phenomena of misrepresentation; from “fake company slogans” to “Jargon bullshit”, to “bullshit jobs”. Sadly, bullshitting seems to be a tolerated part of the fabric of some companies. This is why I share the authors’ subtle scepticism that an organisation might not be willing to run with a comprehensive no-bullshit approach.

Honorary Mention: Bullshit Jobs

This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Bullshit Jobs. In 2013, a man named David Graeber published a “work rant” on Bullshit Jobs in the form of an online article on the prevalence of pointless professions. Five years later, the late anthropologist turned his infamous essay into a book of the same name: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. In it, he defined a bullshit job as follows:

A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

Granted, his approach was not particularly scientific with a methodology more akin to that of the Peter Principle. For what it’s worth, Graeber identified five types of useless positions:

  1. Flunkies (e.g. receptionists) are only employed to make their bosses feel important
  2. Goons (e.g. public relations consultants) are merely employed as counterparts to other goons
  3. Duct tapers (e.g. proofreaders) create makeshift solutions to make up for other people’s incompetence
  4. Box tickers (e.g. in-house magazine journalists) pretend that something of value has been produced
  5. Taskmasters (e.g. middle managers) specialise in generating more bullshit jobs

Needless to say, Graeber’s book made quite a splash. In case you’re wondering how you can avoid ending up in a bullshit job, I tried to solve David’s conundrum with Daniel C. Dennett’s approach to Chmess, a board game you’ve never played before – and never should.

Closing Thoughts

All pieces on the science of bullshit have something in common. They share an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of bullshit in our society. It looks like the best bullshitters tend to be smart, socially skilled and everywhere. Those who do it notoriously in order to impress people are much more likely to fall for it. And to refute bullshit, you need to throw a whole framework at it.

I guess Brandolini was right. Imagine how much more work went into producing the above body of research compared to the production of the drivel they were studying. Which reminds me: My little MIT story was bullshit of course. But I meant well. Perhaps, more research is needed on bullshitting as an educational art form.

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