English not being my mother tongue, I always take the liberty of using terms that polite English people don’t use lightly, or if they do, they tend to whisper, or lower the voice. Bullshit is one of them.
I was intrigued but the almost synchronized publications of two good books on truth: ‘Post Truth: the new War on Truth, by Matthew D’Ancona and ‘Post-Truth: why we have reached peak bullshit’ by Evan Davis, both formidable British journalists. Then I did a bit of drive-through-research (aka googling) and found that the topic of bullshit was dully studied in 1986 by a philosopher called Harry Frankfurt, who converted it into a book of the same title in 2005. A very long journey indeed since today the average gap between a Harvard Business Review article and a book of the same title seems to be a week or so (and the process is called intellectual elongation – trademark pending – since the book is the same article extended in 200 pages)
The definition of bullshit that the Wikipedia entry provides goes like this: ‘Frankfurt determines that bullshit is speech intended to persuade (a.k.a. rhetoric), without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded’.
This year we have entered an era of sophisticated language about truth: there is truth indeed, then post-truth, also non-truth, and then of course facts, alternative facts and fake news. The US new presidency has contributed enormously to these layers of semantics floating around. We have never had it so rich to describe a reality. Thank you.
Bullshit is of course nothing new. Science has had it at the door for a long time. Carl Sagan(1934– 1996) wrote a Baloney Detection Kit to differentiate science and pseudo-science. An issue that struck me is how naïve I have been for many years thinking that bullshit is in fact so … bullshit that nobody could get away with murder on that topic and that bullshit would be after all always called out.
But we are seeing today is that bullshit it not only not called out but digested with a mixture of incredulity and silence so it is becoming normal. Bullshitting is now part of daily politics, for example. Full stop.
When I look back at my client list of many years, I find that, on the whole, the organization was reasonably equipped to detect bullshit. Perhaps my years in pharmaceutical R&D contributed as well to bring some rigour to the party. However, they have always been some people, some individual leaders, who seemed to master bullshit quite well. They usually used their position of authority to elevate bullshit to the category of high strategic thinking and convinced many in the process. And in some occasions, their bullshit had immediate managerial consequences. In a case I remember well, a entire multimillion dollar drug clinical trial was born from a piece of bullshit expressed in the corridor by a mighty R&D leader who was a master bullshitter.
For reasons that I don’t quite understand, I have now become more sensitised to bullshit, more intolerant to mediocre thinking and of people who can get away with half truths and arguments solid as a meringue. So, I am not having a great time, since the world around is abundant of those.
One of the first Daily Thoughts of the year was entitled ‘Invitation: The year of Bullshit Detection’. The invitation still stands but I am not sure, quite frankly, how much progress we have made.