On Bullshit: The essay that explains the era of Fake News

In 2005 a Princeton professor Harry Frankfurter published On Bullshit, a short essay originally written way back in 1985. Twelve years later, it has become more relevant than ever.

Thomas Coombes
Mar 3, 2017 · 7 min read
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The essay offers useful perspective in an era where writing fake news has become a lucrative business (especially in Montenegro, apparently), where avoiding facts and embracing vague rhetoric is a recipe for success, and the editor of the Wall Street Journal says it is not his paper’s job to call a politician out for lying.

Here is how essay the essay helps us identify when and why politicians and fake news are selling us bullshit.

“A theoretical understanding of bullshit”

The first thing Frankfurter wanted us to understand was that lies and bullshit are not the same thing. Lies are based on truth, but not bullshit.

“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 bets are off. …

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 truth than lies are.

Lies are craft, bullshit is art

A lie, Frankfurter says, is “an act of sharp focus” that requires “a degree of craftsmanship”. Crucially, the liar must have a sense of what is true:

“He must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”

Lies misrepresent the “state of affairs” or the speaker’s own beliefs — the facts or what he thinks of the facts. If making a lie is therefore a craft, bullshitting is an art.

The bullshit artist doesn’t care about the truth one way or another:

“His focus is panoramic…with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play…”

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The motives of bullshit

Unlike the liar “who promulgates a falsehood”, the bullshitter does not want to deceive anyone about the facts, “although it is produced without concern for the truth, it need not be false.” He does not care one way or another:

“What he cares about is what people think about him.”

In other words, the politician who wants a vote, or the fake news sites that just want a click.

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The root causes of bullshit

At the end of his short essay, Harry Frankfurter said that the rise of bullshit was a consequence of the modern age where people feel they are able to “have opinions about everything”, particularly politicians:

“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 exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

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This applies very much to politicians. I can relate to this as a former government speechwriter. Political speeches seek neither to lie, nor tell the truth; they talk up the organization’s policies, in impossibly grand terms.

So when a politician bullshits, give them some credit, it might be that their staff, not the politician, don’t know what they are talking about. It could also be the result of a text — a speech, a statement, a press release — that has been edited by dozens of people concerned less by any sense of “truth” and more by what people think of them and their organization. Politicians are also heavily media trained to “bridge” or “pivot” back to these main messages no matter what they are asked about.

A great line in a Dorthe Nors short story sums this up nicely. She has a speechwriter in the Danish Foreign Ministry tire of telling “international lies” when puttting words in his boss’s mouth.

Bullshit and politics

You can prove a fact wrong. What do you do about bullshit, or fake news?

While the liar opposes truth, the bullshitter ignores it altogether, that is why,

“Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Because bullshit is harder to tie down than lies are:

“We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation of outrage that lies often inspire.”

Think of how you react to a fake news story or hear a politican talk nonsense — this rings true.

Sadly, Frankfurter leaves us without a solution, instead giving us a simple warning that bullshit tends to involve:

“a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require.”

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Clearly a program of bullshit is better suited to fake news or a politician than either lies or truth. You can’t get away with a lie when there is an army of fact-checkers waiting to uncover it. Whereas the bullshitter, or the fake news writer, can bullshit, and move on. Which could explain why politicians who bullshit seem to get away with scandals that would bury their traditional foes.

In a world where telling too many uncomfortable truths can end a politician’s career, what choice do they have but to seek a route that is neither truth nor lie?

As journalist Michael Kinsley said, a politician who inadvertantely exposes some deep truth in our society (whether it needs nuclear weapons, for example), will immediately be accused of a gaffe:

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

So bullshit is far safer terrain than facts.

Are we all to blame for bullshit?

What happens when you give up the ability to identify objective reality/truth/facts?

Frankfurter says you are left to choose between silence and bullshit:

“Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false”….if it makes no sense to be true to the facts, people will instead try to be true only to themselves.

These words could today be reinterpretated as a warning about social media…

Frankfurter wrote his essay in the 1980s, long before social media, but his warning about a world where we want to share our opinions about everything.

People who lose confidence in “correctness” instead pursue “sincerity”… “the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself”

Facebook anyone?

Today the internet allows people to make statements about things happening on the other side of the world, but based only on what they have seen on the screen. We feel empowered to make a judgement about what is going on, but really we are limited by whoever posted the information in the first place.

So the best advice he gives us today is never give up on the truth. the alternative is to turn inwards.

Further reading:

I have kept this article politically neutral, but you can read about the bullshit theory applied to modern day politics:

The fight back against fake news is on: check out the First Draft Network


Credit to my Dad, who discovered the book back in 2011, in the middle of a political rant about the powers that be co-opting good causes. It’s worth quoting him at length, since what are fathers for if not to quote at length:

“Regarding bullshit, I have just read Harry Frankfurter’s excellent little book on the subject (On Bullshit Princeton University Press 2005) which I found very revealing. I now realise that most public (and nearly all private) discourse these days, on analysis, turns out to be bullshit (i.e. self-promoting, pious verbiage barren of any substance or genuine concern with truth/falsity). So long as it makes a good story, it must be true ! (See also Wittgenstein.)”

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