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According to American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, a key difference between liars and bullshitters is that the former tend to accept that they are not telling the truth, while the latter simply do not care whether something is true or not.
Bullshitters strive to maximize personal gain through a continuing distortion of reality. If something is true and can be manipulated to achieve their selfish objectives, then good. If something is not true, who cares? All the same. These attributes make bullshitting worse than lying.
Furthermore, according to Frankfurt, it is the bullshitter’s capacity to get away with bullshitting so easily that makes them particularly dangerous. Individuals in prominent positions of authority may be punished for lying, especially if lying has serious damaging consequences. Professional and casual bullshitters at all levels of influence typically operate with freedom. Regardless of their roles in society, their exposure is not necessarily accompanied by negative legal or intellectual consequences, at least for the bullshitter.
Instances of bullshitting are found on a daily basis across public and more private domains. It is not only the politician or marketing campaigner who can put a big smile in front of a bigger pile of bullshit. They also include the masters of fear mongering, the attention seekers and the deniers of scientific facts.
Science, the natural ground for combatting non-sense, also hosts and even promotes a good deal of bullshitting. This is done when scientists and entrepreneurs put “great stories” above strong empirical evidence, marketing above demonstrable expertise, and soundbites above critical discourse. Scientists also become bullshitters, or at least facilitate bullshitting, by over-hyping their findings in an attempt to make the news or demonstrate to politicians the “impact” of their research. This in turn can be abused by other bullshitters in their quest to favor particular political or economic agendas.
Researchers may also be guilty of bullshitting by omission. This is the case when they do not openly challenge bullshitting positions, either in the public or academic settings. Scientists frequently wrongly assume that the public always has knowledge of well-established scientific facts. Moreover, scientists sometimes over-estimate the moderating role of the media or their capacity to differentiate facts from falsehood, and solid from weaker evidence.
Bullshitting happens. But very often it is a byproduct of indifference. Indifference frequently masking a fear of appearing confrontational to peers and funders. Depending on where you are or with whom you work, frontal bullshit fighting may not be good for career advancement.
In a world with an imperfect scientific peer review system and increasing market-oriented pressures, there are few options but to continue fighting bullshit. Scientists and informed citizens cannot just simply ignore it. They can also help to identify and expose it for what it is. Bullshit!
Bullshit fighting must be accompanied by a more active involvement in day-to-day discussions of science and technology, in and beyond classrooms and laboratories. Above of all, this means not accepting that bullshit should become the norm in our lives, rather than the exception. As H. Frankfurt put it, bullshit is an insulting substitute for the truth. Thus, we need to reject it wherever we find it. It is both the right and intelligent thing to do if we care about reality.
This article is also available at Medium.