Bullshit

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The truth matters. At the time of recording The Magic of Social Life, assertions of voter fraud in the US or misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic were widely aired in the media. What is believed about who is spreading lies and who is telling the truth can be of considerable importance for trust in democracy and science.

But the truth does not always matter. At least, it does not matter for some people in certain situations. As well, its relevance can be weighed up against other considerations. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, for instance, has sought to theorize the notion of bullshit. As he stated in his book On 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 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 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 up, to suit his purposes.

Bullshit then entails a setting aside of truth and falsity. Communication is not to be evaluated for its truth content, but instead for its performance value.

How much bullshitting is around today? It could be regarded as a term only relevant for certain dubious individuals. When someone wants to amuse others, collect votes or bolster their ego, they can spin a yarn.

As considered in this video with students at the University of Exeter, however, bullshit can be understood as much more pervasive. Sociologist and social psychologists have long been interested in the tactful words, discretion, and other ways of maintaining polite fictions are commonplace in social interactions. As in common responses to the everyday greeting ‘How are you?’, setting aside concerns for the truth can be one way of promote harmonious relations. In general, getting along with others often entails a give-and-take in which we put many of our inner thoughts to the side in favour of making everyday life go smoothly. That can entail overlooking the dubious claims made by others, pretending somethings did not happen, and remaining silent when wishing to speak.

As the sociologist Joshua Wakeham contends, rather than bullshit being the product of certain personality deficiencies, it ‘emerges from a fundamental tension between our individual pragmatic need to have true beliefs and our social pragmatic need to cooperate with others. What we know about the world comes largely from social sources—that is, through either direct or mediated interaction with others. This means that we are inherently vulnerable to deception and incompetence.’ Stated differently, because we cannot question all of the many, many things we get told from other people, and because we often seek to get along with them, the truth or falsity of what is said can often be set aside.

Notes: The effect featured in this clip is called ‘Out of this World’ (from Ryan Schlutz’ Super Strong, Super Simple). It is one version of the many, many versions of this trick.

Bullshit

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