3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on the Science of Calling Bullshit
Bullshit Defined, Bullshit Jobs & the Bullshit Blindspot
I. Bullshit Defined
The scientific study of BS was famously trailblazed by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. Here’s the researcher making the distinction between a truthful person, a liar and a bullshitter:
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
II. Bullshit Jobs
In 2013, David Graeber published his “work rant” on the prevalence of pointless professions. The late anthropologist turned his infamous essay into a book. He defines 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.
—David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs
Graeber identified five types of useless positions, as described by The New Yorker contributor Nathan Heller:
“Flunkies,” he says, are those paid to hang around and make their superiors feel important: doormen, useless assistants, receptionists with silent phones, and so on. “Goons” are gratuitous or arms-race muscle; Graeber points to Oxford University’s P.R. staff, whose task appears to be to convince the public that Oxford is a good school. “Duct tapers” are hired to patch or bridge major flaws that their bosses are too lazy or inept to fix systemically. (This is the woman at the airline desk whose duty is to assuage angry passengers when bags don’t arrive.) “Box tickers” go through various motions, often using paperwork or serious-looking reports, to suggest that things are happening when things aren’t. […] Last are “taskmasters,” divided into two subtypes: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others.
—Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, The Bullshit-Job Boom
In case you’re interested, I’ve tried to solve David’s conundrum with Daniel C. Dennett’s Chmess.
III. The Bullshit Blindspot
In a more recent effort to understand BS, psychologists Shane Littrell and Jonathan Fugelsang looked into bullshit detection. In their paper, they suggested that there are mechanisms at play akin to the Dunning-Kruger Effect:
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, A Bullshit Blind Spot?
Have a great week,