BULLSHIT, LIES & errors
The internet promises the rebirth of the Republic of Letters (circa 18th century) which comprises critically minded people from diverse linguistic, religious and national backgrounds who are bonded by open inquiry and the common quest for truth. But the sad reality is that the anonymity allowed in internet discussion platforms provides a perfect cover for some intellectual juveniles seeking to misrepresent and abuse truth and thereby derail conversations that would otherwise lead to discovery of common truth. Indeed, in place of truth we find ample evidence of errors, lies and even bullshit all over the internet.
It is appropriate first to point out the difference between errors, lies and bullshit.
Error: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes an error as a mistaken belief or opinion; something done incorrectly because of ignorance or inadvertence; a mistake.
Lie: An intentional false statement, something that deceives; an imposture.
Bull(shit): Trivial, insincere or worthless talk or writing; nonsense. The OED puts the entry as ‘bull’ with a side note on ‘bullshit’ as a slang.
Note that the definition of ‘error’ in the OED merely states the fact of a mistaken belief or opinion. It just happens to be a case of deficiency, whether arising from ignorance or inadvertence. There is no necessary moral judgment against the one who commits an error.
In contrast to benign tolerance of error, most people would immediately censure a lie because there is an intention to deceive.
But, how should we react to bullshit? Well, we know what to do with rubbish. We simply have to get rid of it. From the intellectual perspective, bullshit, like excrement, can only bring decay and disease. We take it seriously only to the extent we need to toss out or bury it the soonest possible.
This is the first time I ever write the word ‘bullshit’ and I don’t remember ever uttering the word in my normal conversation. However, it should be emphasized that my recommendation to toss out bullshit goes beyond subjective revulsion. When we reject bullshit we are defending the sanctity of truth from defilement. Let me elaborate.
Harry Frankfurt in his famous article, “On Bullshit” observes that telling a lie involves a deliberate insertion of falsehood into a belief system in order to avoid taking the consequences arising from acknowledging openly the facts of the case. But the deliberate opposition to truth entails a covert affirmation to truth. The liar cannot escape truth since the lie he fabricates itself is influenced by an undeniable awareness of that truth.
In contrast, the person who talks bullshit is not limited by the concern for truth or falsehood. The bullshitter is not interested in communicating truth (or lies) per se, even though he wants us to believe he is a serious purveyor of truth. Indeed, the bullshitter will resort to whatever means to present a faked image of himself as a man who honors truth. He is an impostor more interested in derailing any discussion than contributing positively to the knowledge enterprise. He is secretly delighted when he succeeds in exasperating people and distracting them from focusing on the really important questions of truth.
Put in graphic terms, the bullshitter does not play by the rules of the game. He simply launches one volley of curve balls after another at the other player. The bullshitter enjoys the spectacle of a frantic player in his futile attempts to hit all the balls. In any case, the bullshitter is not interested in returning any ball that is successfully hit back. All he does is to launch another volley of balls to frustrate the genuine player.
We should never pander to the mischief (epistemological maliciousness) of the intellectually pathological bullshitter. Frankfurt explains,
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he consider his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true not on the side of the false. His eyes 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.
Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully.
The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and opposes himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
The person in error is easily corrected by proper teaching. The liar can be exposed by presenting the fuller truth. But there is simply no treatment available to restore intellectual health to the bullshitter. That being the case, the proper response to the rubbish comments offered by the bullshitter is to press the button DELETE.
Acknowledgment to Harry G. Frankfurt modern classic philosophical essay, “On Bullshit,” The Importance of What We Care About (CUP 1988).