An Essay on Bullshit: Are There Different Types of Bullshit?
The goal of this page is to explore the concept of BS philosophically and academically, and to see if we can prove (or disprove) that there are different types of BS.
There is no one way to define BS, but an excellent source for understanding the concept of BS is Harry G. Frankfurt.
We will use Frankfurt’s viewpoints as a starting point, and we will consider the difference between different types of theories and statements from the concept of rhetoric (discussed since Aristotle’s time), to the semantic nature of language, to scientific theory, to the nature or probability and odds when applied to truth.
We will also look at recent claims made about Deepak Chopra’s “pseudo-profound BS” to try to get a better understanding of what exactly constitutes BS and what separates it from philosophies like metaphysics. Then, after exploring some examples we will try to define the different types of BS. The topic is semantic and epistemological by nature, so comments and insights are welcome and encouraged below.
With the above in mind, let’s let George Carlin give us a humorous overview of the topic of BS to takes some power away from the taboo before we get academic.
Bullsh***t is everywhere. Not safe for work, although that is BS.
FACT: George Carlin says “everyone is full of sh**t.” From this point of view, we can see how the less virtuous get away with more. They are not expected to be good, so when they are finally decent humans in any respect we praise them. This is a type of BS; by this usage, we mean that it is unfair, false, or pretending to be absolute when it really is not.
TIP: BS has been studied since the time of Aristotle. One of Aristotle’s key contributions to philosophy is a book called “Rhetoric“. Rhetoric by nature is a form of BS, but is all rhetoric created equal? Does intention matter? Are there different forms? These are the questions we seek to answer. Buy the book: Rhetoric (Affiliate link).
What is Bulls**it?
On some level BS is anything less than the straightforward truth. Marketing, political propaganda, PR, a motivational tweet, fudging the number to get your study published, building a theory around a lack-luster scientific hypothesis, telling a tall tale, or even making your weekend sound a little cooler than it was, are all types of BS.
With that in mind, BS is best arguably best described a process rather than a product. It is a sort of rhetoric and propaganda with the goal of influence, typically spiked with emotion and semantics (rather than emotionless fact). We can define BS as the delivery of lies, half-truths, and truths, but it is not the lies, truths, and half-truths themselves that define the form.
A master of BS sees truth and lies as a technology with which to weave their story; the tools are not themselves the BS. Thus, we could say bull depends perhaps most on the honesty of delivery, intention, and delivery method. None of these things alone correctly describes BS as a concept. We may feel we know bull when we hear it, but a simple definition is elusive.
Harry Frankfurt ‘On bulls**t ‘.
FACT: Frankfurt presents an open question in the video, “why do we punish liars as a society, but praise bulls**tters?” I say it is because BS is rule-bending and lying is cheating; respecting rule bending and rejecting lying is a very human trait. What do you think?
TIP: You can present bull as fact, as propaganda, or as incidental information. You can be fudging the numbers (like P-value) for a peer-reviewed journal, or can be an over-dumbing a complex topic with the goal of manipulation and influence. So much of BS is about intent, delivery, and process toward a desired result.
According to Frankfurt, BS is similar to a lie, but not the same thing. It can be used as a noun or verb such as in the question, “are you bulls**itting me?”. Semantical ways to use the term BS aside,Frankfurt’s overarching point can perhaps be summed up as, “BS is a dishonest form of influence and communication that is distinct from lying”.
Frankfurt said this in respect to bulls**iting versus lying:
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bull requires no such conviction. A person who lies is responding to the truth, and he is, to that extent, respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says what he believes to be true. For the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bull master, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and 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
TIP: Bull can be a replacement for annoying. As in, “Ugh, I dropped my chocolate soft serve; that is bull”.
FACT: According to Wikipedia: “Bull”, meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century. The term “bulls**t ” has been used as early as 1915 in American slang, and came into widespread usage only during World War II, when people said things like, “Damn dude, this Hitler guys is Bulls**t.” NOTE: That last part was BS.
Pondering the Types of BS
Frankfurt gives us a broad overview of BS, and we can generally agree with the concept, but this now leads us to the real question. Is all BS created equal?
Is prime time Fox News BS (or NBC for that matter)? Is Trump’s wall bull or Hillary’s emails? Is everything Deepak Chopra says on Twitter BS? Was the old man in Jack and the Beanstalk full of bull? Is my Bachelor of Science in Advertising BS? Was the related student loan BS? Was the interest on the loan BS? Does my academic experience even qualify me to explain the levels of bull? Will my input be inherently BS? Does it depend on your frame of reference as a reader?
To answer all those as mentioned above yes, we have to define the levels of bulls**t. So lets look at a couple of examples of different BS types in depth.
bullship mountain – O’Reilly vs. John Stewart. In politics, both sides think the other is full of BS, to what extent is perception reality?
The Beanstalk Example – Magic Bean Bulls**t
If we take the story of Jack and Beanstalk at face value, then Jack isn’t completely bullsh**t’ed by the old man who sells him magic beans. The stalk grows; Jack climbs it. The beans ended up being magic. It seemed like BS and Jack wasn’t told “the whole truth”, yet the beans ended up being magic. This is a different outcome than if the beans didn’t work, or if the old man was 100% truthful (he lied by omission). What type of BS was this, was it BS at all?
If You like Your Plan you Can Keep it – Political Talking Point Bulls**t
Obama once said of the ACA, “if you like your plan, you can keep it“. Telling people they could keep their health insurance plans was arguably lying by omission and was panned as BS. The truth was, “if you like your plan, you can keep it assuming it meets the requirements of the ACA, which many plans won’t. Also, millions of plans will be pulled by insurers for profit as the market now has to cover more benefits and sick people so that we will see plan drops and price increases, but in the long term tens of millions will get coverage, and the rest of health reform is meaningful.” The truth wasn’t talking point size. It was too complex and had too many conditions for public presentation, but the short-hand version was arguably BS. What type of BS is this, what should have been done instead?
Deepak Chopra “Pseudo-profound” BS Example – Bulls**t, Inspiration, or Self-Help?
If something sounds profound, but isn’t, it is probably a type of BS. This kind of BS is called “pseudo-profound BS” (it sounds profound but actually is meaningless). For example, Deepak Chopra recently tweeted, “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” On the surface, we feel a “profound” statement like this is BS, but is it?
As it turns out, the quote, like much of what Chopra says, isn’t exactly wrong. Rather, it expresses his understanding of eastern spiritual philosophy and western science in an extremely simplistic way.
We don’t get to call people’s spiritual beliefs “BS”, that isn’t how it works. We do however get to call BS when metaphysics like this is presented as science (another name for this is pseudo-science).
The problem isn’t the core of Chopra’s statement; it is the way in which he presents it with flowery language, no detail, and no supporting facts. When this sort of thing is presented to a mass audience, the chances of people being mislead is high. This can be frustrating to those who dedicate their lives to experiment-based science, but we have to be careful not to turn the frustration into unwarranted criticism.
To illustrate why Chopra isn’t “wrong”, I’ll expand on what Chopra was saying in entry level pop-science terms. Due to neuroplasticity (a term meaning learning and memory), when we focus our attention on something we “train” our brain to be aware of that subject. This makes us more likely to notice and act on it in our every day lives. We explain this in depth on our page on the Law of Attraction where we take an academic look this concept.
Honestly, explaining deep concepts like this are difficult in a paragraph or even a page… let alone a motivational tweet. It isn’t always a matter of intending to BS when it comes to explaining the complex; it is more a matter of word fluency, semantics, reference frame, and knowledge of peer-reviewed studies and related academics… and of course honesty with one’s audience.
And to me, this is what does make some Chopra “pseudo-profound BS” and pseudoscience. It isn’t the content, it is the delivering of metaphysics in a way that is being misinterpreted as science. This is a more subtle type of BS.
With this in mind, I invite you to watch Chopra in his element explain his point of view with more than 156 characters.
Ancient Wisdom in Modern Times – Deepak Chopra and Sadhguru, moderated by Ms. Chandrika Tandon. They point out that which Socrates did, “all we know is that we know nothing”. Is a spiritual perspective BS, is a philosophical one, or is true BS thinking those views don’t matter?
TIP: See the study that aimed to explore the pseudo-profound. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t. The study looks at why some people are more willing to accept profound nonsense as fact.
The Witch Hunt of the Overly Academic
With Chopra in mind, we have to be careful about how we criticize spiritual and philosophical ideas. One can’t actually speak about the unknown without speaking from a metaphysical or philosophical standpoint. Western science is powerful, but so are spiritual ideas, philosophies, science fiction, the placebo effect, poetry, self-help, and the unknown.
I’m not going to try to build a bridge with Chopra logic, but I might apply it when considering the psychology behind the bridge’s design or marketing. Or I might apply spiritual principles when considering if I should cut costs by cutting employee wages. Sure I can apply social science, but I think we head the wrong direction when we say that anything that isn’t western science or “high brow” is BS.
Isn’t “everything is energy, dude” close enough to “the mass of a body is a measure of its energy content” for someone with no formal education? Isn’t “Consciousness plays with electromagnetic energy & experiences itself as the universe” the same as pondering “if everything is star stuff, and that is made out of mass-energy, and that is pretty much electromagnetic energy, then aren’t we just electromagnetic energy experiencing itself”?
Anyway, enough questions and examples. Let’s break down the different types of BS.
Different Types of BS
Since BS comprises much of our communication, let us break down the different types and levels of BS as eluded to above.
Types of BS
In sum, types of BS could include things like:
- Pseudo-profound BS including that which presents religion and philosophy as fact.
- Annoying things.
- Something that is unfair.
- Junk science.
- Pseudo science and metaphysics presented as truth.
- Advertising, marketing, PR, and propaganda.
- Political Speeches and other motivational speech.
- Self-help and other motivational work.
- Reporting that isn’t completely honest (most news media, blogs, and print).
- Peer-reviewed studies that aren’t completely honest or have small sample sizes.
- Ignoring someone else’s views because they don’t fit your world view (being small-minded).
- Talking about anything that is conceptual that we can’t prove via math or peer-reviewed study.
- Things we can prove with math, but have a psychological or spiritual factor we ignore.
- Being too quick to embrace worldview because they sound profound (being too open minded).
- And all forms of communication aimed at influence containing truths, lies, and half-truths.
Intent might not be the only factor in BS, but it seems to be the major factor in type. We can point out instances where one of the above isn’t BS, but in almost every case it requires the presenter being honest about what they are presenting. In simple terms, unless one takes high regard for the facts and checks their bias, chances are they are on some level spreading BS. With this in mind, let us look at the levels of BS.
Degrees of BS, that Not All BS is Created Equal
There is no agreed on types of BS, and we’ve already expressed ways in which BS is used. With this in mind, here is a loose list of the levels of Bulls**t (with examples):
- Lying without knowing you are lying. Sociopaths and con men.
- Half-truths without realizing you are half-truth-ing. Everyone almost always. Most people try to be honest, speak with emotion, and don’t have “all the facts” about things they speak about.
- Half-truths knowing you are lying. Everything that is wrong with advertising and the media as expressed in the Carlin video above.
- Half-truths believing that you are telling the whole truth. Most commenters, politicians, bloggers, and Media.
- Presenting whole truths in a dishonest way. Politicians and Media on a good day. Someone who tries to sound profound as a manipulation tactic.
- Presenting whole truths in an honest, but shorthand way. Scientific American, Al Jazeera, and PBS. Politicians, Deepak Chopra, and Media on a really good day.
- Presenting whole truths in an honest and complete way. The best of peer-reviewed journals when paired with the best of researchers. A college lecture on a technical subject.
- Presenting whole truths in technical detail are trying to eliminate all aspects of bias and emotion. Technical Manuals for high-level Military operations. CSPAN.
TIP: Deepak Chopra’s bulls**t isn’t the same as Karl Rove’s bulls**t, political science is different than marketing, and marketing is different than PR, and PR is different than propaganda. On one level its all the same BS, but to ignore the gradients is to only get part of the picture.
“Abundance is the natural state of the universe. Human beings have developed a certain idea of abundance that is contrary to the abundance in nature. This idea is often represented by money, and moving towards having a wealthy state of mind rather than a materialistic state of mind is the key to happiness.” – Deepak Chopra (at least his BS is positive, and generally indirectly backed by science).
“As people do better, they start voting like Republicans – unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.” – Karl Rove (at least his BS is funny in a painfully real way).
“Great liars are also great magicians.” – Hitler (Hitler on BS, quoting Hitler is BS, Hitler being right in this case is BS, Hitler was BS… there are many different types of BS).