He Wrote the Book on ‘B.S.’

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By: Barbara Bedway

Surely there’s no dearth of reporters who feel qualified to write a book about bullshit ? a sort of occupational hazard in the journalism profession. But a recently published and now very popular book on that subject was written not by a journalist but by a philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton.

Harry G. Frankfurt, now 75, wrote the 80-page essay almost 20 years ago while teaching at Yale. It eventually appeared in the literary journal Raritan Review and in a collection of his essays, The Importance of What We Care About, before being published as a stand-alone volume by the Princeton University Press this year. Getting right to the point, it is titled On Bullshit ? and has drawn wide attention, including a feature piece in The New York Times and an appearance by the author on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in March.

In the book, Frankfurt calls b.s. “one of the most salient features of our culture” and goes on to explore what it is, how it differs from lying, and why it is an insidious threat to civilization. Editors and reporters will likely recognize their current challenges in the changed cultural landscape he describes.

“I’ve observed a lack of respect in general toward the truth,” he said, explaining how he came to write the essay. “Erosion of our respect for the truth is a real threat to fundamental values of civilization.” He regards b.s. as a deformity of truth, and says of those oft-quoted newsmakers and sources who produce it: “Unlike a liar, who knows the truth and wants to keep people away from it, the bullshitter exhibits a complete lack of concern in differentiating between truth and falsehood. What matters to the bullshitter is, will it further my aims?”

As Frankfurt writes in his book, “It’s impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” This lack of concern for the truth ? which even the liar must exhibit in order to lie ? is what makes b.s. a greater enemy of the truth than lies, he believes.

In this environment, how does Professor Frankfurt think the press is performing its role as bullshit detectors and purveyors of fact? “I’m not in a position to check on a lot of papers,” he replied, “but I think the great papers do try, and take their responsibility very seriously. Whether they carry it out effectively is something else. In times of serious concern, where stakes are very large ? such as in war and economic difficulties and civic disorder ? it’s very difficult to keep a level head. Newspaper people are subject to the same anxieties as the rest of us, though they’re trained to get at the facts.”

Nevertheless, Frankfurt, who reads the New York Times daily online, believes “newspapers do a better job than other media. You can read the news columns with a fairly reliable confidence that what you’re reading is what that person who wrote it believes to be factually based, and not full of spin.” On the other hand, he finds the editorial pages to be fairly rife with b.s.

Frankfurt points out that the very proliferation of media outlets, especially electronic media (not to mention blogs), have increased the opportunities for b.s. to prevail: “The problem with media, especially electronic media, is that they have to keep talking all the time. It’s impossible to be strictly attentive to the relevance of whether what you say is true or false, regardless of whether you know what you’re talking about. Insofar as the media is put in a position to keep talking, it’s bound to loosen whatever concern they might otherwise have to stick closely to the truth.”

Although Frankfurt purposefully did not address specific uses and misuses of bullshit in his book, he did cite for E&P what he considers a recent example: the claim by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. “That kind of b.s.,” Frankfurt observed, “furthers an agenda, that we don’t need to take any measures against what produces global warming.”

As for the U.S. claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq as justification for the 2003 invasion, he reflected that “my view is that we were given an incomplete account of what was motivating the government, and what we were told diverted our attention from asking questions about the real motivation. The whole presentation of the reasons for going to war was disingenuous. “That’s what makes it seem like bullshit.”

Frankfurt’s elegantly argued volume contains at its core a disturbing implication for a democracy founded on an informed public, and for the people who do the informing. A culture so lacking in concern for the truth?an environment where even the most basic facts are contested or rendered meaningless by separate blue state and red state versions?is in danger of rejecting “the possibility of knowing how things truly are … even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.”

It’s a dark picture, Frankfurt admitted: “There’s a kind of paradox in the whole idea of democracy, based on the assumption that people can be well informed and can make serious judgments. But along with that assumption goes the vulnerability of the public to be manipulated by those who are in control of media and public opinion. It’s a struggle and a battle, and I don’t think it’s fair to suppose we’re winning that battle.”

But in the battle for clarity of thought and reason, Professor Frankfurt will try to persevere. He has been collecting data and examples for a sequel, focusing on another one of the “deformities of truth” ? spin. “Spin is a curious hybrid,” Frankfurt declared. “The spinner has to have something to spin, so in a way he’s closer to the truth than a bullshitter.”

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