On Bullshit

My five-year-old son and I have recently been discussing knowledge versus opinions. It all started when -out of nowhere- he began encouraging me to speculate on things about which I had zero knowledge. Questions like:

Are there other planets which are EXACTLY like ours?

Do people live on them?                                               

What would happen if a tarantula was chasing you and wasn’t afraid of you, and even after you climbed up on a chair it still followed you?

Could it jump on you, or does it need to walk?

What would happen if monsters were real?

What do you think is the best baseball team?

Kids are really good at this, right? I do love his curiosity!

Basically, it seemed like his effort was directly related at stumping me. And when he did, I would reply with “I don’t know, honey.” To which he would quip “but what do you THINK, mom?”

He was not satisfied with hearing “I don’t know” multiple times, and I found myself explaining that I wasn’t comfortable speculating on matters about which I had little to no information. And I experienced a sense of déjà vu.

I have been in this space before, and not received well.

It’s all too common in our world today to have opinions on matters about which we know little or nothing. And it’s understandable, right? I mean, if all of your friends are sitting around discussing events the latest events in Dubrovnik and you have no clue where that even is or what they’re talking about, it can feel uncomfortable or unusual (especially if you’re a talker) to sit that conversation out, or worse, admit that you have no clue what they’re talking about. And ask questions.

Now, before I go on, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about EVERYONE. I also know a handful of very curious people who have no problem at all with asking questions. Indeed we can frame our ignorance in one of two ways: one; we can feel bad or dumb and attempt to cover it up or defend ourselves by acting like we know what’s up, steering the conversation to safer waters (for us) or dismissing the subject matter as not worth knowing, or two; we can see areas of ignorance as exciting opportunities to learn something new, admit our lack of knowledge and ask questions in order to gain insight and information.

What an exciting world it is to live in when we can be curious!

But back to the matter of my son.

After several iterations of his requesting that I speculate, I clearly explained that I don’t make a habit of expressing opinions on matters about which I am ill-informed. And he’s taking to saying “when you ask mom a question, mom doesn’t THINK, she only KNOWS.” Which feels kind of weird, but also kind of funny.

And it reminded me of this remarkable little book called On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt.

Prior to reading it, I had not given much thought to the topic of bullshit, and it was fascinating to see the author puzzle through many pages of writing in search of a definition. He compares it to humbug, to lying, to the production of shoddy goods, and examines elements both of result and intent.

Frankfurt goes through an example wherein a woman tells a friend that she feels “like a dog who was run over” after having her tonsils out. Frankfurt muses that the friend, who apparently considers this statement to be bullshit, must consider it so due to it’s being “…unconnected to a concern with the truth.” In other words, she could never actually know what it feels like to be a dog that was run over. And while Frankfurt notes that in a situation like that, where the woman was likely just trying to “appear vivacious or good-humored,” her friend’s reaction in deeming it bullshit could seem “absurdly intolerant.”


And yet there’s something there. Something which resonated with me.

How often do we say things with careless disregard for the truth? I’m not concerned with statements about feeling like a dog who’s been run over. Feel what you feel, and describe it how you please, as far as I’m concerned. Yet what about other areas of discourse?

Frankfurt continues his investigation into the roots of bullshit through exploration of the concept of a “bull session.” He describes this as an environment in which a group of men participate in a discussion which is “in a certain respect not ‘for real.”

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life- for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say; it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.

So, perhaps my son is looking to hold a bull session with me.

Going further, Frankfurt notes that the Oxford English Dictionary defines “bull” as “trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense” and he argues that the words trivial and nonsense are too vague and not really applicable (one can, after all, talk bull regarding things which matter greatly, and also do so coherently, as those of us who have watched television news understand from many a spin doctor of our time.) So Frankfurt moves toward the words “insincere” and “untruthful” in his quest to sharpen our image of bullshit.

Next comes “an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit” in the term hot air. Frankfurt notes that “just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed.”


Frankfurt spends considerable effort in contrasting bullshit with lying, ultimately concluding that bullshit is not really like lying, because it’s more phony than false. And whereas lying requires an understanding of what the truth actually IS (and thereby opposing it) bullshit has no relationship to the truth whatsoever. Bullshit may be accurate or may be not – and whether it is or it isn’t is of no concern to the bullshitter.

So what difference does any of this make?

Frankfurt asks the question “why is there so much bullshit?”

Of course it must be said that there has been no historic tracker of bullshit (that we know of) so the assumption that there is more today than at some point in the past could very well itself be bullshit. We don’t really know. So why do we THINK (to use my kid’s word) there is so much bullshit in today’s world?

Frankfurt has some ideas:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled- whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others- to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.” (emphasis added by me)


That hit home.

So many of us have the belief that we should be able to speak to a variety of things, even when we have little to no (or incorrect) information about the matter. I saw this all the time when I worked in local government. Inside the State House of Representatives, I saw specifically what was being worked on by elected officials and a bevy of staff, yet outside of that environment I would find myself occasionally lectured by random individuals as to what they perceived to be happening in our state government, even as they were patently incorrect.

This is bullshit.

Why do we do this? I am certainly not innocent. I’ve caught myself defaulting to bullshit more times than I can count over the years. Clearly, none of us want to look stupid, so that’s a motivator to bullshit.

But why are we so afraid to look stupid?

Is one stupid of one doesn’t know about EVERY SINGLE THING that’s going on in our world? If we look around at people who are highly accomplished, most of them are very specialized. The concert violinist may well spend so much time practicing that she doesn’t watch the news (and bless her heart for that) and so she has nothing to add to the conversation about who won the basketball game or who’s donating money to rebuild the Notre Dame.

And the star litigator for (insert fanciest law firm in town) likely spends much of her time honing her craft, and the balance of her time reading books and eating home-delivered meals, so is she stupid if she can’t speak to the latest developments in the culinary world, and doesn’t even know what Horchata is?

We don’t need to have opinions on everything. We don’t need to say what we THINK when the reality is that we have no clue.

In the end, bullshit helps no one.


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