Monday, September 16, 2013

Facts Don’t Matter, Or: The Art of BS

On numerous occasions in the very political world of academic bureaucracy I have been known to express dismay over less than accurate statements made by my colleagues. On almost just as many occasions one colleague and dear friend has promptly looked me straight in the eye and said, “Facts don’t matter!”

The word “politics,” when used in “academic politics” or “company politics” or the real-thing “political politics,” means maneuvering for advantage without regard for merit or ability. It means one-upping others through connections or favors to get what the politician wants. It means acquiring unearned power over others.* With merit or ability removed from the equation, it means that facts don’t matter.


Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt has analyzed this phenomenon in his little book (originally a long article) On Bullshit. BS’ing, says Frankfurt, is not the same as lying, because the liar is concerned with facts, or truth, in order to state the opposite. But the BS’er is focused on what sounds or looks good. Facts are irrelevant. BS’d statements may be true, but they don’t have to be.

“I got four job offers,” a BS’er might say. “No you didn’t,” a fact-oriented bubble-burster might reply. “You went to four interviews and got one offer.” Saying I got four job offers, though, sounds better than admitting to only one.

“The X (famous) Rock Band played at that historic venue.” Huh? Do you know that for sure? “Well, not really, but they probably did.” In the absence of anything else to say, it apparently sounds better to a BS’er to make that grand statement.

Insincere? Dishonest? Maybe, maybe not. Lying and BS’ing can be thought of as existing on opposite ends of a continuum. Lying, as Frankfurt puts it, is a craft, a skill at telling non-truths, whereas BS’ing is an art. The BS’er is creative and puts on a show.

Somewhere in between the two poles lies that gray area where even the speaker may not know whether he or she is speaking contrary to fact or exaggerating for effect.

Psychologies are complex and a further complicating factor is the continuum between deliberateness and carelessness. One can lie or BS by design, with forethought, or out of ignorance or habit. Forgetting is a common cause of misleading statements, as is insecurity that sometimes calls for bravado to help reduce anxiety.

But we tend most often to speak the way our mental habits developed in childhood. A family culture that lies or hyperbolizes frequently is going to produce adults who lie or hyperbolize.

BS’ing, as a result, may end up being one’s habitual way of talking. That is unfortunate. Normal people rely on the truth of what liars and BS’ers say. As outside observers they cannot tell whether the liar/BS’er is being deliberate or careless.

“Yeah, our flights to Hawaii only cost $200!” Each way or round trip? It doesn’t matter. A thorough search of Hawaii airfares reveals nothing close to that number. The consequence of BS’ing is its effect on listeners who know the facts, or who can readily find them. Trust and respect go out the window. Disappointment sets in.

When the BS’ing, or worse, moves into the work, academic, or political worlds, the stage is set for partisan maneuvering. “Spin” in governmental politics was coined originally to mean positioning for politicians. Today it means fabrication.

Facts matter. Sticking to the facts is the essence of objectivity. Everyday life, whether in school, business, or government, is not an exercise in creating fiction. It is nonfiction.

If you are not sure whether a certain rock band performed in a certain venue, it would be more objective to say, “They may have (or likely) played there, but I am not sure.”

A serious BS’er, however, unfortunately, would not make those qualifications. Saying “I’m not sure” reduces one-upmanship over others. It takes away the BS’er’s power and power is what politics is all about.



*Political junkies may now complain that I am being unfair to those sincere, conscientious politicians working in our government-by-lobby mixed economy. Even if there is such a thing as a sincere politician, “government-by-lobby mixed economy” is the problem and cause of what I am talking about. The mixed economy with its countless laws, many of them contradictory and non-objective, is what gives rise to the rent-seeking, one-upmanship behavior that pervades our society. A “zero sum” assumption, means someone suffers if I gain. Well, then, I’d better get mine before those others get theirs. That’s politics.


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