“A little hyperbole never hurts. … People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.” —Donald J. Trump, The Art of the Deal
Give them the old Trump bullshit,” Donald Trump reportedly once told his architect. “Tell them it is going to be a million square feet, sixty-eight stories.” (“I don’t lie, Donald,” replied the architect.) From his earliest days, Trump has rarely cared much about whether what he was saying at any given moment was true. Frequently it isn’t.
Elon Musk is the richest man on planet Earth. He is also a complete bullshitter. He makes false claims about the cars he makes. He constantly promises that he is going to accomplish things that he never, in fact, accomplishes. In March 2020, he made the confident COVID-19 prediction that “based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.” After convincing cities around the country that his “Boring Company” was going to build tunnels that would alleviate traffic congestion for low, low prices, Musk’s company simply went silent after municipal governments asked it to follow through on its commitments.
Sam Bankman-Fried was cryptocurrency’s most respectable figure, a wunderkind billionaire who was sympathetically profiled across the press. Bankman-Fried was supposedly a deeply moral person who lived like an ascetic and had committed himself to the “Effective Altruism” movement, which aims to achieve maximal moral goodness through benevolent acts and philanthropy. But it turned out that Bankman-Fried had essentially gambled away customers’ deposits at his company, leaving the customers in the lurch and destroying Bankman-Fried’s fortune virtually overnight. He is now being prosecuted for fraud. Bankman-Fried admitted to Vox that when he had talked about ethical commitments he had been basically uttering “shibboleths” that he didn’t really believe in. “Man all the dumb shit I said,” he told the reporter, referring to his high-minded talk about the importance of integrity in business. Many of our era’s “most beloved people,” he said, “are basically shams.” Bankman-Fried’s selflessness was certainly a sham; it turned out that the supposedly self-denying ascetic lived in a $40 million Bahamian penthouse.
George Santos has been elected as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He has also falsely claimed that his mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks, that his employees died in the Pulse nightclub shooting, that he is Jewish, that he is half Black, that he once had a brain tumor, that he graduated from college, that he worked for Goldman Sachs, and that he owned various properties.1 The Republican Party hasn’t said much about any of this, perhaps because a party that recently gave us a Donald Trump presidency is in no position to take a firm stance against fabulists.
I am consistently aghast at the number of people who manage to be very successful in our society despite extreme levels of ignorance and/or dishonesty. Those who have read this magazine for a few years will know that I have ended up becoming a specialist in “debunking” bad arguments and exposing the mendaciousness of prominent public intellectuals, pundits, and politicians. This has proven a wearying task, because there is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of individuals who have both large platforms and ill-informed opinions.
Joe Rogan, the world’s most popular podcaster, who has accumulated a vast fortune and has a major deal with Spotify, limits his research to casual Googling, even though he speaks to millions of people on some of the most important topics facing humanity. As a result, listeners can come away with the impression that Atlantis was real, ivermectin can cure COVID-19, and aliens live among us. Ben Shapiro, who speaks confidently and quickly on subjects he has clearly never read a book on, was nevertheless dubbed “the cool kid’s philosopher” by the New York Times in 2018. Jordan Peterson, who writes impenetrable prose concealing fallacious arguments, sells millions of books and publishes in major newspapers.
It’s not just conservatives. In 2019, I was depressed to see Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke becoming the subject of affection among liberal Democrats, given that both men were plainly self-promoting strivers who had little real commitment to improving the lives of their fellow human beings. One only had to read Buttigieg’s memoir or the sympathetic media profile of O’Rourke in Vanity Fair to see that both were “empty suit” politicians who took political positions out of expedience rather than commitment.
Everywhere I look, I see bullshitters. Dr. Oz, a television doctor who recommends dubious treatments in flagrant violation of basic medical ethics, is one of the country’s most recognized health authorities, and 46 percent of Pennsylvania voters thought he should be their U.S. senator. Yuval Noah Harari, a bestselling historian and favorite author of Barack Obama, predicted an end to pandemics in 2017 and makes unsupported claims about scientific fields he doesn’t understand. Heck, Obama himself is a bullshitter, a man who manipulated people’s emotions with stirring messianic rhetoric about how his election would mean the oceans would stop rising and change would come to the land, then delivered eight years of milquetoast centrism. Obama not only continued the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but even his signature legislative accomplishment, the “Affordable Care Act,” was a giant lie that forced Americans to buy crappy financial products that shouldn’t exist in the first place (a.k.a. health insurance). Is healthcare affordable now? It sure isn’t.2
Even self-described “rationalists” who pride themselves on being able to cut through bad arguments and think logically, such as Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, are themselves just as bad as those they critique. Pinker, for instance, denounces mainstream environmentalists with the kind of hysterical hyperbole that he would condemn as emotional rhetoric if used by others, and Harris has boosted the racist pseudoscience of Charles Murray. Often those who critique left-wing “wokeness” do so in the name of reason and science, but are just as unfair and sloppy in their thinking as the “social justice warriors” supposedly are.
You can’t even trust that the “gold standard” of education will give you information of reliable accuracy. The online conservative video platform “PragerU” is not a real university, but Harvard is theoretically supposed to be one. Yet Harvard PhDs can be just as confident in ignorant opinions as any other blowhard. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal op-ed pages are regularly filled with poorly-reasoned rubbish, and I seem to spend half my time trying to expose the faulty logic of some of our most highly-credentialed and trusted sources.
When I say that “bullshitters” abound, what do I mean exactly? What quality unites Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Sam Bankman-Fried, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Dr. Oz, and Barack Obama? What does it mean to be a bullshitter?
The clearest philosophical exposition of a Theory of Bullshit was put forth by Harry Frankfurt in his short classic On Bullshit. Frankfurt argued that bullshit was different than lying, and in some ways worse. A liar knows what they are saying is false. A bullshitter doesn’t care whether it is true or false. The liar has not abandoned all understanding of truth, but they are deliberately trying to manipulate people into thinking things are otherwise than they actually are, whereas the bullshitter has simply stopped checking whether the statements they are making have any resemblance to reality:
“When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye 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.”
One reason we have so much bullshit, Frankfurt said, is that in public life, people find themselves in circumstances where they are called to express opinions on topics they don’t understand, and feel the need to muddle along by just coming up with some bullshit:
“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.”
Frankfurt’s work is amusing and useful, but I think it gets a few things wrong. For one, having now read the collected works of many hundreds of bullshitters, I don’t actually think Frankfurt’s distinction between the “honest man” and the “bullshitter” quite holds up. One thing I’ve concluded is that, on the whole, people truly believe their own bullshit. That is, they do care about “reality”; they just think their personal beliefs are an accurate description of it. (Steven Pinker, for example, has the utmost concern with rationality—his latest book is Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.) Professing reasonableness and actually being reasonable are totally different things, but many people I would place in the category of “bullshitters” are convinced that their every word is God’s own truth. They just haven’t checked whether that’s the case.
Trump is an interesting case. Many people call Donald Trump a serial liar, and it’s beyond dispute that much of what he says is factually false. (Trump himself admitted to the intentional use of “truthful hyperbole,” an oxymoron.) Frankfurt’s theory would tell us that it’s better to call Trump a bullshitter, since he simply doesn’t seem to care about truth or falsity one way or the other. He’s not a liar because he’s not even aware of the facts; he just says whatever he expects will get the desired response from his audience.
I think it’s absolutely the case that Trump doesn’t check whether what he’s saying is true, and thus is a classic case of the Frankfurtian bullshitter. But after many years of Trump-watching (and having written an entire book on Trump), I’ve become convinced that at any given moment, Trump completely believes the words that are coming out of his mouth to be true. He might contradict himself in five minutes. But at any given moment, Trump is certain he’s right. Nothing would get him to admit the slightest mistake. John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, has said that Trump “does not ever, ever, ever want to appear weak … or that he might have been wrong,” and won’t admit mistakes because “his manhood is at issue.”
The bullshitter is not just marked by a failure to test their opinions against the facts of the world. They are also characterized by having extreme confidence that they are right. The figures I have classified as bullshitters present themselves as authorities, and sometimes as sages or prophets. They issue predictions and consider themselves the embodiment of right-thinking reasonableness. The bullshitter’s arrogance is just as important as their relationship with the truth.
Here we can start to see hints of an explanation for why there is so much bullshit circulating around us. I think many of us are far too easily swayed by confident people who pose as experts, especially on subjects where we don’t have the knowledge ourselves to evaluate the claims being made. I suspect that the careers of Shapiro and Peterson have been made possible in large part by these men’s astonishing levels of confidence in themselves. Peterson’s word salad magnum opus Maps of Meaning declares at the outset that it will speak truths that have never been previously discovered by humankind. It offers mostly mumbo jumbo instead (along with some comically convoluted diagrams), but Peterson speaks with such authority that confused readers may find themselves thinking that, given they can’t understand a word, they must simply be incapable of grasping the deep thoughts of the great Genius.
We must add to this the fact that many of these men (and it is usually men, although Elizabeth Holmes certainly belongs on the list) are extremely rich, and it’s easy to assume that a rich person must be a smart person, if we are not ourselves rich. After all, they knew at least one thing we don’t know, i.e., how to make a large sum of money. And if intelligence is some single quality (IQ) then their wealth is proof of their ability to reason.
Intelligence is not actually, of course, a single quality, and plenty of people who know how to do one thing well (such as trade cryptocurrencies or develop real estate) know precious little else. In fact, if someone has devoted their entire life to the pathological pursuit of riches, they are likely to be very ignorant of a lot of the world’s knowledge, because much of it simply won’t have been relevant to their area of interest. When I read the memoirs of various billionaires, I was struck by how little they seemed to know about anything outside of the world of business—though they also seemed confident that there was nothing else they ought to know.
Another problem is that we do not have media and educational institutions that successfully expose bullshit. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning was praised by the chair of the Harvard psychology department, Sam Bankman-Fried made the covers of Forbes and Fortune, and Elizabeth Holmes was given a long sympathetic profile in the New Yorker. (The writer did not comment on the fact that when she was asked how her magic blood testing technology worked, she gave the worryingly imprecise answer “a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs.” Her board members, among them multiple former U.S. cabinet officials, did not seem to notice this either, or were unconcerned.) We do not have, in this country, a mainstream press that is devoted to exposing bullshit. Even Matt Levine of Bloomberg, probably the country’s best financial journalist, said after the collapse of Bankman-Fried’s FTX empire that he thought Bankman-Fried was “likable, smart, thoughtful, well-intentioned, and candid.” In fact, Bankman-Fried was a sociopath who lied to everyone he knew. (Astonishingly, Bankman-Fried had previously admitted to Levine’s face that he was “in the Ponzi business” but Levine apparently saw no red flags.) Men like this never fool Current Affairs (we described Bankman-Fried as having a fraud-based business model before his company’s collapse), but it would be nice if the mainstream financial press would be a little more cynical toward obvious bullshitters. There are actual serious harms done by bullshitters, who swindle and exploit the people who trust them.
One of the problems is that for-profit media has a very bad set of incentives. For instance, every time Elon Musk makes some confident prediction about how he is going to implant chips in human brains or build a Mars colony or tunnel under Miami or whatever, tech websites are faced with a choice. They can print a story with the headline “MUSK SAYS BRAIN CHIPS COMING IN SIX MONTHS” or they can ignore Musk’s bluster until he offers proof that he has actually invented one of the things he keeps promising to invent. To ignore Musk is to sacrifice the precious clicks that a new Musk prediction will inevitably garner. Thus a for-profit tech journalism website faces a conflict between its financial self-interest and its integrity. In a time when it’s tough for media outlets to survive, it’s hard to turn down the clicks.
We simply don’t have enough public bullshit-catchers. Twitter, a colossal pit of bullshit, is now run by the king bullshitter himself. (Shortly after acquiring Twitter, Musk promoted a deranged conspiracy theory that Nancy Pelosi’s husband had been attacked by a gay lover.) We have got to have more people who help others see through the confident wrong assertions of the noisy and successful. Bullshit is often dangerous—over the course of the pandemic, plenty of people have listened to the terrible medical advice of people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and some who avoided vaccination or thought ivermectin was better than a mask have ended up dead.
The amount of “fake news” on social media has been endlessly commented on. But the problem is far deeper than the algorithms of Twitter and Facebook feeds. We also have a culture in which arrogance is rewarded rather than kept in check, and people can see that with enough shameless bluster you might become the richest person in the world or the president of the United States. There is no quick fix for the problem—if I offered one, I would be the very kind of bullshitter I strive to avoid being—but we at the very least need to recognize what it is we are trying to change. We are trying to create a culture of thoughtfulness and insight, where people check carefully to see whether what they’re saying is true, and excessively egotistical people are looked upon with deep suspicion. With time and patient effort, perhaps we can create a world in which the people who rise to the highest offices and reap the greatest rewards are not also the ones who are most full of shit.
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