Publish at February 23 2022 Updated March 04 2022

Defining bullshit: a multi-disciplinary undertaking!

Philosophers, sociologists and scientists examine a trivial concept.

The humanities have relegated this concept to the sidelines of their research sphere. And yet, who never utters the word? "Bullshit." (Connerie in French). We are often content to quote the French singer Georges Brassens, who explains to us that we are always someone's asshole and that we should therefore be modest and careful before using this expression. Especially since "connerie", and even "connard" belong to very different semantic environments.

For the past few years, emboldened authors have been providing us with insights that go beyond the simple aphorisms of the singer with the pipe and mustache. And to define the term, psychologists, cognitive bias specialists, and philosophers of language are summoned.

An analysis through biases

Following Daniel Kahneman, author of System 1 / System 2 and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, some analysts will look for the origin of "bullshit" in cognitive biases. Certain biases coupled with perseverance in error can account for some "bullshit".

The hindsight bias: "I knew it"

Some people can horrify those around them by always explaining after the fact that they are not surprised by what happens and that they had everything planned. Hindsight bias consists in reconstructing one's past intuitions to make them coincide with reality. It is certainly a form of bad faith, but someone who speculates about the future makes many assumptions that are often contradictory. Whatever happens, he or she will always be able to say, "I told you so!". Just forgetting that he said so many other things too!

Confirmation bias

This is one of the most well-known biases. We minimize or ignore information that opposes our beliefs. Instead, we give importance to information that corroborates them. The term "cognitive dissonance" is often used to refer to this filtering that our brain does to reduce conflicts between our beliefs and our perceptions. We are all victims of this mechanism. Perhaps we should even say that we benefit from it, in that it saves us a lot of mental energy.

Cognitive biases alone do not characterize bullshit. It also requires individuals to persevere. Tenacity is a necessary virtue for bullshit!"

A strong taste for anecdotes

Stalin is quoted as saying that "the death of a thousand soldiers is a statistic, the death of one is a tragedy," according to Jean-François Marmion, a psychologist and co-author of a "psychology of bullshit. We are fond of anecdotes and situations. We believe what we see or what strangers tell us more than numbers. If my coffee maker breaks down, that's enough to contradict the brand's statistics on 30,000 units... This bias toward the concrete and the anecdotal is part of the "bullshit" panoply, especially when the anecdotes become unverifiable. "The wife of a guy I met at the bus stop told me that..." initiates an unstoppable argument, and arguably bullshit.

Believing in one's superiority

Superior skills

"Bullshit" often begins with an overly advantageous assessment of one's own abilities. Every year we learn of rescuers who had to risk their lives to rescue people who, barely knowing how to ski, ventured into off-piste terrain that even the pros don't attempt.

The person who was rescued at great expense explained that he was experienced, that he didn't believe the morning's weather forecast, that the signs warning skiers had seemed overly cautious... And tens of thousands of people in front of their television sets exclaimed, "but what a c... !"

Common sense or knowledge that allows one to be on a par with the most renowned scientists.

Some people care little about their incompetence and do not hesitate to explain to professionals or specialists what their job is. They can explain to a lawyer what his or her role is, and then in the same minute comment on a geopolitical news item about countries they wouldn't know where to find on a map. A person who has never owned a dog, for example, might reframe a trainer on how to instruct animals.

This tendency to comment on what one doesn't know and pretend to argue with actual experts is the "Dunning-Kruger" effect. The one who doesn't know, but doesn't know that he doesn't know will speak more confidently about a topic than the one who has knowledge and will bring nuance to his remarks.

"Doubt makes you crazy, certainty makes you stupid," Jean-François Marmion warns us, however.

In a series of interventions on the media and a small book published by... Etienne Klein popularized in 2021 the word ultracrepidarianism. It is about making assertions about a field one does not know, with such aplomb that the discourse of those who know appears by contrast uncertain and hesitant...

Recently, a former French minister imagined the following situation. Facing a lake, a scientist provides details about the quality of the water, its chemical content and the risks of swimming in it. Next to him, an ordinary person, without any knowledge, would say "yeah, but I think it's dangerous...". "Which of the two, asked the former minister would be listened to and relayed in the media?" No doubt the alarmist speech of one who has not the slightest constructed idea on the subject. The Dunning - Kruger effect is not limited to individuals, it has won us collectively...

In the lake example, this effect is coupled with a negativity bias. Our brains, according to D. Kahneman, place more importance on bad news and what may represent a danger. This bias probably allowed your ancestors to quickly spot predators. But he now invites us to give credence to claims that purport to denounce the naivety of those who would have positive discourse.

The need for control

Among the key determinants of "bullshit," the need for control holds a prominent place.

We do not want to be manipulated or told what to do. The need to decide, to make choices, and to feel free is paradoxically a rather important lever for manipulation. In a famous book that has appealed to several hundred thousand readers, Jean-Léon Beauvois and Robert-Vincent Joule demonstrate this with some experiments. Thus, if one asks for money in the street by simply adding "of course, I would completely understand if you told me no", the result is better than if one is satisfied with a more direct request. Reminding someone that he or she is free removes resistance related to the fear of being manipulated or forced... The following paradox is another illustration.

The paradox of the critical spirit

All the educational efforts that democratic societies have made seem to have forgotten an essential issue of knowledge: the critical spirit, if exercised without method, easily leads to credulity." Gérald Bronner, quoted by Brigitte Axelrad.

Critical thinking is one of the fundamental transversal skills. Questioning information received, comparing sources, questioning the intentions of our interlocutors are all reflexes that prevent us from diving into rumors and fake news. And yet, stubbornly searching for the intentions of our interlocutors and conflicts of interest, and subjecting all knowledge to contradictory analysis can present other dangers. Science certainly advances through regular questioning and doubt, but this questioning occurs among peers who share a modicum of knowledge.

For people without a scientific culture, the desire not to be fooled can lead them to join groups that feed on zany hypotheses on social networks. Everyone can then boast that they are among the few who know and won't be fooled.

The Absence of Concern for Truth

Harry Frankfurt teaches philosophy at Princeton. He is the author of a very short book, "On the Art of Talking Bullshit." Supported by solid literary and philosophical references, he tries to describe the specificity of "bullshit", translated as "bullshit" or "bullshit" as the case may be. Bullshit is characterized by a relationship to language and truth. While lying always implies that a truth exists, bullshit like bullshit frees itself from the idea of truth.

"Never lie if you can get away with bullshitting," says the father of Abel Simpson, the character Eric Ambler directs in Sale History.

Lying requires a certain rigor. It relies on the principle of non-contradiction. The liar who formulates inconsistent statements gets into trouble. On the other hand, the "jerk" who speaks out of turn is not destabilized if confronted with his inconsistency. Bullshit then defines "alternative facts", with this possibility that one grants oneself to change them, or to draw conclusions that do not really make sense.

Bullshit thus comes under the heading of a trapeze artist's activity, jumping from one commonplace to another, from one dubious metaphor to another, mixing assertions, facts, hypotheses, and unfounded reasoning...

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


Harry FrankfurtDe l'art de dire des conneries Éditions Mazarine - 2005

Jean-François Marmion (dir) Psychology of bullshit -Le livre de Poche - 2018

Robert-Vincent Joule and Jean-Léon Beauvois (pref. Jean-Claude Deschamps), Petit traité de manipulation à l'usage des honnêtes gens, Grenoble, Presses universitaires de Grenoble - troisième édition - 2014

Daniel Kahneman: System 1/System 2: The Two Speeds of Thought - 2012

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