Princeton emeritus professor of philosophy Harry G. Frankfurt has published a book On Bullshit (Princeton U. Press, 2005).
With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.
The Press’s website also includes video clips of an interview with the straight-talking bullshitologist. Here’s my transcription of clip 7.
Q: You mentioned democratization as a function of bullshit. What about education? Are more highly educated people more likely to engage in bullshit just because they have the faculties to do so? I mean, are we more likely to be twits here at Princeton University than in some other part of the country?
A: I think it’s not only that highly educated people have the linguistic and intellectual gifts that enable them to create bullshit. But also I think that a lot of people who are highly educated acquire a kind of arrogance that leads them to be negligent about truth and falsity. They have a lot of confidence in their own opinions, and this may also encourage them to produce bullshit.
I enjoy Nick Kristof’s political unreliability. In the New York Times of 12 March, he takes on environmental car-alarmists.
When I first began to worry about climate change, global cooling and nuclear winter seemed the main risks. As Newsweek said in 1975: “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend … but they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.”
This record should teach environmentalists some humility. The problems are real, but so is the uncertainty. Environmentalists were right about DDT’s threat to bald eagles, for example, but blocking all spraying in the third world has led to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths.
Likewise, environmentalists were right to warn about population pressures, but they overestimated wildly. Paul Ehrlich warned in “The Population Bomb” that “the battle to feed humanity is over. … Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” On my bookshelf is an even earlier book, “Too Many Asians,” with a photo of a mass of Indians on the cover. The book warns that the threat from relentlessly multiplying Asians is “even more grave than that of nuclear warfare.”
Too many Asian men, and not enough Asian women. Now that’s the real problem in Asia. Meanwhile bald eagles multiply and malaria just gets worse and worse.
UPDATE: The Belmont Club has much more about efforts both to ban DDT and to resist banning it, with follow-ups here and here.