On Bullshit

Bullshit. It’s so pervasive right now in our politics and media that we are losing respect for the truth. Disturbed by this barrage of bluff, a Princeton professor of philosophy Harry Frankfurt wrote a book about the phenomenon.

In ‘On Bullshit’, Frankfurt makes a neat distinction between lies (the deliberate and conscious utterances of untruths) with the humbug of pseudo-experts, dilettantes and pretenders who loosely assemble facts to support a pre-made proposition.

“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…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.”

Does this sound familiar? Surely it resonates for anyone who puts themselves through the torture of watching politicians and culture warriors on “Q&A” each week, each of them “winging it” through the same series of “controversial” issues with prepared talking points that fit their predisposition.

Perhaps this preponderance of bluff and off-the-cuff commentary (‘The Uhlmann Effect?‘) is just another consequence of the combination of a constant media cycle and the death of the craft of journalism, where being seen to “take a position” is considered the more valuable skill than representing reality. Or as Frankfurt puts it:

“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 are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

But the bullshit phenomenon is about more than just a growing tendency for public figures to wing it in response to pressure to have an opinion on everything. It’s also about being seen to be “authentic” or true to oneself (or, god help us, one’s “story’), irrespective of reality. In this, no one person’s view has any more validity than another’s.

“Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

Perhaps it’s too much to ask public figures and media commentators to say once in a while “I don’t know enough about this subject to offer an informed view” or “It is too early to be making conclusions” or “of course everyone has the right to an opinion, but you don’t have the right to your own facts”.

In the meantime, I commend the book to all readers of this blog and suggest you watch this interview with Frankfurt in the context of recent events.

Spinning Wheel

A health warning to mainstream media consumers: When a news story starts with the words “is expected to”, activate the BS detector. When that story involves forecasts about economic statistics, shift detector to warp speed. Continue reading

A Day in the Life

I read the news today. Oh boy. Apparently, Australia is now a socialist dictatorship run by red rag shop stewards stealing the legitimate rewards of those with enterprise and throwing it away on the undeserving poor.

“Once again, nothing in it for me,” said  ‘Single Dad’ in the comments section of a Sydney Morning Herald analysis from Adele Ferguson describing Wayne Swan’s fifth budget as ‘Class Warfare’. Over at ‘The Heart of the Nation’, meanwhile, the splash was ‘Smash the Rich, Save the Base’, with Swan and Gillard seen leading an angry mob against a hammer and sickle backdrop. Continue reading

Convergence or Submergence?

The history of media regulation in Australia is one of the communications bureaucracy playing a no-win game of catch-up with technology. Just as a regulatory regime is nailed down, another revolutionary distribution mechanism appears out of nowhere and rips up the floorboards again.

The final report of the government’s Convergence Review is an attempt to future-proof the rules for a digital age in which standalone notions of print vs broadcasting have been rendered obsolete by technology that allows media to deliver text, audio, and video over wired and wireless connections.

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Sex Text Pest Bests Rest Test

As with dramatists, journalists thrive on sex and conflict. We love to weave narratives around contested, err, positions. And the more passionate the partisans, the more drama we can wring out of the contest. You could say that without sleaze and conflict, there is no story. Which is why the Peter Slipper saga is heaven for hackdom.
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A Fistful of Donuts

Which party is best at cutting the red tape that stifles Aussie entrepreneurship, promotes small business initiative, checks lazy government waste and puts downward pressure on interest rates for working people? Me sir! Me sir! Just bend me over the desk for a moment and flash me your fiscal rectitude.

Isn’t the state of economic journalism clear by now? After the earnest and profound economic policy debates of the 1980s, we seem have devolved into  a pale imitation of that in our modern political discourse – one in which one side and then the other stage a predictable pantomime that bears little resemblance to our lived reality. Continue reading

A Show About Nothing

Where else but Australia would the media work itself  into a frenzy over a ‘MYEFO’? Perhaps if you told the Brits it stood for My Youthful Exotic French Odyssey, they might bite. But Mid-Year Fiscal and Economic Outlook? Hold the front page.

In Australia, journos scribble millions of words every year about data that has little or no bearing on the lives of most of us – like monthly forecasts of volatile unemployment data (a throw of the dice by the statistical gods) or, worst of all, whether the federal budget ends the financial year in a small surplus or a tiny deficit. Continue reading

Head Bangers

Old and experienced editors (are there are any left?) will tell you the best stories write themselves. Answer the who, what, where and when in the first paragraph. Tease out the why and how. Then add background and quotes to provide authority and colour.

But with so much competing noise out there, that template is rarely sufficient anymore. So journalists take every piece of news, however routine, and stick it through a Marshall stack turned up to 11, stomp on the adjectival overdrive and invite jaded readers to stick their heads inside the PA.
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The Forgotten ‘Poeple’

The Americans call them copy editors; the English and Antipodeans call them sub-editors. Whatever you call them, they are traditionally the most under-valued and under-appreciated people in journalism. And with Fairfax’s latest bout of self-mutilation, they take one step closer to extinction. Continue reading

That’s Entertainment (Revisited)

At what point does journalists’ dedication to ‘neutrality’ obscure their obligation to reveal the truth? My post about a public form about ‘false balance’ in reporting on climate science, run late last year, has sparked feedback from one of the quoted forum participants – the Sydney Morning Herald’s environment’s editor Ben Cubby. Ben’s complaint, and I quote him in full below, is that I had taken him out of context.

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