Monday, May 30, 2005

Wisdom on bullshit: A new book

From what started as a little-noticed lecture on a subject as improbable as bullshit, has ended as a pamphlet type book after twenty years. Written by a Yale University prof, "On BullShit" is a brief (67 pages) essay on the phenomenon of bull shit. This must be a great product of intellectual masturbation if not anything else.
It starts off as "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry.In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. ... "
Some of the reasons I could think of are
  • The emergence of so many media options, 100+ channels, websites, blogs. Shekhar Suman is an expert on so many issues. Sidhu moving from cricket to a comedy challenge.
  • So many me-too products thanks to availability of cheap capital and labour. Bullshit has become a key marketing differentiator.
  • Over-influence of fad oriented management thinking and over-supply of MBAs on everyday management. Adding value as usual.

"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about," he writes. "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." Does that ring a bell for some most-hated professions where BS is a professional hazard. I mean nobody loses conscience for BSing ones way through client meetings etc. Thats the only way nowadays to earn the reputation of a smart employee.

"Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial - notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."

As Malcolm Galdwell says in the Blink "most humans have a story telling problem, they want to convey reasons for behaviour when none exists in the first place" . That coupled with the above brilliant line from this book sums it all. Humans intrinsically love to tell a story and what better than BS to spice it up and customize it for the occasion and audience.

In fact BS is so all-pervasive that hunt for truth is almost inconsequential or like Eddie Clontz said truth should never interfere with a well-told story. Hats off to the authors prescience for writing this 20 yrs back.


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