-A Third Consequence of the Technological Shock: More Rapid Turnover of Egregious Bullshit
Submitted by Daniel Cloud
The Market for Lemons, the Market for Bullshit, and the Great Cascading Credence Crash of 2016
“The cost of dishonesty, therefore, is not only the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost must also include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”
-George Akerlof, The Market for Lemons
People have begun to worry that we’re experiencing a crisis of confidence in our traditionally most prestigious institutions - in our political parties, and central banks, and great newspapers, and universities, and even in accredited experts.
Views that would have been regarded as extreme in the past also seem much more common now. The entire political spectrum, all around the world, seems to be in the middle of collapsing into a collection of smaller, more radical groups. Some of them advocate violence.
The problem doesn’t seem to be unique to this particular historical moment. There are other times in recent history – the 1930’s, perhaps, or the 1960’s – when the public seemed equally unhappy with existing institutional points of view. Like the present, they were periods of relatively rapid change in organizational and communications technology.
The underlying problem is, I think, a very strange one. But it’s a risk faced by any society that both undergoes rapid technological change, and contains organized interest groups. (Formal or informal.) Something really bad is happening to all our bullshit. In fact, I’ve begun to worry that there’s actually a sort of crash or cascading failure going on in the bullshit market. If there is, I think it’s driven, as previous bullshit crashes were, by changing technology.
This may seem like an odd thing to worry about. But it’s actually a very natural worry, if you have any interest at all in recent American philosophy and/or the economics of informational externalities.
Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit i has, for a long time, been the single best-selling title in Princeton University’s Press’s philosophy list. The book sells well partly because people think the title is somehow cute, or funny, but Frankfurt himself doesn’t really seem to think that bullshit is a laughing matter at all. (Take a look at his 2007 YouTube video2, if you want to see if he’s serious about the subject.)
He argues that lying and bullshit are distinct forms of dishonesty. The liar is trying to present something false as true. But the bullshitter doesn’t actually care whether what he’s saying is true or false, relevant or irrelevant. He represents himself as concerned with the truth, but in fact his only concern is presenting a certain appearance or creating some particular impression in his audience. Frankfurt thinks that this is a much more subtle and powerful strategy, and therefore a much more dangerous one.
The bullshitter is competing with those around him to seem a certain way, or he’s competing with them to avoid seeming a certain way. Or perhaps he wants to make someone else seem some way, or make some proposal seem some way, seem noble or contemptible, dangerous or safe. Or he wants to fit in, or stand out, or be admired, or pitied, or feared, or promoted. The truths he speaks in the course of his effort to achieve these things may be completely irrelevant to the point he’s supposedly trying to make. But unlike the liar, the bullshit artist doesn’t actually have to say anything false to mislead. He might, but he also might not, he might just talk about a lot of irrelevant true stuff. (Machiavelli tells us that a Prince should almost never lie…)
This is a way of deceiving that’s much safer for the deceiver than outright lying. A lie can be destroyed by a single incongruous truth. It’s much harder for a single fact to pierce the veil of bullshit, because it’s more difficult for a single fact to dispositively establish that some set of considerations is irrelevant, or that their importance is being exaggerated. Humans are instinctively angry at the liar, but the bullshit artist slides right past our evolved defenses. Frankfurt thinks this is a much more powerful and subtle strategy than lying, and therefore a more dangerous one.
In fact, it seems to me that one of the ways we can tell that someone is basically a bullshit artist is that it never really happens to the person that they argued for something, and then, to their surprise and dismay, found out that they were wrong about the facts and had to permanently change their views. That just isn’t a thing, in their world. The bullshitter’s very rare and grudging public mea culpa is always only tactical. When your argument isn’t actually based on the trueness of certain facts in the first place, no pattern of facts can possibly dislodge you from it in any lasting way. As Frankfurt says, the bullshit artist has a kind of freedom and a kind of safety that the liar can only dream of.
Is Bullshit Necessary, or Inevitable?
Presumably the idea of a crash in the bullshit market wouldn’t actually worry Frankfurt himself very much. In his most recent statements on the topic (in his recent Vimeo video iii) he seems convinced that bullshit is unnecessary, that a world without bullshit would be a better one. But he hasn’t always seemed so sure; in the earlier YouTube video, he was still wondering whether bullshit might perhaps be of some use to society.
(The contrast between the two videos I’ve mentioned is interesting, in itself, as a sign of where we’re all headed, of how things are developing at the moment. The 2007 YouTube video has clunky production values and a crystal-clear message. But the much more recent one on Vimeo… Well, let’s just say that the producers seem to have been worried that in 2016, a man sitting in a chair telling the truth simply isn’t enough.)
Is bullshit, defined as Frankfurt’s defined it, something that we can ever really expect to be completely free of? Personally I doubt it. For one thing, some of it strikes me as genuinely useful. The policeman directing traffic in his spiffy uniform is doing his very best to present a somewhat false appearance of gleaming perfection, because a ragged naked man presenting the same truths about where it would be convenient for cars to go would be ignored. He may even wear a hat designed to make him look taller and more imposing than he actually is. He isn’t trying to look tall because he’s vain. Yes, the whole thing is an act, but in this case it’s a necessary act. Because of the nature of the social role that’s been delegated to him, because we all want him to send a certain clear, authoritative and unambiguous signal iv, we excuse and approve of these conventional, socially necessary, legitimate forms of bullshit.
No doubt the line between these things and the more egregious or harmful forms of bullshit is a very complex and deceptive one, with one form often disguised as the other. (Perhaps this particular policeman actually is a little vain. Maybe his hat is custom-made, and is a little taller than a regular policeman’s hat. Or maybe he takes bribes to let some cars through the intersection more quickly.)
Anyway, empirically, there don’t seem to be any large complex human societies without any bullshit. To completely get rid of it, you’d have to read everyone’s mind at all times, which seems undesirable. So I can’t quite agree with Frankfurt’s more recent opinion that we’d all be better off without any bullshit at all. It seems to me that human society would collapse into a collection of small warring tribes. (Just as traffic at the intersection might grind to a halt without the spiffy policeman.) As far as I can tell, that’s how we lived before we invented bullshit. No chimpanzee is a bullshit artist – or any other kind of artist.
Like it or not, we have it now, and I find it impossible to imagine a practical plan for completely eliminating it. If we really can’t get rid of it, then I can’t agree that the relevant question is what life would be like without it. That seems utopian. Bullshit exists; it’s doing something in our society. It has effects on us. The real question, I think, is whether there can be better or worse effects. Is some bullshit more damaging than the rest? Are fairly standard forms of timeworn bullshit perhaps a bit like the suite of benign microbes that live in our guts? Is existing, harmless bullshit protecting us from novel, possibly dangerous bullshit? (As the analogies of the 1930’s and the Reformation might suggest…) Can anything really go wrong with the market for bullshit? Are there any public dangers associated with this large-scale, apparently rather consequential social phenomenon, do we need to manage it somehow?
Bullshit and Informational Externalities
As for the economics of informational externalities… Frankfurt’s philosophical clarification of the meaning of the ordinary English word “bullshit” strikes me as capable of driving an economic model because he suggests that we’re most likely to come up with bullshit when it’s difficult for us to speak the truth. For example, when we’re expected to have a strong opinion about a matter on which we have no expertise. From an economic point of view, this is a theory about how people cope with the potential costs of information gathering.
We all constantly encounter subjects we know very little about. Most conversations about politics are like this. Discussions between people who know rather little about the particular problems they’re discussing, problems they personally won’t be expected to directly do anything about. It could hardly be otherwise in a democracy, since everyone’s asked to vote on whole political programs containing prescriptions for dealing with various different societal problems.
The reward for carefully ascertaining and then impartially telling the unadorned and directly relevant truth in many of these ordinary, inconsequential conversations is small. There might be public benefits. But public knowledge of the truth is a public good. We, personally, will only receive one seven billionth of those benefits, while the entire cost of carefully gathering the information and presenting to people who may not be all that interested in it will fall on us. The temptations to slack off and pursue other social goals which these situations present may be resisted by a few, but those are rare and sometimes unpopular individuals.
Perhaps we all have a threshold. When we know less than x about some subject, we all struggle against a temptation to employ bullshit in discussing it, to just agree with the people around us to be agreeable, or use the incident as an excuse to point out how stupid the hated out-group is, or try to come up with a funny or enraging fairy-tale about what the truth must be, or to complain plaintively about how nobody really cares, or something like that. Making up bullshit is easier than finding the truth about every abstruse subject, so wherever ease or mere courtesy are the most practically relevant considerations, we can expect almost everyone to face a temptation to repeat or invent bullshit. In a sort of conversational version of Gresham’s law, bullshit should drive out honesty wherever there are no consequences for the individual.
But the true bullshit artist produces bullshit egregiously, even in contexts where it’s not conventional or acceptable. He represents himself as sincerely concerned with the truth in situations where he really should be, but he’s not. He isn’t just occasionally tempted to make careless and insincere pronouncements on unimportant-seeming subjects he knows nothing about. He’s turned doing that into his thing, into a complex art form. He persistently insists that his bullshit is reality, and that the actual truth is just a bunch of bullshit.
He may even get angry when this assertion is questioned. Often the anger is sincere; he thinks it’s unfair for you to question his facts, because his argument was never based on facts, the facts were just added to support an existing point of view. They’re basically decorations, so by attacking them you’re not really invalidating his conversation goal, as far as he’s concerned. You’re just getting in the way. Like an idiot, like some fool who thinks the conversational contest is about what the facts are. Not, as he believes it to be, about whose bullshit will prevail in the eyes of the audience. Presumably he has no idea that the questioner is doing anything that’s different from what he himself is doing…
It seems to me that in some sense this person is a polar opposite or mirror image of Hayek’s “man on the spot” v or Kenneth Arrow’s benevolent specialist vi, In both these cases, the expert creates positive informational externalities for society by knowing all about some obscure thing, and sharing the information in various ways. Either through the price system, for Hayek, or by broadcasting the information, by publishing it in a journal, for Arrow. I also like to tell a story vii that involves a kind of person, the entrepreneur, who generates positive informational externalities for society by personally taking the risk of performing an experiment that may fail, of starting a firm and possibly going bankrupt.
But the bullshit artist doesn’t perform any experiments, and he doesn’t know all about some obscure thing. Or if he does, he doesn’t actually just stick to telling the plain unadorned truth about that thing, or about how those experiments came out. He’s surrendered completely to the natural human urge to have a strong opinion on every subject, even ones he’s not in a very good position to discover the truth about. He hasn’t bothered to take the risks he’d need to take, or go to the trouble he’d need to go to, do the hard work he’d need to do, to engage in the self-criticism and he’d have to engage in, to find out the truth about them. Because he doesn’t really care that much about what’s true.
Since bullshit is free from the constraints of honesty, it can be perfectly designed to attract attention and elicit belief. (Whereas the actual full truth is usually abstruse and implausible.) From the point of view of cultural evolution, it’s a parasitic mimic, like a cuckoo. Like a cuckoo chick, it has to be more dazzling than the real thing in order to displace it.
Nevertheless, the bullshit artist may generate either positive or negative informational externalities, because even he will speak the truth if it suits his ulterior purpose.
The Market for Lemons
But before I say anything more about all that, I need to quickly describe George Akerlof’s model of the used car market viii That will put me in a much better position to explain why I’m now starting to worry about cascading failure in the “bullshit market”.
Akerlof was interested in the potential of informational asymmetries, in general, to produce market failure. (So it’s easy to see why his model might be relevant to the market for bullshit, which by its very nature exists entirely within the precarious and shifting world of asymmetries in information.) The basic idea behind his model is quite simple. Suppose that, when buying a new car, people have an imperfect ability to determine whether the car is a lemon. (For the sake of the example, either quality control is very bad, or else little information on safety, reliability, etc. is available in advance of purchases, or the people simply have imperfect judgment. The model is from a time when it was more plausible that not much information about car quality might be available.) But once they’ve owned a car for a little while, they begin to have a pretty clear idea of its quality.
People who have a car that they now know is worth more than the prevailing market price for a used car will keep their car off the market. But people who have a car that they now know is worth less than the prevailing market price for a used car would be happy to sell theirs for the prevailing market price. So the used car buyer will have to choose his car from a pool of used cars the very best of which are worth a shade less than the prevailing market price, and the worst of which are worth much less than the prevailing market price....MORE