Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit

With a tip of the hat to the estimable Simon Perry, this is a wonderful quotation on bullshit by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt:

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. 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, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, 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."

Whenever I encounter quacks or bad psychics or similar, I very rarely believe they are liars.

After all, there must be easier and more lucrative ways of being dishonest.

So I prefer Professor Frankfurt's approach.

It does seem to explain a lot...

[This topic has also been covered with more erudition and insight by the wise old duck Le Canard Noir.]

[The full Frankfurt article is here.]


AKonitsiotis said...

Excellent bit of philosophy...and I would say many bullshitters are actually 'Devious Bastards' (check out "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations," David Sims, Organization Studies, vol. 26, no. 11, 2005, pp. 1625-40.

I recently read this in a book somewhere....Might have been Ben Goldacre's book but not sure...

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

Thanks for sourcing Harry's appraisal (via Simon), Jack. Pretty much nails it. Congrats on an excellent site, too, by the way - always a pleasure to read.

All the best,

Bren Tierney.

Scote said...

It certainly appears to be the case that many Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine practitioners ("SCAM", as Dr. Mark Crislip refers to them) are self-deluded. Orac, over at Respectful Insolence points us to alternative health advocate and author of The Cure for All Cancers, Hulda Clark, who recently died of, wait for it, cancer. Her belief in her own medicine likely led to delayed diagnosis and treatment that ended in her untimely death--the same fate that following the advice in her books has likely led others to.

However, even though many SCAM practitioners are likely self deluded, it is utterly false to claim that that "lies" can only be made by those who are self-deluded and "bullshit" by those who are indifferent to the truth. Frankfurt writes, "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. " Such a claim is patently false and is an argument that not supported by the definition of the word "lie" or common usage. Lies can be knowing or unknowing--with knowing lies (the where someone knows they are telling a falsehood and the kind that Frankfurt apparatnly says don't exist) being rather central to libel law in the US. Frankfurt's essay is ironically self-referential, IMO, and is in and of itself, bullshit. Frankfurt's attempt to redefine the word lie to create a convenient counterpoint to his opinions on bullshit is too blatant to ignore or forgive.

Meanwhile, back to SCAM practitioners... Orac notes that one need not be self-deluded to be an advocate of SCAM, but it helps:

" There are two kinds of alt-med quacks. First, there are the ones who, like Kevin Trudeau, don't believe at all, ones who are basically con men. Then there are the ones like Hulda Clark, ones who really believe. While the former can do major harm, I fear the latter more. Because they believe the are the more persuasive for it, and, in the case of Hulda Clark, it is clear from her reaction to her deteriorating health that she almost certainly really believed in her pseudoscience."

Quirk said...

Yes, this particular quote is in Bad Science, which I read lately. Good quote though.

Anonymous said...

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Edwin Abbott wrote 'Flatland ' so that any logical person would understand that contiguous dimensional worlds allows any thinking person to geometrically know how Christianity's' spiritual world could be right beside ours. Now 'Techie Worlds' examines Christian phenomena: Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, Soul, and finds that Abbott's concept provides mechanistically for those phenomena. This is the approach science uses: establish understandings of the real world by testing facts in the context of the theory. With such logical understandings, thinking people can accept Christianity's teaching of love without bending their intellectual integrity. 'Techie Worlds' gives pause to Moslems and pagans by showing how and why the Trinity is. It explains realities that profit all mankind.
It is so nice to be able to spread the word to people who want to learn important new views. 'Techie Worlds' is available at It completely reformats all discussions about God and where He is.

M said...

I agree that most quacks are not straight liars. However, I am not sure that they are bullshitters in the way that Harry Frankfurt defines bullshit.

The quacks I have encountered seem to have gone to great lengths to deceive themselves. They appear to genuinely believe that they know facts that "conventional" science has somehow missed or overlooked.

Bullshitters, on the other hand, appear to say whatever it is that they think you want to hear. Maybe they believe it; maybe they don't.

It seems different to me, but I may be wrong.

Additionally, most of the quacks I know appear to be well-meaning people who genuinely want to help others (even though it irritates me no end that some of them make a lot of money out of quackery). Conversely, I know a bullshitter - the exact person Harry Frankfurt describes - and he appears to do it entirely for his own benefit. In fact, I find it hard to see how a bullshitter, in Frankfurt's sense, could be genuinely concerned with anyone else's interests.

Harry Frankfurt's book is great and not very long - just an extended essay. He wrote another book, "On Truth".

By the way, I am enjoying this blog a lot.

Dr Aust said...

Yes, I am with "M" on a lot of the Alternative Medicine people. Even the ones whose statements can clearly be shown to be bullshit (see posts recently passim) would, I think, often tend to justify their "fast 'n' loose with the facts" approach by arguing that they were defending a "higher truth" and thus really right.

For instance, defenders of homeopathy frequently insist loudly that "the evidence from controlled trials favours homeopathy". Even conventional doctors who use homeopathy will often say this. It turns out only to be sort of true if you disregard the standard scientific and medical convention that good (well controlled) experiments are given more weight in the overall analysis than bad (very poorly done and heavily bias- prone) experiments.

If you apply the scientific analysis (essentially asking "Is there any believable evidence homeopathy is more than an placebo?") the answer is a clear "No". Which of course chimes with the background science, i.e. there are no molecules in any homeopathic remedy, which no-one disputes.

However, if you simply count the overall number of trials, including all the laughably bias-prone nonsense ones, you can cross your fingers (figuratively) and say "there's lots of positive evidence for homeopathy".

The key point, and where we come back to the bullshit question, is WHY the homeopaths sticks their collective blind eye to the telescope and insist on this. The answer, it seems to me, is that the see themselves as being possessed of a higher revealed truth - "We KNOW homeopathy works". Thus when they defend it by what the scientists call "cherry-picking the evidence", by bluster, or even by frank misstatements, they are, in their minds, serving a higher truth. In this they seem to me to resemble religious folk, or possibly followers of revolutionary political philosophies, more than simple "Frankfurtian" bullshitters.

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