That was just bullshit, Joel. - Miles, in Risky Business (1983)

History is a set of lies agreed upon. - Napoleon Bonaparte

Bullshit is the glue that binds us as a nation. - George Carlin


When I was growing up, we had the Weekly World News featuring Batboy and other half-human cryptids, like the love child of Hillary Clinton and lizard alien P’Lod. But Alex Jones’s large, well-monetized alternate reality community in which the Sandy Hook massacre was a psyop and the grieving parents are crisis actors, is a more sinister development.

The Internet is to bullshit what the Broad Street pump was to cholera. It turns the deluded mind of a twisted, demented opportunist like Alex Jones into a systemic problem for everyone.

On the positive side, social media connects quirky communities of people with niche interests, like shared love of nerdy hobbies such as LARPing. They can find each other and make connections outside families and communities that may not be welcoming. More controversially (but who am I to judge), it enables communities of furries and dog haters alike. And then at the extremes we get conspiracy theorists and hate groups who create self-reinforcing alternate reality echo chambers. It can be hard to tell the difference between the extremists and the LARPers, and when the extremists get busted, they sometimes say they are just LARPing, just asking questions, just a little dark edgy humor about kidnapping and rape, Why are you so serious?.

In a couple of generations, we went from church every Sunday, to bowling alone, to ‘extremely online’. Sometimes, we have extreme audience segmentation, where everyone has their own reality, and presidential campaigns can make far-right meme videos, and normies don’t even understand the references. We get context collapse, where everyone sees the same thing, but some people interpret it totally differently based on the context they see it in, or lack of context, or their own preconceptions or agendas.

Enter ChatGPT, which is a force multiplier for bullshit, even more than for honest knowledge work, which is constrained by reality.


But what is bullshit? What is the nature of the speech we want to detect and avoid spreading, and how do we distinguish it from proper discourse?

Following the pre-eminent scholar of bullshit, Harry Frankfurt, and this unknown legend, let’s make a ‘bullshit alignment matrix’ according to the ground truth of a statement, and its intent.

Ground Truth Honest: Truthful Intent Bullshit: Statements for Effect, Indifferent to Ground Truth Dishonest: Intended to Deceive, Mislead, Defraud
Factually True Roses are red My response to the Covid pandemic was amazing! More doctors smoke Camels
I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky
No Truth Value:
unfalsifiable nonsense,
non sequitur,
empty puffery,
This statement is false Our Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind. 
Starbucks provides an immersive ultra-premium coffee-forward experience.  
Nobody’s bigger or better at the military than I am.
We’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-mouth the United States of America!
Factually False Sarcasm: Great blog post, Einstein
Satire, parody
Obama was born in Kenya 
We had the biggest inauguration crowd ever.
Clinically proven to boost genes and make your skin visibly younger in just a week 
Gish Gallop

Frankfurt argued that bullshit lives in the middle column and is characterized by intent. Bullshit is speaking with indifference to the truth value of what you are saying, using speech as an instrument to achieve an effect or objective instead of clearly conveying sincerely held beliefs.

According to Frankfurt, if you are trying to tell the truth as you honestly believe it, but you’re misinformed or clueless, that’s not bullshit. Also, if you know what you are saying is false and you are lying, that’s deception. Bullshit is the middle, where truth doesn’t matter, all the points are made up, and speech is merely instrumental.

But it seems like a hard distinction to make in practice. If you start believing your own bullshit, à la George Costanza, does it cease to be bullshit?

And sufficiently advanced indifference to the truth, when you should know better, is indistinguishable from deception. Sometimes you have to call bullshit when someone thinks they know what they are talking about, but have no clue, like an Alex Jones follower.

Consider the story of Iraq’s WMD. Was it a lie, or was it bullshit? Maybe Cheney and associates sincerely felt they captured a deep reality that Saddam Hussein would deploy and use WMD if he could. But also, they knew the evidence was flimsy and possibly bogus, and war is serious business. There should be a high burden of proof on evidence used to justify an invasion. When people say “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” it suggests lying when you should and do know better.

Was Obama’s statement, “If you like your health insurance, you can keep it under Obamacare” a lie, or bullshit? As a first-order statement, it was true. Obamacare did not materially change existing insurance or require people to switch plans. Obama probably sincerely believed that existing insurance plans would remain mostly unchanged and the vast majority of people wouldn’t be compelled to switch plans. They would simply have a choice to switch if Obamacare was a better plan for them.

But Obama’s team was smart, and probably could have and should have anticipated substantial disruptions, and that ultimately a significant number of people would need to switch plans. Also, it was poorly phrased and could be interpreted as, you can turn your current insurance plan into an Obamacare plan, which presumably was not the intended interpretation. It veered into bullshit, if not a ‘lie of the year’.

Definitely bullshit: When Alex Jones claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, he didn’t care whether it was true or not. His goal was to get viewers and sell his nutritional supplements.

Similarly bullshit: Donald Trump’s claim that he was going to stop immigration by building a wall, or that he would balance the budget and pay off the national debt. He didn’t care at all if these things were true or possible, just that they made him sound great. The NYT made a list of ‘lies’ but technically, they are extremely high-grade concentrated bullshit. Trump is completely indifferent to truth; he aims to create a perception and soothe his damaged ego and inflame his cult followers. Conveniently directed reasoners who say, take him seriously but not literally, are saying, I know he’s bullshitting and I don’t care, because his agenda suits my extreme-right cult of ‘disruption’.

Let’s turn to the bottom left corner. Some statements are false or misleading, but well-intentioned. When asked how you liked a performer’s music, you might say, “Your costume was stunning, you really sparkled up there!”, or “I can see you really worked hard on that!” It’s a dodge and lets the person smile and say thank you so much, but the meaning might be clear. Or, sarcasm like, “you were brilliant today, great job Einstein,” is technically false but probably communicates the speaker’s genuine thoughts effectively.

Consider Dr. Fauci’s shifting stance on masks. He initially discouraged their use but later endorsed them, despite the evidence staying consistent. Was one of those stances bullshit? Maybe. There is strong evidence for effectiveness of masks in preventing contagion. On planes we saw people without masks get sick, while people with masks did not. In natural experiments where mask policies were imposed in some places and not others, we saw less contagion in masked populations. No one is calling for surgeons to stop wearing masks in operating rooms. The virus gets spread through droplets, and masks trap droplets. Steve Scalise seems firmly pro-mask now that he is immune-compromised.

But Fauci’s job as a public health official is to give truthful guidance to help achieve public health objectives. It seems like he made the first statement for instrumental reasons, he knew it would be a big deal to recommend masks, he didn’t want to spark a run on masks that would take them from frontline workers who needed them most, and because there might not be sufficient compliance and benefit to make a difference. Later, when mask supply grew and evidence from other countries grew and people demanded more action, he changed his position. You could call it bullshit in the sense that it’s speech intended for effect, something not strictly true but told with a good intent from the bottom left of the table. But if he is transparent that he is making a recommendation based on the evidence and the effect on the overall public health objective it’s not bullshit.

Similarly, consider economists who don’t critique aspects of capitalism lest they give ammunition to the barbarians. If it’s directed reasoning, it’s bullshit. If Fed chairman Powell is talking to calm markets and transparent about why, it’s not necessarily bullshit.

Science is hard. People were awarded Nobel prizes for inventing the lobotomy, and DDT. People were awarded the prize for contradictory findings (Caja and Golgi, Fama and Shiller, Hayek and Myrdal). Top mathematicians like Gödel published proofs that were accepted for a long time and then found incorrect. (See also) There was a mathematician who published a proof in a top journal, a few years later it was found incorrect, and he published another paper in the same top journal proving the opposite of the first paper. If a top scientist publishes a proof and I give a counter-example, is that considered ‘calling bullshit?’

I have to call bullshit on Frankfurt’s main claim here, that bullshit is purely the middle column of indifference to truth. Those are important forms of bullshit, but speech in bad faith, contrary to the proper order of things, can occur in other forms. Communication takes place on multiple levels, and can have multiple meanings depending on context. Fruit flies like a banana.

That 1990s modem dialup sound can be annoying noise and can also be conveying important signals, depending on context. Bullshit, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder, a property of the interaction between speaker and listener, and not inherently of the message itself. Something might be bullshit on one level but not on another. And inherently a lot of communication contains elements of both bullshit and non-bullshit.

The Fine Line Between Truth, Error, Fraud, Bullshit, Cargo Cult Science and Good Science

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose - Leonard Cohen

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one. - Voltaire

In my country, we believe that the only things that separate us from the animals are pointless rituals and mindless superstitions. - Latka Gravas

Let’s turn to Feynman’s Caltech lecture on cargo cults. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Also Feynman: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

You are the easiest person to fool, and you are incentivized to privilege sweet, self-serving bullshit over hard-to-swallow bitter truth. Feynman used the example of cargo cults in Papua New Guinea after World War 2, when natives built fake airfields and control towers, in order to bring back American planes and ‘cargo’. Large groups believed in things and participated in activities which had no basis in fact. Feynman used cargo cults to represent pseudo-scientific bullshit.

Sometimes junk science is extremely directed reasoning, like people who claim they can tell what happened from bite marks or bloodstain patterns. Or reliably tell when a suspect or 911 caller is lying. Or training a drug-sniffing dog to alert when you want it to (consciously or unconsciously), and then using that as evidence in court.

Sometimes it’s science that confirms the work of your priors and your seniors. Apocryphally, the Pythagorean mathematician who discovered that not all numbers could be expressed as a fraction, i.e. irrational numbers like \(\sqrt{2}\) and \(\pi\), was drowned as punishment. Going against the establishment has its risks. Feynman claimed that measurements of the speed of light followed a less random path than expected, monotonically approached the correct value instead, because scientists looked for reasons to reject measurements that were far from accepted values. Some have called bullshit on Feynman, though.

Cargo cult science may also be helpful bullshit of the bottom left variety. Maybe cargo cults in PNG served broader functions. Chiefs got people out doing something productive to ostensibly make things better, and everyone felt better. The colonial authorities weren’t too upset that civil leaders were organizing and gathering the people for innocuous reasons. And it helped build the community in ways that might let them do other, more productive stuff.

Does close order drill formation improve battlefield performance? Probably not directly. But it instills discipline and unit cohesion. Similarly, benign hazing, like making fraternity pledges carry a brick at all times, persists as social signaling that pledges are committed to join, enforcing connection among the pledges by sharing this pointless experience, and reinforcing group hierarchy.

Cargo cults might be the ultimate ‘bullshit jobs.’ “What would you say you do around here, using a pineapple as a radio mike?” The cargo cult rituals solve no first-order societal problems. They just pay respect to the social hierarchy and represent an effort to bring the universe into balance, without necessarily understanding how.

Information-free economic forecasts and research reports may fall into a similar category. You have to make decisions about the future. It is coming willy-nilly, and you have to make choices that both depend on, and create the future. The Economic Report of the President and the State of the Union address are a sort of collective ritual bull session about what the future might bring, and help form collective consensus about things we have no choice but to coordinate collectively. Maybe not that different from consulting the entrails of a sacrificial animal.

Point forecasts and stock market ‘price targets’ aren’t particularly reasonable concepts. And yet there is demand for them. Nobody asks an analyst about their prior and posterior distribution. People crave certainty. And to demand certainty is to demand bullshit. So otherwise intelligent people demand and pay big bucks for bullshit all the time. You have to ask yourself what organizational and cultural imperatives are served.

Feynman chose to talk about cargo cults instead of Western organized religion, because of course that would have been extremely offensive. But self-evidently, talking snakes and burning bushes and body-and-blood-of-Christ rituals aren’t particularly different from cargo cults.

People I know say they don’t believe church doctrine, they just like going to church. Scrooge saw Christmas as humbug (bullshit) because it was a bunch of posturing and virtue signaling preventing him doing what was the natural order of things, which was to work and make money. But Dickens’s moral is that Scrooge was missing the big picture, which is that work is necessary but it’s not the purpose of life. Collectively embracing a bit of Christmas spirit bullshit is fun, and lets us do what we need to do anyway and reconnect with family. Maybe everyone can get along for a bit, even if Uncle Don is an Alex Jones wacko and Junior is a woke, tattooed, pierced, cross-dressing pronoun-stickler.

In the words of Cervantes: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

A lot of science is borderline cargo cult. Most of machine learning is trying random stuff and seeing if it works. Freud had some cockamamie ideas that were pretty cargo-cultish. Nobody knows how the brain works, we try SSRIs because we know they impact neuron firing, they seem to help some people a lot, we don’t really know why. We don’t know the full story why some people have heart attacks. But we see they have blockages that have a lot of cholesterol, we give statins to reduce cholesterol, they reduce heart attacks.

Even disregarding the disturbingly high incidence of non-replicability and outright fraud (exhibits one, two, three), if scientists didn’t publish bullshit, they would barely publish anything.

Sometimes you have to do the best you can, and the best you can do right now is a bit cargo-cultish. You can’t model the human body at the level of quantum electrodynamics. When you have very complicated things, even things that are pretty well understood, like aerodynamics, the explanations that help you reason about the system, like air flows faster over the top of the wing, so Bernoulli’s law, yada yada yada, are oversimplifications that fail at the edge cases. They are a bit cargo-cultish. You can write a bunch of theories and computer models, but humans have to reduce daily practice to rules of thumb and checklists, that become cargo-cultish. Feynman has the ability and the luxury to think in purely scientific terms, but engineers, doctors and other practitioners invariably end up with some degree of cargo-culting.

In the words of George Box, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” If you start with a naive cargo-cult theory, but also check the evidence, and you’re not fooling yourself, it’s no longer cargo cult. Even if you’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. The first step to doing good science is doing science that kind of sucks, and Feynman would probably agree.

I’m not a follower of organized religion, but if you’re taking it in a moderate doses and not hating other beliefs and it helps you be a better person, then vaya con dios, my darlings. Of course, people do go too far, and one person’s useful fiction is another’s ‘opium of the people.’

Bullshit is everywhere. The line between fraud, self-delusion, bullshit, cargo-cult, and solid evidence-based search for truth is finer than we might think. There’s an infinite supply of bullshit, and there’s also a ton of human demand for it. People need bullshit to get through the day and the night. The eye sees what it is prepared to see and the mind believes what it wants to believe.

But when it comes time to make high-stakes decisions, you have to make maximum effort to avoid fooling yourself. There’s a fine line between sugar-coating harsh reality a little on the one hand, and choosing to live in a Panglossian fool’s paradise where everything is always for the best, or living in your own bullshit cinematic universe. The Trump phenomenon and the widespread acceptance of facially ridiculous conspiracy theories does not bode well. There is going to be so much AI-generated bullshit that it will drive out reality-based thinking, and not fooling ourselves will cease to be an option.

Sometimes you just have to say, WTF, this is just bullshit.