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Why Is There So Much Bullshit?

2023 October 15
by Greg Satell

Pretty much everywhere you look, you’ll find bullshit. We are constantly bombarded with politicians and “experts “on TV, at conferences and on social media, spouting bullshit. An economist would tell you that it is simply impossible for so much bullshit to exist, because the market values truth, but of course that’s bullshit.

One possible reason that there is so much bullshit in the world is that there are so many bullshitters. Yet that explanation has a critical flaw. People spouting bullshit are, in most cases, completely sincere. They believe that they are truth tellers, uncovering and sharing critical wisdoms that add value and meaning to our lives.

In his famous essay, On Bullshit, philosopher Harry Frankfurt makes the case that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” because liars need to actually ascertain the truth to misrepresent it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, show complete disregard for facts. I would argue, however, that’s only half the story. We bullshit because it serves a crucial purpose.

What Do We Really Think?

In February 2015, Cecilia Bleasdale, took a photograph of a black and blue dress she intended to wear at her daughter Grace’s wedding. Yet when she sent a photo of it, her daughter told her that the dress was white and gold. Unable to come to an agreement, Grace posted the dress on Facebook and it became an Internet sensation. The world split into two camps: black & blue vs. white & gold. Each side sure the other side was crazy!

We like to think that we see things how they really are, but that’s not really true. Our senses react to stimuli, such as light refracting off of objects like a computer screen, and our brains augment those perceptions to form full images, based on our past experiences. As we accumulate more experiences, pathways in our brains, called synapses, begin to form.

As we add new experiences, our synaptic pathways strengthen and shape our perceptions. A painter, for example, will perceive a flower very differently than a botanist and both will notice things that most of us would not. A recent study found that even for a concept as simple as a penguin, we all have very different ideas in our heads.

On rare occasions, like the explosion of the dress meme, we become alerted to the fact that we are all walking around with very different ideas in our heads. Most of the time, however, we just go about our business and assume that everybody else sees what we see and hears what we hear. It is possible to have entire conversations with people we know well and then walk away with completely different notions of what was said, without ever realizing it.

Cogito Ergo Sum

As an accomplished mathematician, René Descartes had a hard time accepting the fact that our perceptions are so malleable. He pointed out that when you see a stick half submerged in a glass of water, it appears to be bent, but outside it becomes clear that it is not. So which is really true? Maddening!

That’s what set Descartes on his rationalist project to build a base of knowledge purely on logic, without need to rely on perceptions. The first principle he came up with was cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” He intended that to be the foundation of a much more elaborate structure, but was never actually able to establish anything of importance without some reference to perceptions, which we know are faulty.

Still, the basic notion that our identity is wrapped up in our ideas gets to the core of who we are as humans. That’s why when we first meet people they are likely to tell us things they think, because they want us to know who they are. It is also why the dress became such a huge Internet sensation. Black & blue vs. white & gold became more than our perceptions of a photo, but part of our identities. You were either on one team or the other.

Once we understand the link between identity and ideas, we can begin to see where all the bullshit starts. Given how big, messy and confusing the world is, we know comparatively little about most subjects. Yet we we need to think something in order to project an identity. So we grab explanations where we can, often developed from past perceptions whether those are relevant and valid or not.

Group Identity, Polarization And Purity Spirals

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes our rational mind as kind of an internal PR department. Once our brains pick up bullshit, we feel compelled to build a narrative around it, telling ourselves that we arrived at our conclusions by an objective weighing of the evidence. We also look to others to confirm our beliefs.

So we go out in search of people who believe the same bullshit that we do. We read the same stuff, attend the same conferences and socialize in the same places, making sure our internal PR departments are coordinating and updating the story so that it stays coherent. We begin to identify not only with the views, but also with the fellow travelers that also hold them.

Decades of research has shown that that we will conform to the opinions of those around us and that the effect extends to three degrees of social distance. So it is not only those we know well, but even the friends of our friend’s friends—people we don’t even know—have a deep and pervasive effect on the bullshit we believe.

More recent research at MIT looked into how we share our bullshit with others. What they found was that when we’re surrounded by people who think like us, we share bullshit more freely because we don’t expect to be rebuked. We’re also less likely to check our facts, because we know that those we are sharing with will be less likely to inspect it themselves.

In How Minds Change, science reporter David McRaney explains that when people leave of a religious cult or conspiracy theory group, it is usually preceded by a change in social networks. As it turns out, to free ourselves from a particular brand of bullshit, we need to break free of that particular brand of bullshitters.

What Do You Think You Know And Why Do You Think You Know It?

We all bullshit. And not just occasionally, either, but constantly. The simple fact is that it takes enormous time, energy and focus to attain a significant level of expertise in even a narrow field. So most of the things we encounter we know relatively little about. We either abstain from participating in the discussion or bullshit our way through it.

We’re willing to accept a certain amount of bullshit in our lives. Scientific frameworks like The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM) explain that for low involvement areas, we actually prefer low information arguments with emotive content over more detailed explanations.

Most of all though, we bullshit to protect our identities, both individual and collective. It is through our beliefs that we connect with others, build communities and engage in shared purpose. It’s an equation that, for the most part, works very well. We engage in bullshit, so that we can do things together that matter, that make a difference in our lives and in others’.

Yet every once in a while we need to take a more disciplined approach. A natural disaster occurs, a pandemic arises or a crisis erupts in a far off place that we know little about and we need to show more humility about what we think we know and why we think we know it.

David McRaney suggests we can do this by giving a level of certainty—from 1-10—to ideas that we believe and ask ourselves why that level isn’t higher or lower. It’s an effective practice. Try it.

Because sometimes we get to a point where all the bullshit just has to stop.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Abhijit Bhaduri



2 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter in Toronto permalink
    October 15, 2023

    A further answer, maybe now a senior answer, to this question is Artificial Intelligence and its mushrooming prevalence. Every coin has a flip side; the flip side of AI is clearly Artificial Stupidity – machine-made bullshit – and obviously we’re increasingly immersed in way more AS than AI (ten times is my guestimate). And, inevitably, AS begets even more bullshit/AS exponentially.

  2. October 15, 2023

    Yes. I’ve thought about that. Given there is far more bullshit than truth on the Internet, it raises serious questions about learning corpus.


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