Elevating the fine art of telling a porker

Even academics are studying this art form as the age of the internet makes us all more susceptible to accepting the fiction that we are fed as fact

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 12:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 12:43am

“Bulls***” is a fascinating subject because there is so much of it in the world we live in. And as a columnist, it is one of the politer things some of my gentle readers say about me.

So it’s great that the social sciences and philosophy have turned their attention to this pervasive phenomenon. A team of Canadian researchers has won the satirical Ig Nobel Peace Prize this year for their study titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls***”.

Published in the academic journal Judgment and Decision Making, it has been cited by other researchers, including a German group that found a correlation between people prone to accepting BS statements and those who support Donald Trump for US president.

The Canadian findings basically say those who tend to rely on first impressions and gut instincts rather than analysis tend to be more accepting of impressive-sounding humbug.

While the study has much to say about how and why we succumb to BS, it doesn’t say what it is.

For that, we have to turn to the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt and his great essay, On Bulls***.

Frankfurt has more respect for liars than those who spew bull. This is because liars know what the truth of the matter is; they just choose to subvert it. Those uttering bull may or may not know the truth, but they don’t care. They make statements that are neither really true nor false, but to serve a hidden purpose – whether it is to get a job, win over voters or talk a date into bed. There is an obvious political dimension to speaking baloney.

It seems to me that dictators and authoritarian rulers are usually liars. To sustain their lies, they are ready to kill, jail or otherwise silence witnesses; and to rewrite, censor or wipe out past records. After all, one of the most famous statements about lying – “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough…” – came courtesy of Adolf Hitler.

But democratic politicians are usually – to use a technical phrase – full of baloney. This is because they don’t have the full machinery of a police state and so have to compensate with deceptive rhetoric.

Though it may be impossible to verify empirically, Frankfurt thinks our age generates more baloney than previous eras. I believe him – just thank the internet for it.