[6 May 2008]
The optimism of the ID movement recalls Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Al Pacino’s bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon and the positive-thinking salesmen in David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross, ever-sure that things are looking up for them, that their big deal is just a phone call away—but, of course, only if they play it just right.—adapted from below
Everyone likes an underdog. Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an Indycar race; Barack Obama, possibly about to win the presidential nomination over a connected, ex-White House insider. Or that cute little book, On Bullshit, that continues to outsell some heavy competition in the cut-throat, sweat-soaked arena of philosophy publishing.
So, if you’re promoting a cause, like Intelligent Design’s quest to discredit evolutionary theory and inject creationism into science classes, it would be smart to portray ID as an underdog—a likeable, honest, and well-meaning little guy who just wants to be treated fairly in a cold, bureaucratic, elitist world of evolutionary science. This is the picture painted in Expelled, the recent film starring Ben Stein.
Many are saying that Ben Stein wants to be like Michael Moore (at least in regard to his bank account) and that Expelled’s producers have attempted a Passion of the Christ-style marketing blitz (no unfriendly reviewers allowed). But Expelled depends more on the hugely successful Borat: Cultural Leanings Make for Glorious Benefit Nation of Kazakhstan.
Sacha Baron Cohen snagged some great footage by convincingly presenting himself as a hayseed anti-Semitic misogynist visiting America for the first time. Similarly Stein, who had until now no reputation as a crusader for creationism, interviewed leading critics of ID without letting on that the resulting film, vaguely pitched to them as a documentary about science and religion titled Crossroads, would attack them and make them look complicit in an alleged conspiracy to suppress ID. (See “Scientists Feel Miscast in Film on Life’s Origin”, New York Times, 17 September 2007).
Behold the essence of bullshit. Or so I argued in Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time. Despite its immense success, Harry Frankfurt’s pioneering book presents a theory of bullshit that is only about half right. True, bullshitters are not the same as liars, as Frankfurt explains. But that does not mean bullshit is altogether unconcerned with truth, that it is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false”, as Frankfurt puts it (On Bullshit, Princeton, 2005).
As the ID movement illustrates, bullshit typically involves several claims, some of which may be true and some of which may be false. What makes them bullshit, however, is the way they are orchestrated and interconnected in ways designed (intelligently) to discretely manipulate the beliefs and behaviors of others.
If successful (though early box-office indications are that it’s a fizzle), Expelled will not only flatter impressionable viewers by appealing to their sense of fairness and rectitude, but it will also make them see the movie several times. They’ll bring their friends to share the thrill of participating in a revolutionary uprising against all those holocaust-friendly biologists who, Origin of Species in their back pockets, corrupt biology, oppose academic freedom, and keep the lovable underdog out of the game—all without ever detecting that the whole drama is a fabrication.
The below is excerpted from “On the Pragmatics of Bullshit, Intelligently Defined,” by George Reisch, in Bullshit and Philosophy Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time (Open Court, 2006)
Solving Frankfurt’s Puzzle: Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Bullshit
Understanding bullshit as an essentially pragmatic feature of language, deployed to have specific effects on other people’s beliefs and behaviors helps solve the interesting puzzle posed in Frankfurt’s essay: Liars, Frankfurt says, must pay attention to truth, if only to avoid speaking it. Bullshitters don’t. They are essentially indifferent to whether or not what they say is true, and that is why bullshit, Frankfurt says, is so dangerous and socially corrosive. It looms above modern culture as “a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
But if that’s so, then bullshitters, more than liars, should be feared and punished in our culture. But that’s not the way it is. In fact, it’s the reverse. We are generally more tolerant of bullshit than lies. In On Bullshit, Frankfurt poses this fact as puzzle, an “exercise,” for his readers to figure out .
The solution involves this crucial difference between understanding bullshit as either a pragmatic or semantic phenomenon in language. For the liar and the bullshitter are now understood to be doing different things that we respond to differently. The liar attempts to mislead us about truth, about how things really are, but the bullshitter attempts to manipulate us by cloaking the kinds of effects that he wants his speech and his enterprise to have. He sins not against the semantics of language but, rather, against the pragmatics of language by making it appear that his speech is designed to have one kind of effect (such as advancing science education, or making your laundry cleaner) while his aim is to bring about a different kind of effect (such as promoting evangelical Christianity, or making money for his client).
Taking bullshit to be an essentially pragmatic, and not semantic, affair, we can see right away that we have many reasons for treating liars and lies differently from bullshitters and bullshit. For starters, lies can be dangerous in ways that bullshit usually is not because they can thwart our needs, sometimes our vital needs. When you have a bad cold, for example, and you cannot tell whether the coffee-milk at work has soured, you need to ask someone about it and you need them to tell you the truth. If they lie, it may at least ruin your coffee, if not the rest of your morning.
Bullshit, on the other hand, engages us differently. Instead of responding to our own needs and concerns, it seeks to create needs or perceptions with which it can manipulate us. The difference is important, for it explains why it is that we ignore lies at our peril when we can safely ignore bullshit. Without a gullible, believing audience, after all, bullshit can have no effect. So, when that guy in the office comes round to chat about Darwin being completely wrong and biology being due for a scientific revolution that will finally admit supernatural forces in science, you are likely to respond with all the indifference his appeal deserves: “Sure, Darwin. Whatever. Hey, do you happen to know if the milk in the refrigerator is still good today?”
This does not mean that we can be indifferent about bullshit because bullshit is indifferent to truth. Rather, we can be indifferent to it precisely because we are aware of its attempt to pragmatically manipulate truth (or truths) and make one kind of appeal or engagement appear to be a very different kind of engagement. So understood, the question this bullshit presents to us is not whether this bullshit us is true, false or respectful of the distinction, but whether or not it will work, whether or not it will succeed in its pragmatic attempt to disguise one kind of engagement as another.
This leads to a second, moral reason for why we go easier on bullshit and bullshitters. Unlike the liar, who deliberately obscures what he takes to be true, bullshitters may often be honest and sincere. The common expression that a person “believes his own bullshit” is of some use here, the believing bullshitter having no appreciation for the manner in which bullshit’s component parts have been fashioned to fit together.
Intelligent Design promoter Phillip Johnson, for example, is probably not a sincere bullshitter in so far as he speaks about the different parts of his agenda for the ID movement in isolation from each other, using different language and different rhetorical styles for the appropriate audiences. But those who are lured to ID by its talking-points (such as the claim that biology is wracked by “controversy” over the adequacy of evolutionary theory) may have no idea that their impressions rest on strategizing, wordsmithing, issue-framing, and public relations.
So, when your annoying co-worker comes by with his daily update about the immanent collapse of Darwinism, you may even begin to feel sorry for him. He’s been duped, taken-in. He is not even an active bullshitter, for he is merely passing along the bullshit that he himself fell for. There, but for the grace of some critical thinking, go I.
In some circumstances, we may even sympathize with active, deliberate bullshitters. Shortly after Judge Jones’s ruling in the Dover, Pennsylvania trial that ID is concealed creationism, for example, ID organizer Stephen Meyer publicly defied this ruling by asserting the opposite: “Contrary to media reports,” he wrote, “intelligent design is not a religious-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins—one that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution.” (“Not by Chance”, National Post of Canada, 1 December 2005)
Artists and playwrights know that this kind of supreme confidence can fascinate us. This is something like the boundless, American optimism shared by Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Al Pacino’s bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon and the positive-thinking salesmen in David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross, ever-sure that things are looking up for them, that their big deal is just a phone call away—but, of course, only if they play it just right.
In ID’s case, this optimism would seem to lay behind its knack for successive reinvention, with “Intelligent Design” rescuing the failed creation-science movement, and now (it appears) a new program, “Critical Analysis of Evolution” waiting in the wings to rescue the faltering ID campaign. With just the right language, and just the right kind of public relations campaign, creationists seem to think, they will eventually take the world by storm.
Until they do, however, failures will always be viewed as minor setbacks and attributed to misunderstandings, to inaccurate “media reports”, and to anything but the fundamental incoherence of the plan or the dubious quality of the product in question. Here, the bullshitter is concerned about truth in a slightly different way: he clings to the bullshit he originally created to deceive others in a bid to avoid the bitter truth of his own failure or defeat.
Finally, we tolerate bullshit because it indirectly expresses basic cultural values that we admire and uphold. That tolerance does not extend to bullshit’s insincerity, of course, but it does extend to the myriad beliefs, practices, and discourses that serve as bullshit’s raw materials. Were it not for the relentless efforts of ID’s devotees to commandeer high school biology classes, for example, most scientists, educators, and philosophers would not even take pains to criticize the movement or its claims.
Like the many cultures and subcultures that dot the modern landscape, ID advocates are free to cultivate their own understandings about “how things really are”, and, in the United States, at least, they enjoy constitutional and civil protections to speak their minds. We may regret that they promote their own agendas duplicitously and at the expense of other people’s concerns and practices, but we can hardly regret this pluralism and variety itself.
George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.