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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Detecting BS

I was delighted when Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University published On Bullshit, because that book gave me cover to teach a module on the subject to my university students. My short definition of bullshit: language a person uses to hide that person’s real intention. Bullshit can be a lie, or the truth, or something else all together.

A scenario to explain what I mean: A teenage son has been out smoking pot with his friends. His mother confronts him when he comes home: “Have you been smoking pot, son?” The son has many options to BS and thus hide is real intention, which is to make it up to his room without getting busted.

The (incomplete) truth: “Nothing to worry about. I was in a car that some of my friends had been smoking pot in.”

The lie: “Of course not. I always listen to my Mom.”

Changing the subject: “How could you ask me that question, when you know how important your belief in me is to my fragile self esteem?”

I have seen each of these options work nicely.

I love Jonathan’s dissections of bad scholarly prose. Sometimes the badness is the consequence of an attempt to bullshit. The intention that the authors of this prose often wish to hide: “I don’t want my reader to see that I haven’t thought through this argument or idea thoroughly.”

As a professional editor and a former communications consultant for publicly traded companies, I believe I'm a nifty bullshit-spotter, but only when I’m reading it – more specifically, when I am reading prose written by people who are not me. (Face to face, I’m hopeless. Why? A person’s physical confidence usually wins me over.)

I was a good deal older than I should have been when I finally figured out how to detect bullshit, if only sometimes, in my own prose. I’ll try to address that in a later post.

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