Tuesday 9 January 2018



A not very nice word usefully describes the verbal malaise which we are living through.  Evan Davis of BBC2's Newsnight and formerly of the Radio 4 Today programme wrote a book last year called 'POST-TRUTH - Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It'.  

One possible source for this infelicitous phrase is a former speechwriter for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who in turn may have got it - in this context - from the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurter in the 1980s, who later wrote 'On Bullshit' (2005). The speechwriter, John Lovett, describes it as 'one of the greatest threats we face' and one is inclined to agree. It may have been common for some years but in the UK it certainly reached its peak in the 2016 referendum lies, counter-lies, widely disseminated misinformation and (consequent?) distrust of experts. Now anyone from presidents to prime ministers is routinely expected to mouth at best half-truths and at worst blatant verifiable untruths. 

Economical with the truth?

The 'common but simplistic' definition of bullshit, as Davis has it, is 'to talk nonsense to someone, typically in an attempt to deceive them'. As someone who, having started out as an academic economist, has now for several years interviewed politicians and other public figures as part of his job as a journalist, Davis is well-placed to go on, as he does in his book, to examine the concept further and in a number of contexts. Examples include the defense in the Soham murder trial in 2002, claims by scientists about CFC gases and the ozone layer, statements made by paid public figures to advertise products, the Spycatcher case (1986) where Sir Robert Armstrong was 'economical with the truth', and, much more recently, predictions of the effect of Brexit on the UK economy. 

A key point Davis makes early on is that, while there are undoubtedly facts - and falsehoods - which may or may not appear straightforward, we do in fact very often have to make a judgement in deciding what is a fact and what to believe. We may weigh up the probabilities, the evidence, the source or speaker, their motivation, the scope for interpretation, and so on, but things are rarely as straightforward as banal facts, such as 'the sun is shining'. 

Non-factual, post-factual or afactual

'The essence of bullshit', according to Frankfurter, 'is not that it is false but that it is phony.'  If he got here in the 20th century, says Davis, he was ahead of his time in 'capturing some of the silliness of twenty-first century public discourse'. Davis' book is illuminating for the light it sheds on a broad variety of 'non-factual (or post-factual or afactual) discourse': he identifies a number of different forms in which we have got used to statements - and sometimes actions - which are factually misleading, including:
  • the near-lie: using the right words to give a wrong impressions
  • selective facts
  • spin: a favourable interpretation of the facts
  • deception through delusion
And then the numerous examples of plausible statement where facts are actually irrelevant:
  • empty assertion (not false but meaningless)
  • obfuscation (true but irrelevant)
  • gibberish and gratuitously complex language

What about experts?

The more one considers these multiplying examples the more it is tempting to think that nothing has changed.  People have always exaggerated, obfuscated, twisted the truth - from conversations in the pub to advertisers and politicians. But has it in fact got worse, and does it matter?  And what about that notorious phrase used by Michael Gove in the EU Referendum in the UK: 'people have had enough of experts'? 

Truth and trust - and do they matter?

We are lucky in the Wychwoods to have ex-Marine and Oxford philosopher Tom Simpson on hand on Sunday 14th January to help us think through this maze or malaise, and consider in depth the issue on which he has specialised in his research: that of Trust.  Join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm.  Free entry - retiring collection to cover expenses. 

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