The Trump and the anti-Trump echo chambers, argued David Brooks in the New York Times before the onset of the pandemic put everything on hold, have become mirror images of one another. They’re both loud, unbalanced, uncalibrated and unreasonable, “incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.”
Wherever one turns, the political discourse seems entirely uninterested in the Enlightenment project – the values of 17th and 18th century philosophers imploring us to use reason to approach scientific truth and an intelligent and civil society.
This, many signatories of the Harper’s letter tried to re-awaken – followed in our unenlightened times by vicious attacks, ridicule, and pushback. There is no truth; reason is oppressive; and power is all that matters. John Avlon at CNN correctly described the new “woke wisdom” of our times to assign “guilt by associated to the whole group.”
But the slow undoing of truth didn’t begin with Brexit, Trump, with Black Lives Matter, or with intellectuals and writers facing calls for their removal for uttering non-woke facts and opinions. It’s merely the latest front in a larger battlefield of a struggle against reality.
When truth no longer matters
Now I must apologize in advance for the use of a potentially offensive word, and I deploy it only because it has a technical meaning not easily replaceable by another term.
In 1986 Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an obscure and inconsequential essay titled ‘On Bullshit.’ A few years later it was turned into a short monograph and became a New York Times bestseller despite its slim size and esoteric language. In it, Frankfurt explains the crucial difference between a ‘liar’ and a ‘bullshitter’; they are not the same thing. A liar cares about the truth, so much so that he goes to great efforts to conceal it. That’s what a lie is.
A bullshitter has no such qualms; he cares not if the statement he utters accurately reflects reality as (s)he is merely out to make an impression, persuade or signal his or her own virtues. To a bullshitter, the idea of “truth” or accurately representing the state of the world is nonsensical. Frankfurt wrote:
“When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. […] He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly.”
Bullshitting people just make stuff up. Enter the fact-checking, statistically oriented scrutiniser. Reflecting on the UK 2015 General Election, the economist Tim Harford’s article ‘How Politicians Poisoned Statistics’ investigated some common talking points by various political leaders. Showing their carefully curated campaign statistics, Harford invoked Frankfurt’s bullshitter concept to account for politicians’ untroubled relationship with the truth. It didn’t quite matter what the accurate, honest or nuanced number was as long as the chosen narrative neatly matched the politician’s purpose.
It seems an eon ago, those blissful days when politicians and pundits merely used their creativity to spin interpretations of basically correct statistics. Until a few years ago, they maintained a fleeting commitment to telling truths. Now, anything seems to work, be it truly nonsensical things about America’s history of slavery, or the many appallingly mistaken claims about the corona virus that AIER has expertly hunted down and questioned.
When re-reading Harford’s article now, more than four years later, it has aged remarkably well. It is clear that not only politicians, but everyday people – scientists, activists, manufacturing workers, journalists, your average street vendor or neighbour – have abandoned truth-seeking and instead wholly embraced bullshitting. While politics always included portraying oneself in a flattering light, today politicians in the highest offices on both sides of the Atlantic are untroubled by truth. They don’t even pretend to care for it.
Shockingly, this syndrome has spread well beyond vying for political office. Nowhere is this as clear as in the realm of environmentalism, that do-good movement dedicated to saving the world in the most obtuse and harmful way possible. This summer, there’s an avalanche of books questioning the Frankfurtian jump that the climate movement has taken, and so perhaps there’s still some hope: Bjørn Lomborg’s False Alarm and Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never are both released this month. Chris Barnard, of the British Conservation Alliance, and Kai Weiss, of the Vienna-based Austrian Economics Center, have gather essays from some of the best and the brightest in their Green Market Revolution launched last month. Alex Epstein, of the Center for Industrial Progress and the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, initially were to release a completely updated and revised version of his book this summer, but postponed the publication until early next year.
The Green Movement’s embrace of untruth
Following last year’s avalanche of absurdly incorrect claims surrounding the forest fires in Brazil, California and Australia, all bets seemed off in the skirmish between truth-seeking and virtue signalling. Before then, the British organization Extinction Rebellion had shut down parts of central London while screaming clear untruths. And outrageous statements about immediate climate doom were not merely simplifying a nuanced topic, but delivered demonstrably unsupportable statements.
Yet, nobody seemed to bat an eyelash. This was the new normal: exaggeration turned into unqualified beliefs, held with a vigor rarely seen. Something like one-fifth of British children now have nightmares about climate change – even though they’re one of the most well-protected demographics on the planet.
Professing their concern for the Amazon rainforest last year, singers, football players and politicians chimed in on topics they knew nothing about – sharing pictures of burning forests that were neither the Amazon nor 2019. Their disciples rallied behind the conviction that the Amazon was collapsing and that it constituted the lungs of the earth (it doesn’t, and the analogy is backwards since our lungs consume rather than produce oxygen). The extent of the fires, reported the always-alarmist The Guardian, were increasing by eye-popping but entirely misconstrued numbers – altogether dwarfed by the stark reduction in Brazilian forest clearing over the last few decades.
Nine years ago, the BBC climate documentary Frozen Planet featuring David Attenborough, predicted that as early as 2020 we would see an ice-free Arctic. And while the summer heat this year has featured heat-records and disturbing oil spills in northern Siberia, the Arctic Sea ice remains intact – disturbingly low and falling, but nowhere close to zero. In 2014, a few years after Attenborough’s predictions, Arctic sea ice was much larger than expected and even clogged up the Northwest passage that environmental groups had feared would remain permanently ice-free. The Antarctic ice achieved a maximum for the year that was the highest observed in 35 years.
In the climate documentary Ice on Fire from 2019, Jim White, dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder, talks about the risks of raising CO2-levels, directly following a segment where another scientist showed the historically rapid rise from pre-industrial times to over 400 parts-per-million in today’s atmosphere. Talking about melting sea ice in Antarctica and Greenland, the producers misleadingly cut to a flyover from southern Iceland. Probably asked to speculate as to the worst-possible consequences, the heavily edited conversation with Dr. White sees him make a hypothetical; if we reach 600 ppm, the ice sheets melt, and we’re looking at sea level rises of 80 meters. 80 meters, not centimeters. The infographics a minute earlier showed world cities flooded. The viewer is led to believe that we’re facing absolutely cataclysmic events – bring forth the nightmares!
But are rising oceans really on the verge of wiping out our cities? Not quite. The IPCC reports, hailed as the scientific consensus urging policy makers to take action, predicts 0.66m sea level rise to 2100 in its medium scenario, 0.83 meters by 2100 in its high-end scenario. The best-guess of scientists is, in other words, a hundred times lower than the segment featuring Dr. White suggests.
At roughly a centimetre-a-year, the projected sea level rise is neither apocalyptic nor unmanageable – not to mention probably unnoticeable. 110 million people worldwide already live below sea level yet are well protected from the sea, thanks to dikes, protective seawalls and the affluence and know-how to build them. Some places in the Netherlands are located up to seven meters below sea level. That is, we have about 80 years to make every coastal region in the world as rich as the Netherlands is today – an easy feat if we don’t cripple the way of technological progress, growth, and capitalism.
2020s – the Bullshitters’ Decade
A few years ago, when analyzing bullshit was having a revival, thoughtful writers and researchers engaged in widespread fact-checking efforts. They analysed politicians’ statements and wrote overwhelming numbers of books variously titled ‘Post-Truth’ or ‘Bullshit’. That moment of fighting back has passed – and bullshit seems to have won the day.
We are longer in the happy times where the numbers Harford investigated were “narrowly true but broadly misleading.” Between the astronomical numbers of dead koalas in the Australian fires (billions of animals, anyone?) and millions of climate refugees, who has time for nuance or even remotely accurate numbers?
Many worrying things are happening with the climate, but existential collapse isn’t not one of them. We would do well to pay attention to the myriad of ways in which our lifestyles are impacting our planet, but exaggeration and doomsday-mongering for ideological gains shouldn’t rule the roost; truth put in perspective should.
British politics is a prime example of the bullshitter’s invasion. Led by a man who made a professional career out of inventing unreal stories, the land of Francis Bacon, David Hume and Isaac Newton has become enthralled to the power of bullshit.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Frankfurter’s quintessential “bullshitter” has long ceased to surprise us; “[Trump] does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly,” wrote Frankfurt himself before Trump was elected. The last few years have given us no reason to update that claim.
And here we are, at a new decade, with blatantly incorrect stories passed on as common knowledge – and nobody seems to mind. “Bullshit is having a moment,” wrote Stuart Jeffries in May 2017.
That moment is here to stay.