A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.
― Alfred Lord Tennyson
Note: Today’s post contains a lot of “bad” words; if the title offended you, don’t read any further.
I’m calling bullshit, loudly and proudly.
Too often today reports of success and achievement in science (and many other areas too) are slanted toward hyperbole, and this is an understatement of some proportion. Let’s get to the point by getting rid of this softened assessment; most public and even private reports today are bullshit. As such, they are worse than mere lies and more insidious than exaggerations; they are purposefully untrue with the intent of selling the falsehood as fact. Those creating these reports know that much of the success is overblown, and challenges and failures are undersold or left out on purpose. The worst thing about this state of affairs is the expectation that the reports are bullshit and people’s surrender to this fact.
Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
One of the most damning aspects of today’s world is the degree of self-delusion where we work hard to bullshit our own self. Perhaps this is a natural tendency since we work so hard to actually believe the sort of crap we report as the “truth”. What might have started as a desire to accentuate the positive has turned into a full-fledged commitment to bullshit. It is so deep and pervasive that we bullshit ourselves into believing we are better than we are. Eventually, sooner or later, shit is going to get real and the tale of bullshit we tell will be exposed. Until then we are societally encases in its warm, humid embrace. It has become far easier to work to fool us than face a reality with massive unaddressed problems and numerous time bombs waiting to explode.
This broad and casual acceptance of bullshit as a medium of communication is eroding the core of our society, and must be stopped. It won’t be easy because once you’ve given into bullshit, it provides a delusional comfort that truth often fails to provide. Sometimes truth is really scary, or really difficult and requires unpleasant things to be done. Bullshit is a good way to avoid all of this. Some of the most common bullshit is seen in the political world where populations are told how special or wonderful or exceptional they are. How they don’t have to abide by the same laws as the rest of us. People are told that they can give into their basest fear without consequence, or enjoy the proverbial free lunch. They are told that nothing difficult will be asked of them. These people are common in America today and they have learned to enjoy, if not demand a steady diet of bullshit. Science is no different.
Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the nature of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
― Harry G. Frankfurt
Harry Frankfurt wrote a wonderful small book “On Bullshit” and it is a delightful read. He goes on to explain why bullshit is worse than the mere lie or falsehood. Bullshit is designed to elicit something different than a falsehood. It is constructively damaging and directed. It is a desire to influence decision making in a way that mere deception does not have. As such, bullshit is inherently more evil and destructive in character, or as I put it corrosive. We are so addicted to bullshit as a medium of communication that it is rotting us to the core. The tendency to simply accept complete bullshit as fact and worthy of standing in for the truth is crippling our ability to deal with actual problems. Why confront reality when you can easily weave an alternative view that makes the problem disappear?
Is truth something that in fact we do—and should—especially care about? Or is the love of truth, as professed by so many distinguished thinkers and writers, itself merely another example of bullshit?
― Harry G. Frankfurt
We don’t always know when we’ve been bullshitted, but when we realize it we should get mad. The fact that we’ve grown so accepting of it is as concern (see Donald Trump’s campaign which is entirely constructed of bullshit). The amount of bullshit that I have to deal with in science seems to be growing exponentially. I’m cognizant that perhaps I just recognize something that’s always been there, but I suspect that it’s a growing element of today’s world. Perhaps the greatest issue is the increasing tendency to reward the bullshit. Even when the bullshit is obvious and brazen the reward system seems to be slanted rather precariously in rewarding it. This can only result in the increased production of bullshit, which empirically seems to be happening.
A particularly potent example happened in the past couple of years where I worked on a National project that was lauded as a massive success. So successful that it was granted an entire new lease on life at the end of its initial stage with more money. It was trotted out time and time again via press release and marketing as a marvelous success. The problem was that the success was complete and utter bullshit. The project was a train wreck (or perhaps clusterfuck is a better description). The best people working on it escaped from the appallingly bad science and do nothing management. No matter, who needs talent and achievement when bullshit is rewarded so handsomely! One might even argue that bullshit is rewarded even more than achievement today because it can be spun into whatever outcomes are most politically appealing. Results can be woven into whatever tapestry desired and used to serve the political needs of the day.
The National Ignition Facility is yet another shining example of bullshit be tolerated in science. They bullshitted us for years before completely failing to deliver. Part of the problem is that they bought their own bullshit hook-line and sinker. At the end of the day there wasn’t any accountability anyway. Given the overall manner in which this unfolded, why not choose a high integrity path? Why the bullshitting? Why is this even tolerated? These sorts of instances are not the way to get quality and excellence into our work. Science is being crushed under the weight of all the bullshit and lack of honest, transparent perspectives on the reality of our challenges
On that project the management was utterly and completely conflict adverse and often passive aggressive. No actual difficulty or problem with the conduct of the work technical or otherwise was ever solved. Despite the general knowledge that the project was a disaster internally, the external view was of unvarnished success. The project’s leadership moved on before the shit hit the fan (in fact promoted!). Given the degree to which bullshit is indistinguishable from actual achievement, the project may be a success in that it is an optimized bullshit factory. Bullshit like this and its success can only breed more bullshit. Of course, the project itself was built firmly upon a foundation of bullshit.
These days the body politic dines on bullshit; it depends on bullshit. No one calls “bullshit” any more; it is simply accepted as the coin of the realm. The lack of substance within the federal funding of the sciences is profound. We have no one to blame, but ourselves for this awful state of affairs. We have devolved into a poisonous dynamic where facts and truth are mere suggestions. These things only matter when they work with the narrative you want. Opposing truth is to be ignored and replaced with the manufacture of bullshit.
Climate science is a prime example solidly in the public eye. Both sides of the argument are full of shit. The climate scientists are less guilty (less full of shit), but guilty nonetheless. The science they could do should be far better and more honest with a better acknowledgement of the shortcomings of the work. The problem is that their opposition is utterly and completely without shame, and while not completely without merit mostly full of shit. Their entire argument against climate change is entirely ideological and without scientific merit, i.e., it is bullshit. Almost everything they say is bullshit with no substance at all. Their intent is to muddy the water, not clarify or get at the truth. It really doesn’t matter; the entire area is tarnishing science and undermining any public
discourse. The result is a degenerating argument that serves no one, and should embarrass all of us. The science doesn’t improve like it should and the lying and dishonestly colors the entire thing. For the climate deniers it works out fine because they’re happy covering the entire topic in shit; this serves their purpose almost optimally. For society as a whole and our stewardship of the World it is a tragedy. The practice of climate science does not improve as it should because the scientists cannot be honest about the shortcomings and challenges in the field as they should.
This sort of instance is only becoming more common. Such a “success” in opposition to reality and can only breed copy cats. I can only imagine that our current “never fail” and risk-adverse environment plays a deep part in breeding the sort of bullshit so commonly seen. When the good and virtuous part of science has become so firmly aligned with bullshit, it diminishes science as an engine of good. A major sign that bullshit is happening in science is the odious practice of science by press release. Most Labs and Agencies are chomping at the bit to have good stories to tell. They reason that a good story is a good way to get funding, and we all know money rules everything. Most of these stories are massaged into something of a public relations vehicle, and the best way to do this today is create a thoroughly bullshit narrative. A truly epic line of bullshit is usually a public relations coup.
Perhaps no area I’m aware of reeks of bullshit like high performance computing (OK, climate might be worse). For starters the list of fastest computers is complete bullshit. It is a bullshit benchmark running on increasingly bullshit computers. The problem is that it is all to real with massive resources, time and effort going into getting one of our computers to the top of that bullshit list using that bullshit benchmark. All this effort is wasted to promote a press release, and a chest pounding moment that is complete bullshit! When the dust settles the scientists have god awful computers to work with and the real performance attained is a small fraction of what the press release stated. When the public statements and marketing for an effort are so deeply in contrast to reality you have an epic example of bullshit.
The damage done is real and massive. We have allowed bullshit to become the medium of progress and communication. We are all poorer for it, sacrificing real progress for a bullshit pronouncement of it. Potentially useful work, projects, and careers are thrown into the production of bullshit. Deep and important problems are ignored because success doesn’t depend on solving the problems; it depends of bullshitting your way through it. A project can be an unmitigated clusterfuck, but with the right bullshitter at the helm it can be viewed as a success. Rather than achieve anything, the staff is trained to spin their work into a line of bullshit to be woven into the bullshit tapestry by their management. By the time it gets to the federal government its not clear whether the powers that be there recognize the utterly vacuous, vapid mess they have created, or the completely bullshit statements of success they depend upon.
So what can we do? What is the option for telling the truth and doing the right thing? Another observation is that being honest and earnest is a really good way to get in trouble and push your career into the gutter. Your career is far better served by honing your skills for producing bullshit. The better bullshitter you are, the better career you have along with a massive boost in your earning potential. Today’s scientific institutions from Labs to Universities value bullshit far more than actual scientific achievement. It is better to look like you’re doing something great than do something great that can’t be spun into a compelling narrative.
Take finance as an industry for example. Here is a massively important industry that should serve an important purpose in society of providing investment in the future. Instead the whole thing has devolved into a giant steaming pile of bullshit. Finance has become this giant money merry-go-round that produces money by “confidence” and shell games. Its dynamics have actually reversed its formerly important role of investment. Finance now primarily acts to remove money for utility for industry and simply lines pockets of the already rich and powerful.
The whole system of finance is so incredibly important because it serves as a model for management today. The most odious aspect of the pull of finance on management is the quarterly report mentality and its penetration into science. The quarterly report ends up being one of the prime drivers and sources of bullshit. It drives an intensely short-term focus on everything it touches. When doing something inherently long-term, and then forced to produce short-term results and progress, the result is a lot of bullshit.
Instead of reporting the truth of what needs to happen to solve long-term problems, we dress up our results and bullshit our way through the quarterly report. I’ve done it; I have no choice. Worse yet, we begin to structure the research programs to make this easier and end up perverting science to serve this demand for short-term progress. By doing this we start meaningfully damage science. The damage is already being done by our inability to produce real and accurate assessments of challenges, or allow things to fail. The bullshit produced through reporting short-term progress simply adds fuel to the inferno. The bottom line is that the short-term focus is good for no one; it is not good for business; it is not good for science; it is only good for making bullshit money via finance. It hurts science, business and society at large to an almost immeasurable degree. We need to stop it, and I fear only a catastrophe of epic proportion will do the trick.
In this way the avalanche of bullshit suffocating science is merely a symptom of a massive societal problem.
But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.
― Howard Zinn
Postscript: I considered writing this is a far more professional tone, but this sort of prose would have simply constituted its own form of bullshit, a repackaging of a truly offensive thing in a non-offensive form. I simply didn’t think it wise to propagate the very thing I’m speaking out against. It occurred to me that the wording and tone of this post is quite harsh. To soft-pedal the message today would be a disservice, and certainly far more offensive than the sort of bullshit I’m going to out. Being overly polite and inoffensive about something so patently offensive is an offense itself.