Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bullshit Detector Calibration

I don't know if you're familiar with Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit".  It's required reading round here. Indeed, we have a copy available in the single occupancy employee lounge (you may refer to this as toilet reading).  If you haven't read it, you should.  Then you'll know that the expression "marketing bullshit" is a tautology.

The point Frankfurt makes is that bullshit is not the same thing as a lie.  To call someone a bullshitter is not to call them a liar.  A piece of bullshit may (or may not) be true. A lie is known to be false (by the liar) and is intended to make us believe it to be true.  The key observation is that the bullshitter doesn't really care about the truth value of the statement, it's chiefly (only?) the effect that interests them.

Thus any marketing language is highly likely to be pretty much pure bullshit.  And this is the first step of calibrating the Bullshit Detector (which we assume  you were issued with).  We have what you might call a high a priori probability of bullshit in any marketing message.  That dialed in, we then proceed to scan for other bullshit signals...

An aside:  We don't make a moral judgement here.  You're entitled to bullshit if you wish.  You may consider that it's your job.  It doesn't make you a bad person.   I'd suggest that there may be better ways of persuading people.

So, right, back to it.  Unsupported or unverifiable assertions:  If I say (for instance) "My beer is best", that's a strong bullshit signal.  If I cared about the truth of this statement, I'd give you what you need to evaluate that.  How would you even start? Drink all the beer in the world and then some of mine to check? Only "fonefan" has even tried.  And besides, it's so subjective. Now, if I say "My beer is award-winning", there's a whiff of bullshit, but at least it's objective, and you could investigate for yourself. I may indeed care that this is true, it may be a key part of my message that it is true and if so, not bullshit.

An aside:  Pretty much all breweries are "award winning".  So to assert "My brewery is award winning", while probably true, doesn't convey any actual information.  This is a special case of not caring whether something is true or not. Hence bullshit.

Update: I saw this gem just now, "The fact is we make the best beer in the best way and deliver it in perfect condition". 100% weapons grade bullshit.

Undefined terms:  I say, "I am a craft brewer". You say, "Oho! Define 'craft'".  I say "Hey man , don't be so square, we're not going down that blind alley, we all know what craft means. I'm it. Those guys aren't".  Clearly, if I'm not going to define it, you're not going to be able to tell if it's true or not, and I'm obviously happy with that. Hence bullshit. (N.B. also works for "innovative").

Anonymous sources, attribution of motives to nameless entities (not something out of the Cthulu mythos, you know what I mean, like "them", but not: "The Man" - we all know what that means.)

"Talk is cheap" Is it, in fact, cheap? Blogs are cheap. Newspapers and books are more expensive. Did my lawyers look over what I wrote?  Low cost text may imply low value,  high bullshit nonsense.

Common fallacies.  Double points for red herrings.  Anyone putting together a piece of persuasive text must know that these will be spotted.  But they don't care. Hence bullshit.

Of course, there are other signals, and it may amuse you to adjust your settings accordingly.  But this covers the essential steps of Bullshit Detector Calibration.


Cooking Lager said...

I'd like more of this. I'd like to know why bullshit has value. It must have as people expend labour creating it. I'd like to understand it's economic utility. Regular pig shit is a fertilizer or in Max Max films a source of energy powering Tina Turners town. So what is the economic utility of bullshit? How does the market operate to set a price? Is there a monopoly, oligopoly or regular competition? How is bullshit graded to compare one vendor to another? Run with this, tell me more.

StringersBeer said...

I think it's no more complicated than bullshit being largely substitutable for rational persuasion, while being cheaper to produce. That said, many find it more palatable than the alternative. The sliced white bread of thought.

StringersBeer said...

... or if you will the "cooking lager" of ideas.