On the limits of knowledge and the ubiquity of bullshit in business

On the limits of knowledge and our duty to ourselves and our readers

It is the 1980’s, we are at Brunel University’s physics department.  The philosophically minded physics professor and I are discussing freedom.  Then the subject turns to the limits of knowledge.  He refers to my latest ‘homework’ and we agree that the computation I submitted put forward an answer to three decimal places. He asserts that it is bullshit and proceeds to prove his point.   He takes me through each variable asking me to estimate the degree of accuracy of each variable.  Finally, he prods me to redo the computation that I had submitted in my homework.  I do so and surprise!  I find that instead of giving an answer to three decimal places, I should have just rounded up the number (no decimal places) and added ”+/- 10,000” after it. Why? To honour my obligation – to myself and the reader – of pointing out clearly/visibly the limits of knowledge and my assertions.

An illustrative example of bullshit in business?

It is a lesson I strive to remember and even if I forget it, it tends to remember and find me!  It found me just this week.  I happened to come across this post (How to Be a Beloved Company) by Jeanne Bliss and I was struck by the following three statements:

1. “We are programmed to care. We naturally want to do the right thing.”

2. “Pfaff’s findings tell us altruism is a hardwired function of the human brain. We take altruistic actions because a neural mechanism leads us naturally down this path. This creates a tendency for serving the best interest of others.”

3. “Pfaff tells the story of a man who saw someone fall onto the tracks of a New York City subway. On instinct, the man jumped into the well of the tracks, hoisted the stranger onto his back, and carried him to the edge of the platform to be lifted out.”

Upon reading these statements, that conversation with my physics professor came back to me. It occurs to me that these assertions are bullshit!

Let’s take the first two statements which are assertions about the way human beings are. Notice there is no doubt in these assertions, they are the case!  Now, take a moment and think of the Newtown shooting in the USA.  And of the particularly horrific gang rape by six men of the 23 year old women who they left for dead.  Now please look me in the face and tell me, again, that we are programmed to care, we naturally want to do the right thing and that altruism is hardwired function of the human brain.

Now let’s address the third statement which is a story used to back up the assertions.  In a universe filled with data and stories you and I can always find some data, some event, some story to back up our favoured point of view.  So let’s play that game.  I say that we are not programmed to care and that altruism is not a hardwired function of the brain.  Want me to give you a story to back up my assertions? Here is such a story and it happened several days ago:

“A woman accused of pushing an Indian-born man to his death in front of a New York City subway train told police she did it because she blamed Muslims for the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and because “I thought it would be cool,” prosecutors said at a court hearing.”

If you are the ‘executive summary’ type then you might want to stop here.  If you are more like me and enjoy / get value with grappling with stuff to truly understand stuff then you might want to read on.

Why bullshit is corrosive to business effectiveness and our way of life

You might be wondering why I am being so pedantic.  I am being pedantic because bullshit has become ubiquitous and it has serious consequences for us, for our organisations, for our institutions, for our way of life. Why/how?  Allow me to share with you some key points arising out of an essay that  the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote on bullshit.

“One of the salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.  Everyone knows this.  Each of us contributes his share.  But we tend to take the situation for granted.  Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it….

In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work.  Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to exactly as it should be.  These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their conscience.  So nothing was swept under the rug.  Or one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

Is a bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob?  Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined?…….

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain.  Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics are replete with instances of bullshit….. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who – with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing and so forth – dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they product exactly right. 

It is for this mindlessness that Pascal’s Wittgenstein chides her.  What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her statement is correct.… Her statement is not “wrought with greatest care”.  She makes it without bothering to take into account at the question of its accuracy.  

The point is rather that …. Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavour to provide accurate representation of reality imposes.  Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she in not even trying …..  This is important to Wittgenstein because….. he takes what she says seriously… He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false …  It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regards as the essence of bullshit.  

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it … For the bullshitter….: he is neither on the side of truth nor on the side of the false.  His eyes are not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. 

Each responds to the fact as he understands them …… The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether.  He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and opposes himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than the lies are. 

…. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can only have two alternatives.  The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertions whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything but bullshit. 

….. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic…..”

And finally

I set up this blog back in 2010. Why? Because it occurred to me that there was an ubiquity of bullshit when it came to the Customer domain.  So I make a request of you: if you find that I am contributing to the omnipresence of bullshit in the domain of business then please let me know!  For my part, I say that I will strive to remember and practice the lesson that my physics professor taught me – being aware of and pointing out the limitations of my knowledge and in particular the accuracy of my knowledge.

My advice to you: start from the assumption that all business writing is marketing/PR and as such the default setting is that of bullshit. Then from that context investigate it and if you find value in it then use it.  How do you find value? First by thinking critically. Specifically, if someone asserts “all swans are white” then look for instances of black swans – the opposite of what is being asserted. And once you  are confident that this test has been passed then try it out – run a pilot, learn from experience, revise where necessary.