Ben Kunz on the nature of bullshit
The estimable Ben Kunz recently blogged about Modeling the Human Projection of Bullshit. He has a three-part framework, and I think it provides a good way to think about things.
Here’s the main idea, from his blog:
So why does everyone, including me, craft levels of BS? My suggested framework for bullshit has three vectors:
- Level of confusion — is the author stupid or clear-headed?
- Level of misdirection — is the author deliberately trying to mislead?
- Level of bias — is the author starting from a point of prejudice?
These three layers explain everything you need to know about bullshit, and why today we have more BS than at any prior point in human history.
I agree with the classification. I also think the reason why we have more bullshit now is a simple question of supply and demand. There is an enormous demand for interactive content to fill up our time reading screens, and the supply expands to meet it, regardless of quality.
Let’s examine Ben’s three layers.
Confusion is definitely the first, most proximate cause of bullshit. As Ben says, “the level of confusion in communications is up, simply because today we have vast inventory of media that sucks in mediocrity.” This is exactly right, but it underestimates all of what we read, most of which is not media, or even “media”, or even “content”, but just stuff people want us to read — email, Facebook posts, things like that. The quality media ought to stand out from that fetid pool of crap, but instead, the fetid pool sucks everything downward in quality.
Ben says most authors of content try to mislead because exaggeration is the basis of human survival. According to the blog post:
Communication has always been about influencing others to take an action. As we all compete with more content alternatives, we must be more provocative in statements to stand out, to misdirect more strongly. There’s a logical reason why Trump says incendiary things about immigrants, or why [Fiorina] tells grisly tales about abortion. It’s not just the story; it’s the amplitude required to get a major reaction.
I think misdirection is not nearly as important as confusion. That is, people create bullshit more from ignorance than malice. But bullshit from malice is more pernicious and harmful, so we must be vigilant for it.
Ben explains that since all humans are biased, which leads us astray. I must admit that as I read people talking past each other on the internet, I see lots of bias at work. Bias blinds us to the need to find higher, more profound truth that unites us instead of making us into warring clans.
Ben and I are after different goals here. I want to point out the flaws in people’s writing and help people to write better. I think Ben is trying to explain why the quality of what we read is so poor, not just in writing, but in meaning. And to that end, his framework is illuminating.
Next time you read something and say “that’s bullshit,” think about Ben’s framework. Is it confusion, misdirection, or bias that’s at the core. Think that way, and you’ll be a little better prepared to consume what the thoughtless writers of the the world throw at you.
Photo: Ben Kunz via Twitter