It often feels like we're living in the golden age of, well, bullshit. Thanks to social media, political polarization, and our need for constant entertainment, the world feels flooded with half truths, blatant misrepresentations, scammy self-promotion, and absurd Instagram filters.
But it's not just the frustrated public who feel beset on all sides by an avalanche of BS. Academics are worried about it too.
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit," philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt wrote in his unmissable little book, On Bullshit. Researchers are investigating who is most vulnerable to BS. Canadian academic Ian McCarthy and colleagues even developed a scale to measure BS and are in the midst of studying how BS at work affects employee morale and engagement.
While we wait for those results to come in, I think most of us have a gut sense of what they're likely to find. Truth-dodging corporate speak, empty jargon, and inflated self-promotion all get in the way of truth, clarity, and coordination. I don't know anyone (who isn't a professional scam artist) who says, 'Gee, I wish there were more BS in my life,' and I doubt you do either.
So how do you reduce your exposure to energy-sucking BS? Helpfully, McCarthy and his team have also developed a framework for leaders to confront and reduce it in the workplace with the hard-to-forget name CRAP. It consists of four parts:
The first step in fighting back against BS is getting clear on exactly what it is. BS isn't lying. Instead, it's a disregard for the truth entirely. Bullshitters are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. They don't care. They'll say or do whatever seems likely to get the result they want.
The next step is to spot actual BS in operating in the wild. "It often appears in the form of cliches, platitudes, business jargon that seem meaningful but upon closer examination are empty," McCarthy and his colleagues explained on The Conversation.
Technology has become another vector for spreading BS. "Bullshit can also be enhanced by using data and visualization techniques that conceal, distort, or obfuscate the truth. Technological advances such as deepfakes, where a fake image of a person can be created and manipulated, can make bullshit seem more convincing," they add.
Know what BS looks like so that you can identify it when it's served up to you.
Once someone has identified a real-life instance of BS, what can they do about it? The academics offer four possible responses. Which one a person chooses depends on the particulars of the situation.
Voice. This is calling BS. It's when you "ask to see evidence that supports the suspected bullshit, or offer counter-evidence or logic to challenge it," write the researchers.
Loyalty. This is when you decide to smile and ignore the BS because you think another response will harm a relationship you value or because the BS personally benefits you.
Neglect. The passive-aggressive response to BS, this one involves silently withdrawing from a task, team, or individual because of the unbearable burden of dealing with their BS.
Exit. Just what it sounds like. This is when you cut someone or something out of your life completely to escape their BS.
Many of us will worry that voicing your objection to BS might cause conflict or resentment, but at least some first-person reports from those who have committed to calling out BS claim that not only is the practice more freeing than you probably expect, it's also possible to do politely and humanely. Here's more on how if that's your worry.
Getting better at dealing with BS once it rears its ugly head is helpful. But it's even better to prevent yourself from being on the receiving end of so much malarkey in the first place. This is why McCarthy and his colleagues urge leaders to take a proactive approach to discouraging BS in their organizations. As an example they point to a 2010 memo from Elon Musk calling out "a creeping tendency to use made-up acronyms at SpaceX" and reminding employees that "excessive use of made-up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication."
If you sense jargon and BS are on the march at your company, say something. You may even want to call our specific terms or phrases you feel are empty and unhelpful. Likewise, stamping our pointless meetings and requiring data and evidence to back up decisions also discourages bloviating and BS.
The bottom line here is that you are not helpless against a rising tide of BS. Educating yourself on the subject and making a conscious commitment to battle back against a disregard for reality can make a big dent in the prevalence or bullshit both in your company and in your life.