17 December 2011

On bullshit

By now, Harry Frankfurter's little treatise On Bullshit, is a modern classic, I dare say. Published in 2005 by Princeton University Press, it studies one of the most common anathemas of our society, i.e., bullshit. The word is almost a neologism, which, according to wikipedia, was coined by T.S. Elliot's poem, The Triumph of Bullshit, some 100 years ago. I had bought the book back in 2005 and read it with interest and amusement. Some time later, my friend Joe Higgins, not knowing that I possessed a copy, sent it to me as a gift. I kept it because I had lost (or lent to someone) my original copy.

The word is not easily translatable in other languages. But we do have, of course, the almost equivalent "malakies" (μαλακίες) in Greek [caveat: in plural, not in singular!], and google translate knows that, but google translate does not know a word better than "mierda" in Spanish; whereas in German it says "Bullshit" [capital B, of course] and in French it gives "connerie", bien sur.

Etymology aside, bullshit is a well-recognized, daily-used. word. Bullshitters exist everywhere. You can find them among politicians, academics, lawyers, managers, business people, journalists, scientists, uneducated folk, etc. Frankfurter argues that a bullshitter is not a liar. A liar knows he is lying and, in a sense, is more honest (to himself) than a bullshitter. A bullshitter is a different sort of guy, one for whom lies or truth is irrelevant. He explains that in this 10-minute interview.

We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production, but why is bullshit so much tolerated? There are no laws against bullshit, whereas there certainly are for lies. Is a bullshitter less harmful than a liar? Is it because it is harder to tell what constitutes bullshit? Why do we tolerate bullshit? No good answer exists (yet).

What has bothered me, throughout my academic career, is Academic Bullshit (ABS). This is a special kind of bullshit, one that academics specialize in, ranging from philosophers (c.f. the Sokal affair) to scientists, engineers and mathematicians. It is the last two categories that concern me mostly, because I have worked in such academic environments. A special case of ABS is Academic Bullshit in Teaching and Education (ABST). Frequently using as an excuse the criterion of customer [read student] satisfaction, a large number of academics have transformed teaching into boring, jejune, stupid, false act. I wrote about this at the beginning of the year. I have based my observations on ABST on my personal experience during the past 5 years in the UK, previously in Greece and before that in the US. I have encountered many, a large number indeed, of people practising ABST and have collected a number of glaring examples. The presence of ABST in the University is what brings a university to its knees. In the meantime, universities collect students' fees, deliver ABST to them, but it is not easy to distinguish ABST from true teaching. This is precisely the success of ABST. But it also shows why ABST, and more general forms of Bullshit, should be punishable by our legal system. It is as bad as lying, if not worse than it. 

1 comment:

  1. A member of a covariant tangent bundle sounds much fancier than a force. Obfuscate or perish.



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant