On The Decline of Truth in the Age of Bullshit
It’s late September in the forest on Salt Spring Island. Foot-wide, stiffened, yellowish-brown maple leaves float to the ground, signalling the end of summer, and I crave one last taste of watermelon. In Ganges, watermelons are on sale. The label says seedless. Back in my forest hut, I slice into that succulent two-tone green orb, only to discover that its crimson-pink flesh hides dozens of white seeds. Flicking away these intruders, I remind myself that this is advertising. Anything goes. In my disappointment, I can’t tell if the bland taste means I didn’t pick a good one or if seedless doesn’t cut it when it comes to sweetness.
Should I be bothered about a misleading label? What right do I have to be indignant about it? I’ve stretched the truth a little here and there, dabbled in some exaggeration over the years. Everybody does it. It’s all quite harmless, isn’t it? I wonder if it’s just the silhouette of a shadowy monster.
What’s become of Truth? Is it Play-Doh in the hands of Mad Men, used car salesmen, politicians, cheating spouses, nasty five-year-old fibbers?
Apparently, from the time we can speak, grown-ups inculcate us into the cult of Truth. But according to Dr. Frances Stott, child development researcher and faculty at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, learning to fib is an important step in every child’s development. Stott says most children learn to lie between the ages of two and four, with the first lie representing a developmental achievement because it marks a child’s discovery that her thoughts are her own. We grown-ups all tell lies of convenience, while our children watch and learn.
Dr. Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, confirms that the lie is a condition of life. In a 1996 study, DePaulo and her colleagues asked 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 to record all the lies they told over a week. Most of them admitted to lying once or twice a day. Over the course of a week they deceived about 30 percent of those they interacted with one-on-one. Not only that, but some types of relationships, such as between parents and teens, seem to be built on foundations of deception.
Everyone lies, although some people lie more than others.
America’s funniest self-proclaimed television pundit, Stephen Colbert, has his own take on what’s happening to truth in America. In 2005, he popularized the notion of truthiness as a gut feeling that something is true regardless of logic or the facts. “Truthiness is tearing apart our country,” Colbert said in 2006. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?”
In a 2011 study, researchers working together in both New Zealand and Canada, looked at how images people see every day – the ones that decorate newspaper or TV headlines – produce truthiness. What they discovered astounded even them. In one example, they showed the claim ‘The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium’ to one group alongside a photo of a thermometer, while a second group was shown the same claim without a photo. When they asked the test subjects if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, those who saw the claim with the photo of the thermometer were significantly more likely to agree, even though it was obviously false.
Photos make it easy to picture the information, and that makes it feel right. “These photos might have unintended consequences,” concluded the researchers, “leading people to accept false information because of their feelings rather than the facts.” Could this help explain the mesmerizing power of print and visual advertising? Might also explain why cigarette makers paid actors big money over the years to light up in the movies. If our heroes smoke, how harmful could it be?
Seedless watermelons are hybrids – like a mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey. As a more convenient product, seedless watermelon outsells seeded by a margin of eight to two. According to the U.S. National Watermelon Promotion Board, ten years ago that margin was only six to four.
In the film The Insider, about Jeffrey Wigand, a former vice president of research and development at tobacco manufacturer Brown & Williamson. Wigand blew the whistle on the tobacco industry in a 1996 episode of the CBS television program 60 Minutes, when he revealed that Brown & Williamson intentionally increased the amount of nicotine in its cigarettes to make them more addictive.
But two years before the 60 Minutes revelation, a U.S. congressional subcommittee, while conducting a formal hearing into the regulation of tobacco, had heard sworn testimony from seven CEOs of American cigarette makers. They were asked point blank if they believed nicotine was addictive. One by one they parroted: “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.”
And when U.S. state governments sued big tobacco companies in the 1990s, newly released documents revealed that tobacco executives were aware of the harmful and addictive effects of smoking since the early 1950s. But in January 1954, four of the largest cigarette makers published an ad in the New York Times and 400 other newspapers, headed ‘A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.’ It read, in part:
“Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research. However, we do not believe that any serious medical research, even though its results are inconclusive, should be disregarded or lightly dismissed…Regardless for the record of the past, the fact that cigarette smoking today should even be suspected as a cause of a serious disease is a matter of deep concern to us…We believe the products we make are not injurious to health.”
One small step for advertising and public relations. One giant leap for bullshit.
Bullshit is pervasive in American culture, suggests moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his essay On Bullshit. “Everyone knows this,” he claims. “Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.” Bullshit is something expressed with complete disregard for the truth. Pretentiously. The object is to influence others by lying about the speaker’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.
Many of us look to journalists to keep the bullshitters honest. But even journalists can be victims of the war on truth. Sadly, libel chill stifles many important stories. And two current trends I’ve observed suggest the war on truth is relentless and escalating. The first is the flourishing of bullshit media – both broadcast and print. The second is the proliferation of whistle blowers and truth-checking organizations. The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, for example, announced their inaugural Integrity Award in 2011. Three Health Canada scientists became international heroes for raising concerns about potential harmful effects of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone, designed to boost the milk production of dairy cattle. Following the scientists’ whistle blowing revelations, the drug was banned in Canada and most of the developed world. But only after a smear campaign led to them being reprimanded, ordered to be silent, and eventually dismissed from Health Canada. Another new truth organization is FactCheck.org, popular recently for ferreting out truth and lies in the U.S. presidential election campaign.
I doubt FactCheck.org would be as popular as it is if mounds of bullshit weren’t being piled on the truth like so much fertilizer on a field of watermelons.
I Google seedless watermelon. One web site says there is no such thing as a seedless watermelon – they all have seeds. But here’s what the National Watermelon Promotion Board has to say about seedless watermelons:
“Seedless watermelons…have few or no seeds. When we say seeds, we are talking about mature seeds, the black ones. Oftentimes, the white seed coats where a seed did not mature are assumed to be seeds. But this isn’t the case! They are perfectly safe to swallow while eating, and don’t worry – no seeds will grow in your stomach.”
To me they look like seeds.
On the September 18, 2012 CBC television show The National, a segment called The Insiders, hosted by Peter Mansbridge, featured a panel of experts discussing the politics of lying. One of the examples the panel looked at was a news release by Stephen Harper’s 2005 election campaign that asked the question: “Paul Martin supports child pornography?” Truth is, Paul Martin did vote against a Conservative motion to curb child porn. But in Parliament, opposition motions are routinely voted down. Nonetheless, what the Conservative press release proclaimed was that “Martin says he’s against child pornography but his voting record proves otherwise.”
Also in the same segment, Mansbridge showed a clip from the recently released fiction film The Ides of March. In the scene, a U.S. senatorial candidate’s campaign press secretary asks a staffer if it’s true their opponent has investments in a diamond mine in Liberia. The staffer says they’re still checking it but they got it from a blog. “I don’t care if it’s true,” says the press secretary, “I just want to hear them denying it. If it is true, great. Find out. But if not, let them spend a day telling the press he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia. Win win.”
Fiction imitating real life?
Hasn’t there always been bullshit? But what’s different nowadays, Frankfurt claims, is that bullshit is no longer shit – waste emitted without thought. Advertising, public relations, and politics all rely extensively on bullshit that is meticulously crafted by sophisticated specialists with the help of market research, public opinion polling, and psychological testing.
I get it that people sometimes lie to cover up an embarrassing secret or mistake, or to make money. No doubt, most of these people are decent folk who have strayed after succumbing to temptation or pride. But when someone resorts to bullshit, he does not care at all about the truth. His aim justifies the means. He knows that maybe he can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but he tries to fool enough people to achieve his aim.
Bullshit is perceived by most people as less objectionable than lies, and it’s also harder to debunk. Spun into strands of disinformation, with enough wool to pull over people’s eyes, it renders the unaware blind. Bullshit is the smear campaign’s ammunition. Insidious and manipulative.
Why does it bother me? Harm and consequences, I think. Certainly, lies can cause great harm. But bullshit has the power to change a society, by changing the rules of common discourse. It can sap the spirit of those who think they are playing the same game – the game of debate over truth and reality – when it’s actually a completely different game. There are no rules. Bullshitters spread whatever bullshit will make the other side squirm, and wait for the red face or the white flag.
When elected leaders and corporate executives flaunt the truth, many of us can become cynical, skeptical, or overly vigilant. Behaviour changes. We might start to rationalize and justify our lies and our bullshit. Or what’s worse, people could become apathetic, lose faith in democracy, in society’s institutions, and in their fellow man. Which leads inevitably to further erosion in the value of truth. Like the downward spiral spin of an out-of-control aircraft, it’s very difficult to reverse.
Take climate change. Soon after Al Gore shared the science with the world in An Inconvenient Truth, deniers started filibustering the debate. U.S. Republican Senator James Inhofe, for example, has championed the notion that “global warming is the worst hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Action deferred is action not taken. I’m not a scientist, but I think I smell the stench of…well, you know.
Have I developed sensitive bullshit antennae? If bullshit detection is a learned behaviour that’s hard for me to shake, the thought makes me sigh with sadness. In a way, I grieve the loss of the me I once was, carefree and ready each day to embrace the world with an open heart and a smile.
Now summer is saying hello to autumn. Squirrels scramble to store food for the winter, and my neighbours in the forest chop and pile stacks of firewood. I can taste my next watermelon, the last one I’ll have before next summer. This time I’ll get one pockmarked with slippery, inedible, pesky black seeds. It’ll be hard work digging them out, but I know the sweet red flesh that remains will quench my desire for natural watermelon taste. The real thing. Authentic.