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On Falsehoods, Obfuscation and BS

I have long been concerned by the seemingly endless stream of falsehoods or misleading statements in our political and social discourse. A relevant yet distinct trend has been the rise in meaningless and convoluted drivel that often passes for informed opinion in public discussions. How many TV discussions involve people that really know about the topic on which they are asked? There is perhaps a not so well known cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect: whereby incompetent people are overconfident. This may explain this phenomenon but not fully.

I have come across a delightful book on the topic of using "BS" in business discourse. Written by Professor Harry Frankfurt (Professor of Philosophy at Princeton) it is well written and steers clear of jargon and obfuscation. It is lucid and convincing as a book on such a subject should be.

First of all, Professor Frankfurt distinguishes between lying and BS: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing BS requires no such conviction.” As for why BS is so pervasive, he notes:

“BS is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of BS is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled–whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.”

Reading the book reminded me of an incident which was recounted to me by a participant in a televised discussion panel convened to discuss the Cyprus economy. When my friend, who was one of the members of the panel, was asked to state his opinion on a particular topic, he declined by saying that he does not know the subject sufficiently well. To which the TV moderator asked: "Do you need to know about a specific topic to express an opinion?" Sadly, the answer to that question may be all too predictable.

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