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May 08, 2007

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In Tech marketing we called it "bullshit". It's a lie, but it's a carefully couched lie that can't be proven (or called) easily. Like if I am selling a remote-access router that tends to catch fire in the switch room rack, I can lay claim to 5-9's reliability because it worked that way in the QC lab before it shipped. Never mind the widely customer-reported fires in the field, they are not proven in the lab, so it's not an easily-proven lie. My defense is intended to mislead the customer: it's bullshit. I once had to go out to our sales channel and defend an Ethernet board that, um, didn't work sometimes. Well, a lot. I had four or five statements in my mind to use that pitched the reliability tests in our lab (which we cut to a quarter the scheduled QC to make up time to our product launch, but nevermind, who's counting...), blamed the customer's PC's, blamed the TCP software, and quoted a couple of magazine tests that rated the board highly (in lab conditions and optimum test environment). It was all bullshit and I caught holy hell from resellers for lying to them. You have no idea what a New York reseller can do to you when you are caught lying to them. (Real examples)

I see this bullshit as a lie if the bullshitter knows what is said is not true, or not congruent. By that I mean that if someone says two incongruent things to mislead the listener, in order to confuse or change the received message, it's a lie; the speaker knows what is said is not true or is intended to mislead.

My bottom line, it's about integrity: if you are speaking with integrity, your are speaking the truth. If you are speaking without integrity, you are lying. You KNOW what the truth is, and if you speak otherwise, you are speaking an untruth: a lie.

My wife is a communications studies professor so I'm going to run this by her when she comes home from teaching tonight. Should be interesting.

Umm...one more thing. I worked for a major telecom equipment company that did business around the world. The company had a policy that they did not pay bribes to close or further business. No Bribes.

But you can't do business in many countries without paying off a lot of people. The minister of communications. The guy that runs the test lab. The guy evaluating the bids. If you don't pay these people off, someone else who did wins the bid.

As you might imagine, this screwed up the yearly revenue numbers...so the company made up an accounting cost center called a "special projects fund". The fund was used to hire a local "sales consultant" who billed for his time. That time was a number that was entered into the corporate books as sales costs in the local country. Of course the 'consultant' did the payoffs, and the bribes were no longer bribes, they were consulting fees.

This was a lie and everyone in the executive floor and in sales management knew it was a lie, but it was wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and contracts were closed, revenue was booked, and the stock price climbed.

I am using up bandwidth to tell this story because I think a lot of wink-wink, nudge-nudge is going on around defense contracts these days. So much is blacker money and so much activity has been hidden by classification of projects. Just a thought.

marksb, interesting take. Frankfurt's definition of bullshit, at least as I understand it, hinges on the speaker's disregard for truth or falsehood (he aims the charge particularly at talking heads on cable news, who care less about accuracy than about saying whatever it takes to keep an audience: truth, lies, who cares.) My own sense of bullshit, as I wrote previously, is "the meaningless dressed in the clothes of the meaningful." In your case, you were hyping statistics that you knew weren't relevant -- classic bullshit.

In the broadest sense, bullshit is any kind of deception -- as you say, "speaking without integrity." Certainly the examples here are meant to deceive (or at least obfuscate -- is the difference important?) and so you might say they're all bullshit. But, at the very least, we can work on a taxonomy of the different kinds of bullshit. And I think this is a start.

Marcy, right now there is so much lying, bullshit, and obfuscation going on in the media, politics, and in business that I think this is vital work. Maybe the most vital.

It is said that the first step to corrective action to bad behavior is to expose the bad behavior so we all can view it in absolute honesty. Then we can begin to correct the behavior toward something more ethical and morally true---living with integrity, in this case.

This is truly a long-term project, but perhaps it's the core of our renewal? I mean, what is our country to become now that we've faced our current situation? Perhaps living in integrity, or living for the truth, is an/the appropriate return to the core of our founding values as a country and a society.

Heh. How do you like that as a desciption of Democratic values: The Truth.

mark, fyi emptywheel does not equal emptypockets.

Ha. Read the material (three times!), skim the author. Shucks. Well, there ya' go, nice post emptypockets.
(Oh for an edit function!)

Nice post emptypockets thanks.

Tancredo's just one of that curious group of third-generation immigrants who turn out to be ladder-pulling xenophobes with a not-so-secret love of white-supremacist groups.

What's fascinating about his brand of bullshit is that it sits just over the border from White Supremacist Land. And there's no bell-curve of acceptability in right-wing American politics: one can be an inch to the left of Stormfront and considered 'mainstream'.

Hmm, I'd call it a fallacy rather than a paradox, but I don't know an existing formal name for this one.

One nit to pick -- Romney's answer does appear to allow for doing research on fertility-clinic embryos, so it may not quite fit the pattern. (If you take him at his word and don't assume that he'd get smacked down by the Christian Right before anything could actually happen.)

An OT FYI --

according to Michelle Shocked, "Cotton Eyed Joe" is a back alley abortionist.

Read the lyrics closely, and it comes out:

"I'd a been married a long time ago,
If it hadn't been for Cotton Eyed Joe"

As for the Bullshit shout out, read between the lines:

"What you say?

Bull-Shit!!!

What you say?

Bull-Shit!!!"

The "what she said" is -- I'm pregnant.

Redshift, on fallacy vs paradox, thanks for the suggestion. I'm not sure which is correct here. My impression is that fallacy has a vaguer meaning, including any kind of false reasoning. So I would put Thompson's "wishful thinking" statement under the fallacy category. I don't think the Model T example is false reasoning so much as a purposefully self-contradictory or self-inconsistent statement. So I think I prefer "paradox."

As to Romney's stem cell position, on the contrary he said in the debate he would not allow the use of embryos from fertility clinics:

Moderator: And you won't take any from these fertility clinics to use either?

Romney: I'm happy to allow that to -- or I shouldn't say happy. It's fine for that to be allowed, to be legal. I won't use our government funds for that.

This is somewhat fallacious, as the legality is not at issue (indeed, it's now constitutionally protected in Missouri) but rather whether NIH can fund this research. Romney's position is, as far as I can tell, equivalent to the current policy.

-ck-, I hadn't heard that one but I did look into it a bit and there seem to be quite a few theories about its origins. In fact, it's interesting just how much of a folk song it is -- no one seems to be sure quite how it came about. One theory I did see (I've lost the web page now) related to gonorrhea or other STDs, where (not to get too graphic) I suppose men suffering from a discharge or "drip" might possibly refer to their sexual organ as a "cotton-eyed joe." This may make sense with the "Would've been married long time ago, hadn't been for that cotton-eyed joe." The general impression I got was that the "Bullshit" call-and-response part was introduced more recently, and I saw some references to variations on this (like shouting "Crawfish", which may be either independently arisen or a self-censorship away from the "Bullshit" version).

Completely OT, this reminds me of an interpretation I once read about "The Riddle Song" (I gave my love a chicken, that had no bone; I gave my love a cherry, that had no stone; I gave my love a story, that had no end; I gave my love a baby, with no cryin') that interpreted it completely in terms of sexual puns: the "chicken without a bone" supposedly referenced a cock, the "cherry without a stone" was a hymen, the "baby with no cryin" was the pregnancy. Apparently this has been disproved, based on the song predating some of that slang, but it makes you listen to it very differently anyway!

I thought cottonmouth was the dry mouth you get from smoking a particular illicit plant. Note that I am not admitting to or advocating use of this substance.

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