Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Academics of Bullshit 101

The Academics of Bullshit 101 - Why every student should take a course on bullshit.

Following an all-candidates' meeting during the recent Ontario provincial election I had the privilege to briefly discuss with some journalism students the fact that "bullshit" has now become a respectable academic field of study. If one uses google scholar with the search string "on bullshit" one is rewarded 5,590 hits of what should be mainly the academic, scholarly, peer reviewed literature on the subject. While the revival of studies on bullshit is generally credited to the phenomenal success of Princeton University emeritus philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt's 2005 book simply entitled "On Bullshit", this author is of the opinion that Neil Postman's paper delivered at the National Convention for the Teachers of English on November 28, 1969 in Washington, D.C. entitled "Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection" should be the first reference any student should read. Postman made the following point: "As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit." A little later he continues: "every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure". It was left to Frankfurt to proclaim that "one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit"; however, the purpose of this short submission is to draw to the attention of students that the rapidly expanding academic literature on bullshit has something of interest to most students. Let me close by simply providing three examples:

1. Students of journalism and political science should be interested in - Brandenburg, Heinz, Short of Lying - The prevalence of bullshit in political communication, presented at the Annual Conference of the Political Studies Association, Reading, 4-6 April, 2006.

2. Accounting, business and science students might enjoy Queen's University Norman B. Macintosh's Accounting - Truth, Lies, or bullshit. A Philosophical Investigation.

3. For anyone wanting to go deeper into bullshit the book by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch, 2006, Bullshit and Philosophy - guaranteed to get perfect results every time, Open Court, Chicago is a must library addition.

While the entire book is worth reading, although some chapters are heavy slugging, the following chapters are highly recommended:

Chapter 6 by University of British Columbia Professor Alan Richardson - Performing Bullshit and the Post-Sincere Condition, should be read by every student thinking of post graduate studies.

Chapter 14 by Heather Douglas - Bullshit at the Interface of Science and Policy: Global Warming, Toxic Substances, and Other Pesky Problems, page 215, is must reading for policy wonks, politicians and bureaucrats.

Canadians have made excellent contributions to the literature on bullshit as can be seen by visiting . Perhaps University of Manitoba professor John S. McCallum said it best in his 2005 Viewpoint - On Bullshit is not bullshit, Ivey Business Journal, Sept/Oct, page 1-3.