Evaluating a philosophical text for truthiness raises an interesting question: Can a philosopher debunk bullshit without employing certain “bullshitting” techniques himself? After Ethan introduced “On Bullshit”, I was optimistic. After all, he told us that “On Bullshit” was written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. And for as long as philosophy has been around, philosophers have been suspicious of rhetoric, with some, like Plato, calling it “mere flattery” and by itself, immoral. So if Frankfurt can’t do it, who can?
I think that reporters in some sense straddle the aims of both philosophers and rhetoricians -they seek truth but also want to convey truth that in a persuasive way. I wanted to see what I could learn from Frankfurt and Wendell Potter, two masters of their respective crafts, and what I could learn from applying a rhetorician’s toolkit to a philosophical text: How does my reading of Frankfurt’s text change with Potter’s techniques in mind? And what innovations might help reporters and readers sharpen their bullshit detectors?
Quest for Bullshit
I set out to read “On Bullshit” with Wendell Potter’s eight propaganda techniques in mind. Here, in short, Wendell’s eight techniques:
2. Glittering Generalities
5. Plain folks
Bullshit Detection & Flagging Process
I wanted to use icons to help me flag rhetorical techniques in the text. This could help visually point out worrisome bullshit spots, and tell other readers to be suspicious of particular passages. I haven’t used icons to mark up my texts before, and I didn’t find a lot of options for doing this in Adobe Acrobat, so instead, I searched for clipart on Creative Commons ClipArt, imported and resized them in the pdf.
I found Potter’s Technique #8: “Transfer”, or the approval of a respected institution, right underneath Frankfurt’s name. I wasn’t sure whether to count this or not, since Frankfurt is merely citing his university affiliation. However, it seemed to me that stating “Princeton University” before the first paragraph even begins immediately signals to the reader: “This is a guy from Princeton, so he must know what he’s talking about.” And I think that this could very well influence the reader’s perception of the text. Perhaps she puts down her critical guard and is now quicker to agree with Frankfurt’s claims. Had he written “Burger King Employee”, the text might be perceived very differently. So I placed the appropriate icon.
I decided against counting Frankfurt’s first sentence “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit” as a glittering generalization (Technique # 2), because Frankfurt relativizes “salient features of our culture” with the statement “one of the most”. But as for the second sentence “Everyone knows this”- there’s no evidence for that!! That sentence definitely calls for an icon.
I couldn’t find any more of the eight rhetorical techniques until the end of the page, when suddenly – the Oxford English Dictionary. That definitely counts as a “Transfer” (Technique #8). Frankfurt could have cited Wikipedia or Wiktionary instead. But he appeals to a more “established” authority. So I placed the icon.
In sum, I found a total of five glittering generalities, three testimonials, six euphemisms and five transfers. And I have to say, for an almost 8000 word text, that seems like very little bullshit.
While looking for instances of these eight techniques, I also found that Frankfurt was making a lot of anti-bullshit moves. I decided to see how I could generalize these and then flag them in the text also.
1. Fear — Contextualization/Understanding
2. Glittering Generalities — Specification
3. Testimonials — Experience & Facts
4. Name-calling — Correct name
5. Plain folks — Author’s/Subject’s real background
6. Euphemisms — Telling it as it is
7. Bandwagon — Demographics
8. Transfer — No name flashing
Since finding icons was so time consuming, I reused my old icons and placed an ‘x’ over them to indicate “anti-bullshitting” techniques. I found the first in the title: “On Bullshit”. This is clearly an example of anti-bullshit Technique #6: “Telling it as it is”. I mean, Frankfurt doesn’t label this “A Treatise on Excrement” or “An Explication of Hot Air”. With “On Bullshit”, he isn’t beating around the bush. So I placed the appropriate icon.
Next, instead of blowing his previous generalization “there is so much bullshit” out of proportion, Frankfurt does something else: He points to the need to understand what bullshit is in the first place, stating that “to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.” So rather than relying on Bullshit Technique # 1 and describing an epic oncoming tidal wave of bullshit, Frankfurt is on the right path to helping readers understand what bullshit is in the first place.
Although I’ll spare you the rest of the analysis, overall, I counted more anti-bullshit moves than bullshit techniques. I’m not sure whether that means that Frankfurt is a great philosopher or bad rhetorician (or both?). But what I did observe was how my own understanding of the text changed when I read with this “bullshit detection quest” in mind. Rereading the text to find places where I could place icons made me stop more often, carry out more internal dialogues about whether and where bullshit was being carried out.
From a cognitive perspective, we learned in class that readers are drawn to “feel good” rhetoric like moths to light. But by placing these icons, I stopped frequently to debunk statement. However, my process of finding, importing and placing icons was timely, clumsy and lonely. In addition, my icons and explanation for why I placed them are in two different spaces. So I began searching and brainstorming for ways to make rhetorical bullshit flagging faster, more orderly and collaborative.
hypothes.is is the closest tool I found for flagging and commenting on bullshit in texts. It’s an overlay on top of content such as news articles, blogs, terms of service, etc. Although the software is still being developed, I’m looking forward to exploring it more. At this stage, it’s text-only and is missing visual features like icons. I think that visuals could be valuable not only to more quickly flag potential bullshit to other readers, but because they could have a learning function. If readers (especially young readers) can pinpoint specific rhetorical techniques and associate them with an interesting visual while reading, perhaps it would give them a more critical perspective. I imagine that there are even games that could develop out of this.
What comparable or better software for flagging and commenting on rhetorical techniques (in a way that’s embedded in the text) should I look at? I’m sure I’m missing a ton. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make text-embedded rhetorical bullshit flagging quicker, more organized and collaborative.