Calling Bullshit: The Future of Truth in Business
Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2017
“Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, from “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”
“Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
— Eric Ambler, from “The Dirty Story”
Ever since the US Presidential election, it has become fashionable to lament that we now officially find ourselves in the “post-truth” era. President Trump’s flagrant dismissal of the facts, complete ignorance of history, utter lack of interest in constitutional propriety, and incendiary propensity for impulsive tweeting have – almost as improbably as his anti-Newtonian comb-over – given everyone a license to throw the truth out with the trash.
It’s not that he’s lying. To be lying, he would have to believe that what he says is untrue. No, the President employs what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his now famous 2005 essay On Bullshit, referred to as “the essence of bullshit: a complete lack of concern with truth” and “an indifference to how things really are.” The important thing is not that what he says is true, but that it persuades.
If the expression “post-truth” is another way of signalling the end of the Enlightenment project, that grand 400-year experiment in empiricism, liberal economics, and democracy brought to you by the likes of Descartes, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Locke, Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, and Adam Smith, then the truth – whose loss we are meant to regret the most – is of the evidence-based, empirical variety.
The “post-truth” lament is also, by extension, a sign of crumbling trust in the institutions we have created to support and nurture the pursuit of life, liberty, and property: the corporation, the government, the media, and the academy.
In the United States, the corporation and its way of seeing the world has achieved total hegemony. One look at the Trump cabinet should make that abundantly clear, dominated as it is by investment bankers, corporate raiders, oil men, fast food magnates, and climate deniers.
These financiers and executives have built their empires on narratives of far more carefully wrought bullshit than anything Trump’s ever tweeted. While both the President and his cronies no doubt subscribe to the Randian myth of heroic, individual self-interest, his cabinet picks are more likely to have employed, in the words of Frankfurt, the “exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen” who inhabit the worlds of advertising and PR, replete (as these worlds are) with “instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”
Thirty-plus years of neoliberal narrative and deregulation have cleared the path for business to impose its paradigms and priorities on everyone else, as if the way business does business is the model for how everything should get done, from healthcare to education. Its domination of government and the media is complete. And, as noted by Jane Jacobs in her 2004 book Dark Age Ahead, it has reduced academia to nothing more than a credentialing service, “no longer considered as an investment that society makes in its next generation… but as an investment that students make in themselves”, conditioned as they have been for generations to believe that the sole purpose of a post-secondary education is to get a decent job. Post-secondary education has become a game of quantity over quality where “increased output of product can be measured more easily as numbers of credentialed graduates than as numbers of educated graduates.”
The same can be said of healthcare. Reflecting the reductionist cliché “what gets measured gets managed”, it is always easier to assign financial value to something that can be counted or visualized, such as a surgical intervention or an MRI. Softer, less quantifiable services, such as the advice and care of a primary physician, do not get the same level of funding. This has resulted in a critical decrease in doctors choosing to work as primary care physicians, opting for more lucrative specialties. Like education, healthcare is becoming rapidly commoditized as it submits to the harsh realities of the market.
As Lewis Lapham warned so often during his tenure as editor of Harper’s magazine, “we have made business our culture, and our culture a business.” If the free market is the prevailing cultural, institutional, and mental paradigm of our times, its “truths” are then the dogma of the day, the rules of the road down which all must travel, regardless of whether they are beneficial to all or not. Any part of our collective reality which cannot be captured on a spreadsheet is deprioritized, if not ignored. The only truth that matters in this environment is whatever business deems it to be.
One of the “truths” that has been a critical component of corporate dogma for decades is that Nietzschean illusion called “the consumer.” Since consumer spending is responsible for 70% of the GDP, business has a special interest in explaining this elusive creature’s behaviour.
Market research has been the traditional response to this need. But the classic consumer profile is based on a set of shared characteristics which are often too generic to posses any valuable insights. All nuance is lost in such schemes. Any appetite for the complexity and contradiction that characterizes most human beings is suppressed in favor of a more efficient, accessible, and quantifiable set of data points, preferably something chartable and powerpointable. Call it the tyranny of the executive summary.
As noted by Paul Hartley in the Winter 2016 issue of MISC magazine (Making it Too Real: Reification and Research in the Real World), all of this is attributable to the positivism bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, which proposes that the only way to know the world is through direct experience and empirical observation, and that this is the only truth we can gather. While this works really well in the hard sciences, it fails to capture the fullness of human lived experience, because people make meaning out of more than just brute sensory perception. But in its efforts to make sense of the world in which it operates, business demands simple answers, and it wants to believe they have been derived scientifically, as if people were as predictable as rocks or microwaves. So it has conveniently subscribed to a science based on simplification and the supposed infallibility of statistical methods.
Unfortunately, human beings tend not to conform so easily to the demands of the spreadsheet as they rarely share the characteristics of a statistical average. There is no such thing as an average human being. Nonetheless that fictional construct is precisely what businesses use to explain human behavior, reducing us to mere consumers. But as Hartley rightly asserts, “the consumer does not really exist. People exist, and sometimes they are consumers.”
To be fair, there has been a response to the hegemony of positivist research models. Interpretive research, unlike positivism, views reality as socially constructed, multiple, holistic, and contextual, rather than objective, tangible, fragmentable, and divisible. It relies more heavily upon the social sciences – anthropology, sociology, and psychology – rather than the hard sciences for methodological guidance. It rejects the positivist notion that, like homo economicus, humans are rational actors, devoid of emotion, and motivated by logic alone. It employs ethnography and phenomenology. And it requires what Roger Martin calls an “opposable mind”, one which can accept multiple competing claims to the truth.
Such a relativistic set of attributes does not readily yield to the exigencies of a world obsessed with Lean Six Sigma, which explains why positivism, while accepting the presence of interpretive approaches, is still by far the dominant paradigm in business research. Business may only be getting part of the picture, but if it’s the part that can live on a spreadsheet, it’s the only part that matters. If it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.
So now we have this tension that arises between the failure of empirical truth to capture the particularities of lived experience and its success in continuing to dominate the world of business research. And while that shortcoming may be the inspiration for 30+ years of interpretive research, the fact that the latter approach readily admits that there is no singular “truth” but many competing ones, does not provide business with any more assurances than its predecessor.
As commentator Pankaj Mishra has written in his recent book The Age of Anger, the positivist view of human behaviour has become entrenched because economics is now the dominant means of understanding the world. The market is the judge, the validator and the decider of what a person is (a consumer), what life is (a string of purchase decisions), and how it should be lived (rationally and individually). But while the positivist vision promises “a global economy built around free markets, competition and rational individual choices (that) would alleviate ethnic and religious differences and usher in worldwide prosperity and peace”, what it has delivered is something very different: a rapidly expanding chasm of economic and geographic inequality, an intensification of fear and anxiety among both the disenfranchised and the privileged, the rise of demagoguery, and the eruption of savagery, hatred and terror around the globe.
So what do we do? As Mishra reminds us, it was Alexis de Tocqueville who warned that “to live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change, and danger”, and that such a life would be absent of stability, security, identity, and honor. “Otherwise”, continues Mishra, “one moves quickly from unlimited freedom to a craving for unlimited despotism.” That certainly aligns with the world in which we find ourselves.
There are however those who navigate the currents of uncertainty and change without the need for any particular dogma or orthodoxy to guide them. These are the innovators, thinkers, misfits, activists, artists, and creators who can be found on the fringes of any walk of life, nipping at the hem of hegemonic power, disrupting the status quo, and bravely embracing the unknown. The future belongs to these voices.
It also belongs to those brave enough to stand up to bullshit in some of its most vaunted forms. There is some hope for this. Professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevon West of the University of Washington have begun offering a course entitled “Calling Bullshit” that aims to teach students how to think critically about “the bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse” and the “data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.” Adhering to Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit as language intended to persuade (with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence), they don’t just limit themselves to academic varieties but address the whole “bullshit-rich environment”: politics, science, higher education, the media, and advertising. Let’s hope at least some of the students who take that course end up in business.
In a world gone mad, these voices will become increasingly important reminders of the dangers of dogma and the layers of bullshit that protect it from anyone who challenges it. If the project of the Enlightenment has come to a close, one can only hope that the vacuum it has created will be filled by a willingness to transcend our weakness for absolutes, and not by some new orthodoxy that ensnares us in yet another web of Nietzschean illusions.
DeAngelis, Catherine D., “Where Have All the Primary Care Doctors Gone?”, The Millbank Quarterly, Vol 94, Issue 2, 2016
Frankfurt, Harry, On Bullshit, 2005
Hartley, Paul, “Making it Too Real: Reification and Research in the Real World”, MISC Magazine, Winter 2016
Jacobs, Jane, Dark Age Ahead, Random House, New York, 2004
Lapham, Lewis, Hotel America: Scenes in the Lobby of the Fin-de-Siecle, Verso, New York, 1995
Mishra, Pankaj, The Age of Anger, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017