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Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It

Evan Davis


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Evan Davis is a presenter of BBC2's Newsnight and venture capital show Dragons' Den. Formerly BBC economics editor and Radio 4 Today programme co-presenter. Spends downtime, according to my admittedly rudimentary fact check, with his pet whippet Mr Whippy.

What's the big idea?

Western societies have become rather like the Soviet Union "in being characterised by a pervasive tendency of those in authority to overstate their case. They bombard us with messages that are disconnected from reality as we see it. In the Soviet case it was the reality that was shameful; in ours, it is the communicators."

But it won’t do merely to excoriate the communicators – be they Trump, Tony Blair, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage or that voice on the other end of the line telling you "Your call is important to us." We are to blame, argues Evans. "The more we lap it up, the more it flows; the less attention we pay to facts, the more non-facts will be deployed. Even Donald Trump - the man with little self-doubt, who carved out his own, unique election campaign and who specialised in eschewing expert advice - gave the crowds what he thought they wanted."

How did we get here?

What Trump thought his electors wanted, Davis argues, was something that showed he appears to care about his voters' sufferings. When he said the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) "has destroyed our country", for instance, "it matters not a jot whether that is correct".

Davis' key point is that humans are not merely rational and so are susceptible to post-truth seductions. In this analysis, he follows Nobel memorial prize in economics laureate Daniel Kahneman who in his 2011 bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow distinguished between two human modes of thinking, system one and system two - the former to do with intuitive, non-rational processing of information, the latter more akin to how Sherlock Holmes solves crimes.

Naturally, Davis argues, bullshitters and other persuaders seek to sucker us with psychologically sophisticated appeals to system one: hence the deployment of the bandwagon effect (we don’t want to be left behind, so if advertisers can convince us everybody else is buying a product, we are more likely to do so too); hence the persistence from the early 1950s to today of canned laughter; hence, too, the cuddly emotional pitch of the successful Innocent smoothies brand, to whose business model Davis devotes several pages. It's not so much that we can't handle the truth, as we're not captivated by appeals to it.

How do we get out?

Davis argues that there are limits to the appeal to our non-rational selves. Indeed, we may have reached peak bullshit precisely because many professional persuaders have focused too much on the message rather than the quality of what they are trying to flog us, be it vacuum cleaners or party manifestos. "In short, they've become deluded by their own skill and deluded by their own science and have taken bullshit way beyond the optimal level." He compares the bullshit industry to dog-breeding, where the science has been taken to such a level that now animals are ill-adapted to natural functions like breathing.

His suggestion is that :bullshit can captivate and entrance us for a time, but good sense normally prevails in the end". If we are at peak bullshit, the corollary is we must hit the downward slope sometime soon. Trump’s rhetoric has a use-by date: "Even for those for whom it has been a refreshing change, it will probably wear out quickly. Indeed it might expire quite quickly, depending on the success or failure of the substantive results with which it becomes associated." For instance, if US citizens wind up footing the bill for the wall with Mexico that Trump has insisted would be paid for south of the border.

Trumped up

"Don't believe these phoney numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5% unemployment," said Trump during his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary. "The number's probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42%." The assertion that 30% or more Americans want to work and are deprived of a job defies, Davis argues, expert opinion and casual observation. You could only get the unemployment figure above 30% by including students, those looking after a home and carers. Davis charitably argues that Trump was intending to make a serious point about the high level of disguised unemployment in a theatrical and memorable way. Even if what he said was untrue.

Brexit bull: The leave campaign argued that Britain sent £350m in membership fees to the EU each week and if the UK left the EU that money could swell NHS coffers. Not true: Britain had negotiated a discount, paying only £285m a week. Nor was it clear that those fees could be channelled straight into health services. It was not only, as Davis puts it, "one of the most famous lies in British politics", it was also the moment we started to worry in the UK that the truth had become irrelevant in political discourse.

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