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The Art of Bullshit

The Art of Bullshit
Published on Mar 21, 2024.

What we learned at Stanford – what we really learned – was how to bullshit.

This is so much more than simply making things up. It’s an elevated form of psychological manipulation, a way of inspiring confidence and persuading people, even when you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s the wizardry and the dark arts used by the elite on an unsuspecting public, to convince them that they know what they’re talking about. It’s the art of the con, and like any good con, it’s done right in your face.

It’s not taught in dark backrooms. You don’t need to know a secret passphrase to get in, but you do need to pass the test. You need to get through college admissions. You have to show that you are really driven to learn it. Because once you do, once you accept the dark magic into your psyche and into your soul, it’s very difficult to get it out. Trust me, I’ve spent half my life trying.

The drive to learn how to bullshit comes from a desperate need to be considered “smart”. For the people at Stanford – for me – this formed a pillar of our identity. There were many things we weren’t growing up – popular, athletic, cool – but you could be damn sure that we were “smart”. That one word captured everything I was, everything I thought about myself, everything I needed to think about myself. If I didn’t have “smart”, I had nothing at all.

Here’s the thing about being “smart”. The word just hangs there by itself. "Smart" is some inherent characteristic that is supposed to be always, permanently true, in any situation.

At Stanford, that need to be smart, always and everywhere, manifests as the Art of Bullshit.

And this art is made up of such fine skills as abstraction and obfuscation.

Take something you actually know pretty well. This could be a sport, a hobby, a subject, or a small little thing that you’ve spend a good part of your life doing (spreadsheets, dealing with broke-ass cars, shopping, cleaning dishes). It doesn’t matter if it’s important or not. Everyone in the world is an expert at something, even if that something is the most efficient way to organize your car's glove compartment.

Now think of explaining this to someone else who has no idea how to do it. The stage of the beginner is entirely conscious. They'll think "Ok, this step first, then this step." But in a little while, with a little more familiarity, they're not thinking in terms of steps anymore. They're thinking in broader terms, in large chunks of steps at a time or even just in feelings. And once they've mastered it, they're operating at the level of the subconscious, which submerges all the details and the steps into a single idea of the thing, into an abstraction.

Somebody who really knows something, who is familiar with it, talks and thinks about in generalized terms, in a way that even someone that doesn't know anything about the subject can understand. This is what it's like to hear an expert talk.

Recently I saw an expert in artificial intelligence on CNBC. They had spent years mastering the math and computer science necessary to build this stuff, but instead of talking about linear algebra or back propagation, they were riffing in generalized terms about "teaching computers how to think". They described encoded binary data as "examples that we're showing the computer", and complex mathematical models as "the computer learning patterns from the data". They made the complex science of machine learning sound like how a kid learns in a classroom.

While the abstractions sound easy and relatable, getting to the point where you can comfortably generalize the details to the abstractions takes years. A real mechanic has spent years under the hood, examining how each piece works, turning it over in their hands, putting it back together, before they feel comfortable talking about the engine as a whole, and then a car, and then a vehicle.

People can verify tangible details without being an expert ("you push this pedal to brake", it's either true or not). But abstractions are not easy to verify. Without knowing the details well, it's impossible to tell which abstraction is most accurate to the underlying thing. Lots of them might sound good, but only one or two are actually right.

It's this chink in people's psychological armor that bullshit targets. Bullshit is the practice of starting with abstractions, with generalized language, and making it sound like you know the details, when you really don't.

Bullshit is pretending to be an expert, without worrying about learning the basics.

I learned a lot about bullshit as a writing tutor my senior year at Stanford. Students who came to my office hours only ever wanted me to do some final proofreading to make sure they hadn't left any grammatical mistakes. At least that's what they said they wanted. It didn't take me long to figure out that what they really wanted was validation. A kind of reassurance that this was the kind of writing they should be doing to get the grades they wanted.

The writing I read was almost all put-on, like a kid wearing mom's dresses and makeup. It didn't fit. It felt like they'd borrowed words and phrases from other people without really knowing what they meant. But they sounded good, which meant they sounded like the way smart writing is supposed to sound.

Why? Because like good little budding bullshitters, they were imitating the experts – their professors. Our teachers were the best bullshit artists on campus, because in addition to constantly talking in useless abstractions, they'd also mastered the skill of obfuscation.

Pick up an academic paper and you're greeted with a wall of jargon. Phrases comprised of heavy words that need to be unpacked slowly in your head, pouring minutes into reading and re-reading and re-reading the same sentence to make sense of it. Academic writing is jargon built on top of jargon, referencing jargon about other jargon.

Here's an example, from one of the most famous academic essays in the last 30 years: "In the wake of the epistemic violence of neocolonialism, the subaltern subjectivity is both constituted and muted, caught within the interstices of imperialist hegemony, thereby necessitating a deconstructive praxis that unveils the aporias inherent in the discursive constructions of power."

You might think academics write this way because they’re writing about super complicated topics (and of course they must know what the words mean!). When I asked a professor about this in college, that’s what he told me. Jargon was there for “precision”, he said. Specific words let us talk specifically about specific concepts.

But what I noticed was that it was the least precise subjects – the humanities and the social sciences – that used the most jargon. Quantitative domains had math. You can’t get more precise than math. But literature, sociology, and psychology don’t have that. So to appear as precise and serious as the hard sciences, they were trying to turn language into mathematics. They were trying to make their sentences as hard to read as math proofs.

When speaking in abstractions don't work, turn to obfuscation. Use words that other people don't understand, like "dialectic" and "elucidation" and "interstices". And if that that still doesn't work, just make up your own words. Do this with enough confidence and people will think you are smart.

College freshmen know they’re bullshitting. In the innocence of those early years, when they write papers with highfalutin prose, they know they’re imitating the way someone else talks. Because they still don’t talk like that with their friends, and it’s new enough that they haven’t bought into it fully.

But give it years, years of bullshit coddling the brain, through college and graduate school and the corporate world, where bullshit and jargon and hype go from a way to write papers to the currency and language of business itself, and eventually people forget they’re bullshitting. Just like they forget that the silly games they played that made them successful, like tests and grades and resumes and interviews, are not actual skills at all.

Over time, you let yourself believe what everyone else believes. With enough years of people responding to your imitation as the real thing, you allow yourself to think "You know, I think I've got this after all." You start walking around like you actually are smart, not just a fraud who took shortcuts because they were too desperate to prop up their fragile sense of who they really are.

But the truth cannot be killed. Bury it as deep as you want, its bloody hand will still emerge. You will still sense it, like Poe's phantom heart, still beating long after it was buried away. The truth is a powerful thing, and in the end, it tends to win.

So what do people do? Do they realize the error of their ways? Oh no. We never go back. No, the only path is forward, to swallow the bullshit even deeper, to convince yourself over years and years, that actually yes, you do know what you’re talking about. Even if it is in generalizations and abstractions and obfuscations, so what? That’s how a lot of smart people operate, isn’t it?

So you beat back the doubt with even more imitation, which leads to other doubts and other imitation. It feeds a vicious cycle, where you need to keep proving to yourself that you are the real deal, even though you're not. You have to get that job, and then you need to make that much money, and then you have to get that award or that recognition. Your life becomes a series of milestones that you need to hit, with the desperation of a man drowning, drowning in his own bullshit.

Part of a series on Stanford and elite universities