Friday, August 29, 2008

Become an instant expert - the art of bullshit

It is spread throughout our society, in fact most, if not all, societies. Many of us believe that a lot of other people are full of it. Whenever we see a politician on the campaign trail, listen to our boss, or even listen to a story in the pub, we smell the air to see if there are any telltale signs of it. It is bullshit, and it is everywhere.

It is common to hear the phrases ‘That’s bullshit!’ or, ‘You’re full of shit’. You may hear these phrases when you are at the pub, in your workplace, or even at home. They are a common way of expressing disbelief about what someone has just said. However, what they also show is that very few people are skilled in the art of bullshit. If you are in the company of someone who is a skilled bullshitter, you will not hear these phrases. They will have convinced all around them that they are explaining incontrovertible facts. It is an incontrovertible fact that the majority of people, probably around 99%, are very poor bullshitters. Hence, the common use of the abovementioned phrases.

Whether bullshit is verbal or written, it can be put to numerous uses. Politicians use it to convince people to elect them, applicants use it in their resumes and at job interviews, lobbyists use it when paid to support a particular position, individuals use it to gain success in their workplace, governments use it when they are writing policy positions or long-term strategies, and advertisers use it to sell products. Good bullshit can prevent you from having to answer difficult questions and provide an escape route from perilous situations. It can also provide you with the ammunition to sell ideas and raise your profile. People who are good bullshitters gain a great deal of respect in society. This respect is well deserved, as these skills are in great demand in any number of industries. They often rise to very powerful positions, as they are considered very knowledgeable. This is the ultimate success for the bullshitter – respect built on the quality of the bullshit that they have made a career out of spouting.

However, the art of good bullshitting is a difficult skill to master and requires a lot of work. There is a fine line between lying and bullshitting. Those that do not appreciate this will find themselves the subject of ridicule and distrust, and in all likelihood have their careers curtailed. Like any other art, bullshitting has a number of areas that you must address if you are to be successful. The three main areas are:

· Plausibility
· Simplicity
· Delivery

If you can master these, then you are going to have a very good chance of bullshitting your way to success.


The first thing to appreciate is that good bullshit must be based a round ‘facts’. You need to have a solid base on which to build your story and be knowledgeable enough to be able to answer the questions that might come your way. Shaky foundations leave you open to having your story torn apart with relative ease by those who have only a reasonable grasp of the area that you are talking about. There are a number of good sources from which you may be able to get your ‘facts’. These include:

Science - Good examples of the use of bullshit can be found in science. Facts and figures can be used to suggest something other than what the more common view proposes. To do this you can take some figures in isolation from overall trends and draw a superficial and tenuous conclusion. Some well-known bullshitters have carved out successful careers using this method, and these people deserve a great deal of respect. They are often listened to by large numbers of people who are convinced about the truth of what they are saying.

Press releases - Press releases are full of statements that can be latched on to. One of the many politicians, government departments, captains of industry, environmental or other interest groups, or foreign powers, is always likely to say something that can be used to support your story. On a rare occasion, there will be a statement on which you can build an entirely new story. Such opportunities should not be missed!

The media - The media is full of supposition and opinion. This is just what you need to assist you in your bullshit. The reach of the media is huge, so you can be sure that an opinion expressed in the media will have spread throughout the public in a very short period of time. Opinions can often be read in more than one way, depending on what information you put around them. One opinion can potentially be used to support a number of different points of view. This is pure gold and can get you a great deal of traction with your audience.

Government policy - Government policy is often vague. This vagueness may be infuriating to many people and result in differing interpretations. However, such vagueness is a very useful building block for a good story. It gives the bullshitter flexibility to entwine their story into an official position. This also adds a great deal of credibility to your bullshit.

Procedures - Government or corporate procedures are facts of another sort. They are facts because they exist, but they are more useful as a method of diverting questions that you may not be able to answer on the spot. They allow a government or corporate bullshitter to defer answering for any number of reasons. Perhaps the process is not finished, perhaps the process underway does not allow information to be released yet, or perhaps the process is entirely confidential because of commercial or legal reasons.

Known viewpoints - Where a particular person or group has a well-known viewpoint, this can be wound into your story to support a particular point of view. The context in which you state their viewpoint is entirely up to you, and you can always make the excuse that you misunderstood them if they complain.


To get your bullshit successfully received you need to make sure that your plausible facts are structured in such a way that you will not find yourself getting confused when you try to answer questions, or further explain issues. A piece of bullshit that is too complex has the potential to make you quite vulnerable to the sort of ridicule that you should avoid at all costs. Once your credibility is lost, it is most likely lost forever. So, the beginner should keep their bullshit relatively simple and easy to remember. This is especially important for those in public life.

The more experienced you become, the more complex you can make your story. If you are getting into science areas, you will need to have some complexity so that you can come across to the general public as an expert. Just be careful that you don’t over-complicate your story to the point of confusing yourself.

Unless you are bullshitting to a scientific community, and this is only for extremely advanced bullshitters, you should use only a small amount of jargon. The balance to be achieved is to use enough jargon so that you can appear to be comfortable with the subject you are talking about, without coming across as overly technical or remote from the general public. Showing good understanding of jargon by simply mentioning it but not getting into detailed explanations, will add to your credibility with the wider public, many of whom are so used to hearing jargon everyday, that they may become suspicious in the absence of such bullshit.


How you deliver your bullshit is one of the most crucial areas of this art. Good delivery can lead to people not really hearing the detail of what you are saying, but getting caught up in the ‘vibe’ of your performance. And rest-assured, the delivery of bullshit is a performance. The best practitioners could convince the Pope that he was, in fact, not a Catholic. In a perfect world, bullshitters would have a category at the Oscars.

All aspiring bullshitters should undertake training in the delivery of a message. The ability to capture your audience and hold their attention for a period long enough to deliver your message is priceless. An inability to maintain the aura of a prophet delivering vital information to their flock, will often lead to people failing to take on your point of view, or worse still, trying to listen to the detail and non-existent substance of what you are saying.

One of the most important facets of your delivery is your preparedness to answer questions. This relates directly to the complexity of your bullshit. A useful exercise when delivering even mildly complex bullshit is to sit down and think about the type of questions that are likely to be asked by your audience.

Are you addressing the general public or are you talking to a lobby group with knowledge of what you are discussing? Once you have identified who is likely to be there, you can identify what the contentious areas and points might be, and if people will have a way of questioning your specific angle. Then draft some answers that will either rebut the criticism through some plausible theory or set of figures, or deflect the attention away from that area after acknowledging that, while it may be of significance, you feel that there are other more pressing and significant issues. This requires some serious research and imagination. All those amateurs who think that bullshit can be made up on the spot come to grief at this point.

Any bullshitter who gives a speech will themselves, or if they are fortunate, have had their assistants, scour the various issues relating to the topic they wish to comment on. They will be armed with form responses to the questions thought most likely to come their way, and they will have some generic get-out-of-jail responses for any unforeseen and difficult queries. Finally, unless you are a seriously accomplished bullshitter you should not improvise when delivering your message. Improvisation merely increases the possibility of being found out as a fraud and damaging your reputation. It gives your story far too much of an opportunity to collapse on itself and end up smelling like the crap that it is. Always go back to your prepared answers or, as a last resort, agree to get back to your questioner at a later date. Also, ask for their question in writing, because the majority of people cannot be bothered to write down their question and they will most likely forget about it.

So to summarise…

Base your bullshit on good research using selective and easily found ‘facts’, keep it as simple as possible, and deliver it with a confident and inspiring performance. The world will then be yours to conquer.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Great Government Philosophers

Many great thinkers have spent years studying government and how it should work. These individuals are often overlooked, but they provide important insights into how bureaucratic systems work. As far back as the classical civilisations of Rome, Greece and China, we can find the origins from which modern government has grown. There are four little-known philosophers from this period who have provided great guidance to government over the last two millennia. These are Obstrucius, Burocrates, Futilius and Dillayus.

Obstrucius – The first and greatest

Not many people have heard of the great philosopher Obstrucius. He lived from 550 BC to 470BC in a time when China was still fragmented. He is an often forgotten philosopher who had many ideas about how governments should be run. The view that he eventually came to was that every employee within a bureaucracy could probably use the same advice. Unfortunately his guide for bureaucrats is now lost, but some of his quotes remain. The list is extremely lengthy, however I have included a selection of some of the more pertinent ones that the new government employee should become familiar with. There is no record of the death of Obstrucius and it is widely rumoured that he is immortal and continues to run governments all over the world.

By three methods may we run government: First, by obstruction, which is noblest; second, by procrastination, which is easiest; and third by out-sourcing, which is dearest.

To be able to practice the five paradigms everywhere in government constitutes perfect virtue: delay decisions, cover one’s arse, show no initiative, don’t communicate and remain anonymous.

He who speaks without jargon will find it difficult to achieve promotion in government.

The will to confuse, the desire to delay, the urge to reach complete anonymity…these are the keys that will unlock the door to public service excellence.

A public servant who commits a mistake and doesn’t correct it should follow government paradigm number two.

Burocrates – The Greek perspective

The pre-eminent Greek philosopher was Burocrates. Born in 450 BC, Burocrates studied early democracy and saw government in a holistic manner. He regarded it as a form of art, and viewed public servants as artists whose job was to provide aesthetically pleasing processes and outcomes in a manner that was not rushed by the mere inconvenience of time. He was a contemporary of Socrates, and it is rumoured that these two philosophers spent many hours discussing the relative merits of democracy and royal rule over large amounts of wine. He met his death in 385 BC when he found himself in an argument with another contemporary, Aristophanes, who accused him of having all the characteristics of a the popular politicians he studied: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner. During the quarrel they both died when their brains dribbled out of their ears due to the banality of their arguments. Unfortunately Burocrates is not widely known and few, if any, academics have seriously studied his work. However, he leaves us with some notable quotes including:

The pure art of government should be unsullied by the ticking of the clock or the pen of the accountant.

Where the path appears straight and without danger, extra care should be taken and your pace slowed.

A quick decision is like a premature ejaculation. It deprives the bureaucrat of respect and leaves him feeling unsatisfied.

The vote is a precious thing, its value priceless. Never have so many people been kept happy by such a futile act.

Let a politician announce decisions and keep him happy for a day. Let a politician think he made the decisions, and keep him happy for a whole term of government.

Futilius - The study of committees.

Ancient Rome had a philosopher who made a career out of investigating the bureaucratic process of committees – Futilius. Futilius carried out his work in the time of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gaius Julius Caesar and Augustus and studied the public service of the day. He was born in Rome in 99BC and died shortly after Julius Caesar in 40 BC only three weeks after he was himself asked to chair a committee as he seemed to know so much about it. He decided to put his theories to the test and was brutally stabbed to death by the committee’s executive officer, who insisted that he had done the world a favour. As with Burocrates, he developed a great deal of advice that has stood the test of time, but received little recognition for his work. Five of his best known quotes are included below.

Chairs should every night call themselves to an account; What decision have they delayed today? What proposals opposed? What innovation resisted? What public servant frustrated ? Other people’s projects will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to this account.Be extremely vague, even to the point of deferral. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of confusion. Thereby you can be the director of the public servant’s demise into insanity.

All public servants servicing the Board pass through three stages. First, they are ridiculed. Second, they are violently opposed. Third, it is accepted that they are
too difficult to change and they are ignored.

All Board meetings are based on procrastination. There is no place where the brakes are not applied. Offer the public servants hope to lure them in, and then trap them in a cage of frustration.

Where no policy exists, ask for a new one; where a policy exists, ask for a new one; where there is no need for a policy, insist on a new one.

Dillayus – Out of the shadow of Futilius

At the same time that Nero was striding through the corridors of Rome, Dillayus was contemplating the complex area of government decision-making. He was born in Rome in 5 AD and grew up reading much of the work of Futilius. He identified areas that Futilius had not spent much time researching and ended up specialising in the study of emergency situations where decisions appeared imminent. He is perhaps not as well known as Futilius, and might not have had the same standing, however he did produce a large body of work that remains relevant. He died in 64 AD after being in trapped in the great fire that swept Rome after finding himself distracted by Nero’s fiddle playing and unable to decide on the best course of action until it was too late. His gems of wisdom include:

When in doubt, employ an outside expert to review all information.

The pure joy of procrastination is unrivalled by other experience in government.

When all other means of obstruction have been exhausted, all that is left is public consultation, the mother of all delaying tactics.

There is never enough information to make a decision. Those who disagree are not in possession of all the facts.

When all is lost and a decision is inevitable, take solace in the fact that you did everything possible to prevent it.