Although I was disappointed by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ vice-president of spin Janet Annesley’s nonsensical response to my column on bullshit in the tarsands, I was not surprised. I anticipated that the oil industry would not take kindly to being called out on its selective use of facts in a propaganda, er, PR campaign that now reaches thousands of North Americans every day on radio, TV and the Internet.
I was heartened, though, that Fast Forward Weekly’s readers were quick to see right through her slick attempt to discredit me and the arguments I made. It seems I’m not the only one with my bullshit detector turned up to maximum power.
In a comment on Fast Forward Weekly’s website, mx80 noted, with the deftness of a scholar, that, “I’m glad that the work of academic philosophers is quoted in letters to the editor of my local weekly. I’m saddened that it is done with apparently zero understanding of the meaning of the quoted passage. Whereas the original article actually used Frankfurt’s definition of BS, Ms. Annesley merely uses it in the generic sense noted by her. I’m at a loss as to what the quote about sincerity and the epistemology of self-knowledge have to do with Gailus’ article. His exhortation to the reader to keep an open mind, to not take pronouncement from not disinterested parties at face value, and to be aware of their own biases is perfectly sensible. I am sure he was being sincere when he said that, but that [sic] Frankfurt’s point is certainly not that everything that is said or written sincerely is therefore bullshit. Either Annesley fails to grasp this, or she does, and her lengthy quote is merely an attempt at misdirection disguised as a tu quoque [i.e. a logical fallacy that attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position]. Either way, it’s bullshit.”
Not to be outdone, phdkso noted that, “there is now a copious academic literature on the subject [of bullshit].” He or she then listed a number of books by journalists, scholars and citizens fed up with the proliferation of bullshit, many of which I consulted in my research for my upcoming book Little Black Lies. (Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry and Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time are particular favourites; the latter includes a chapter on “Bullshit at the Interface of Science and Policy: Global Warming, Toxic Substances, and Other Pesky Problems,” which could easily have included a section on the tarsands. Alas, it did not, which makes ample room for Little Black Lies in the bullshit canon.)
For more on the truth and consequences of industrial development and environmental protection in Canada, I would also suggest that interested readers pick up the latest issue of Alternatives Journal. Published by the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, Alternatives is a perfect blend of peer-reviewed academic journal and mainstream environmental magazine. In its “Moment of Truth” issue, Alternatives’ most radical edition ever, some of Canada’s top writers and academics dissect the Harper government’s bullshit-infused attempt to emasculate environmental protection in Canada.
Stephen Bocking, chair of Trent University’s Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program, interviews David Schindler (a prominent character in Little Black Lies) about why researchers need to speak out against the dismantling of environmental protection in Canada. Mark Gifford, chair of the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network, fires back at the recent attack on environmental advocacy and highlights how these largely unheralded heroes have made Canada the beautiful place it remains (so far).
Perhaps most illuminating is an article by Jay Ingram, Mr. Quirks and Quarks himself. In “Belief is Biased,” Ingram translates the work of the Cultural Cognition Project, a U.S.-based group of researchers specializing in psychology, risk assessment and law whose work illustrates how and why we make the less-than-rational decisions we do. According to Ingram, the curious thing about so-called “scientific” controversies like climate change is that “most members of the public take a stance, pro or con, without regard to data. To put it another way, the science really isn’t that important.”
When facts are manipulated by the rich and powerful to maintain the status quo, and when the citizenry relies on ideology rather than science to decide who to vote for or what policies to support, democracy becomes a crippled and ineffectual way to run a society.
But there is hope. As Eric Rumble, Alternatives’ editor, makes clear, “Optimism stems from knowing that there is a better way forward. In truth, to be concerned about the environment is to be for Canada. If that makes us radical, so be it.”
The real radicals are those who sacrifice truth on the altar of self-interest. If Annesley, a career corporate PR professional akin to Thank You for Smoking’s Nick Naylor, did have one thing right in her rebuttal, it’s that I do have an agenda. And that agenda is to call out those who try to undermine the transparent and careful consideration of the facts in planning Canada’s future, and to encourage everyone — Janet and myself included — to challenge their beliefs every time they make a decision, open their mouths or cast a ballot.
Jeff Gailus is an author, university instructor and writer from Calgary, Alberta. Preview Little Black Lies on Amazon.ca today.