Bullshit in the battle for the tarsands

Willful ignorance of truth ought to be called for what it is

One of the first sources I read while researching my next book, Little Black Lies, which Rocky Mountain Books will present to the world in early November, was Harry Frankfurt’s classic, On Bullshit.

Frankfurt is professor emeritus in philosophy at Princeton and one of the world’s most esteemed moral philosophers. Concerned about the ubiquity and influence of bullshit on our culture, Frankfurt wrote On Bullshit as an academic paper in 1986. When it was republished as a book in 2005, it was an instant hit. It spent 27 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 16 languages, including Chinese, Hebrew and Slovene. Bullshit, it seems, sells.

Frankfurt wrote his essay because he was concerned that our comfort with the preponderance of bullshit that dirties public discourse was becoming increasingly dangerous. More so even than lying, he argues, an excessive indulgence in bullshit weakens our habit of seeking out the ways things really are and diminishes — perhaps even eliminates — our respect for truth. A society that cares too little for the value of truth will be unable to make well-informed decisions in the public interest, and will eventually succumb to its own foolishness. By virtue of this, writes Frankfurt, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

For Frankfurt, the most salient feature of bullshit is its absolute lack of connection with the truth. Liars, by comparison, must know the truth, or at least think they know it, in order to disavow it. A liar “insert[s] a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth.” Bullshit and those who spew it, on the other hand, have no interest in an accurate representation of reality. It is an utter “lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are,” that he regards as “the essence of bullshit.”

Nowhere is the bullshit thicker than in Alberta’s bitumen fields. From the website of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) to the political podiums in Ottawa and Edmonton, it’s everywhere you look. Remember, after David Schindler and his colleagues published two peer-reviewed journal articles documenting industry-generated pollutants in the air, land and water in the tarsands region, how Rob Renner, Alberta’s environment minister at the time, continued to claim that any pollution found in the rivers and wetlands was from natural sources? When confronted by the media, he even went so far as to claim that Schindler’s paper didn’t say what it did, in fact, say — without even reading it.

This is one of a myriad of little black lies that have been used to rationalize the breakneck development of the tarsands, and it is Frankfurtian bullshit of the highest order. Hell-bent on turning every natural resource into gold as quickly as possible, the conservative ideologues in Edmonton and Ottawa clearly “lack any connection to a concern with truth.”

A future built on a foundation of little black lies will be a dark and unstable one, and herein lies the danger of which Frankfurt was so concerned. Political decisions not grounded in a rational appraisal of the facts can only lead to uncertainty and, in the worst-case scenario, disaster. To accept a public discourse that is so disconnected from the truth is to undermine the very essence of democracy, and allow the political system our fathers and grandfathers fought so hard to protect to degenerate into what George Orwell would probably call a passive kind of subversive fascism.

Edward Bernays, the father of what we know today as public relations, recognized the power of bullshit almost a century ago. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays wrote in Propaganda, the book that launched what has become a multibillion-dollar PR industry. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

No one, of course, likes to admit that they are being manipulated, but it happens all the time. Numerous studies have been conducted about the various unconscious errors we make while grappling with difficult or contested issues. Optimism bias can leave us susceptible to overestimating the likelihood of positive events (such as the Conservative governments’ ability to manage Canada’s bitumen production in a responsible manner) and underestimating the likelihood of negative events (such as the oil industry’s propensity to leave great big messes in its wake).

Many of us, especially older white males, make decisions based on our preconceived beliefs about the world rather than a careful consideration of the facts before us. “The motivation to be accurate enhances use of those beliefs and strategies that are considered most appropriate, whereas the motivation to arrive at particular conclusions enhances use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion,” wrote former Princeton psychologist Ziva Kunda, in her award-winning paper on what she called “motivated reasoning.” “There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at.”

So check your ideology at the door next time you hear the Alberta minister of environment make some grand pronouncement about what a “world-class” job we’re doing in the tarsands. Crank up your bullshit detector and do a little research. Visit the Pembina Institute’s website. Ask hard questions. Don’t let bullshit be the foundation of the future we leave our kids. Demand truth.

Jeff Gailus’ new book, Little Black Lies, will be published by Rocky Mountain books in November.


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