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Bullshitters: Who Are They and What Do We Know about Their Lives? (2019) [pdf] (iza.org)
73 points by murtio 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments





`On Bullshit` is one of my favorite things I've ever read but it's frustrating that this paper simultaneously cites `On Bullshit` while immediately defining bullshit in a way that does not conform almost at all with the `On Bullshit`

This article starts out by defining bullshitters and therefore bullshit as: "‘Bullshitters’ are individuals who claim knowledge or expertise in an area where they actually have little experience or skill. "

They at least somewhat remedy this by mentioning the better partial definition used in `On Bullshit` which is shared with the word "humbug": "deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings or attitudes”"

The important difference is that bullshit is not lies, and you do not have to "have little experience or skill" on a topic to spread bullshit on that topic, all you need is a disregard for the truth, in favor of whatever is convenient to you which could overlap with the truth or not. In this way this definition is almost directly in opposition to Frankfurt's which makes me think this paper is a bunch of bullshit.

edit: Frankfurt's own words on his definition of bullshit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1RO93OS0Sk&feature=youtu.be...


I was disappointed by Frankfurt's "On Bullshit". I felt he spent 9/10th of the book on academically defining different aspects of bullshit, and only getting into the details of the effects and ways to deal with bullshit in the last few pages. Basically it was a book which carved out a boundary for his definition of "bullshit", which made it read like a philosophy text with little application in the real world.

I've seen too many bullshitters in the software industry - people whose technical capabilities extend only as far as their ability to convince non-technical managers that they know what the fuck they're talking about.

I've seen these people be promoted to positions where they can do serious damage, no longer a mere developer not knowing what the hell you're meant to be able to do - but a lead developer crippling an entire team.

In many cases this is an impossible problem to solve - with non-technical executives sitting above the non-technical managers; a layer-cake of bullshitters blind to bullshitters with a vested interest (born of self-preservation) in remaining so.


I think it's unfair to only blame developers for this bad culture in our industry. At every layer of the stack the same things happen. At my local government they reformed child benefits and needed a new IT system to handle it, of-course we ended up with the over-engineered enterprise architecture of micro-services running on kubernetes, communicating over an event bus with CQRS, continuous integration and continuous deployment all day everyday, managed priorities with using agile on a scrum board, for a specification that did not exist because the law hadn't been finalised until half way through the project, all to get people money on their account. But did anybody in charge bother fixing the situation where their are 5 different commercial and not-for-profit institutions handling the money, acting as intermediaries and thus profiting off the tax benefits for people to help them raise their children, No.

You're right, but that doesn't take away your capability to say "NO" and go against that stream of bullshit. Caveat: you'll probably lose everything except your morality at that point. That's how it's all set up after all...

micro services on kubernetes is hardly over engineering things. its lightweight, fast and is easy to implement with.

Is your real name Lillian Hellman? Regrettably, in this instance, I am not Mary McCarthy.

For every really-faking-it-until-they-make-it junior dev there's a goldbricking veteran spending 80% of company time on a side pursuit.

It's not "company time", it's time in a human being's life.

Both, and they coincide during business hours, at the least.

Amazing how easy it is to forget this

If their 20% justifies their salary, which it does by the fact they've not been fired, then I don't see your point.

How is the knowing developer, not with the lead title, able to survive on a team like this?

I tried escaping - from my bumpkin locale to Boston, a 3 hour trip every morning and 3 hours back, until I couldn't handle it five months later and went tail back to the same team with the same issues. Here, I'm still hopeful to eventually figure this out.


I think it's a lot harder for a bullshitter to hide in a small company than in a large one, all else being equal. That's not everything of course but still probably worth some consideration.

Find a better company (and let me know how you managed it).

so true, but its not just executives that get fooled. there's a whole company full of adjacent people, sales, marketing, finance, that fall for this bullshit too.

they add to this dust storm of fud that allows these people to exist.


I've discussed and recommended this article at length with various associates and colleagues, though I haven't actually read it and have no idea what it's talking about.

Sounds ready for most news aggregators. Just gotta be good at clickbait titles.

In his seminal essay-turned-book On Bullshit,Frankfurt (2005) ... Other philosophers have since expanded on his work, most notably G. A. Cohen in his essay “Deeper into Bullshit”(Cohen 2002)...

Time travel or me not understanding what those numbers mean ?


As a developer, I've found that the Agile methodology is great for weeding out bullshitters.

A decently run sprint planning session with a retrospective at the end will highlight who didn't actually do anything. The killer feature is that these people volunteered the amount of effort for the work and then have to explain why nothing got done.

They eventually leave the team once they realise they've been discovered.


We spend our retros whinging about other teams that (are supposed to) support us.

Having worked at many places with many bullshitters who have successfully conned the Agile process for weeks (sometimes months), I'd have to disagree.

(Indeed, I have done it once myself when I was trying to leave but they were dragging their feet about signing the paperwork.)


The only way I've seen people con it, is where the people doing the tasks are also trusted with scoping and estimating it. You need to have multiple people "sign off" on or buy into the scoping and estimation process. E.g. One person does an "investigation" task (e.g. Look into feasibility / difficulty of x). This should be somebody with enough experience to give a good rough estimate. Their estimate can them be discussed at the next sprint planning session, and everybody should agree on the final estimate (story points, or size label, however you do your sprints).

Then, if the bullshitter gets to the end of the sprint and says they didn't complete a 1-2 day task in 10 days, you can start asking why. They do this consistently across 2-3 sprints, you know something is up. Assume they're more junior than their job title and try giving them easier tasks. Still not getting much done? They're a bullshitter. Fire them / raise with their manager.


> Then, if the bullshitter gets to the end of the sprint and says they didn't complete a 1-2 day task in 10 days, you can start asking why. They do this consistently across 2-3 sprints, you know something is up. Assume they're more junior than their job title and try giving them easier tasks. Still not getting much done? They're a bullshitter. Fire them / raise with their manager.

Another contributing cause of this can be that they have gotten into the habit of accepting other people's bullshit.

Example:

Bob says "I don't think I understand enough about X to do task T well".

Sue, (partly worried what people would think of her if she negotiated similar time for learning) feels great discomfort hearing Bob's self-deprecating* statement. Motivated to escape this discomfort, she 'helpfully' tells him that he is just suffering from impostor syndrome.

(Bullshit: It might be true, but the function to produce the statement did not take real-world evidence as a parameter)

Bob mostly-believes this and doesn't feel confident that it is wise to allocate his time to learn X. He should 'just get it done'.

Bob starts working on task T and feels frustrated and confused. Bob starts asking questions on slack that anyone with a solid understanding of X would know are irrelevant. He does not get helpful answers.

Bob, hearing that he's trying to 'understand the universe' doesn't see a way forward but to put more time into task T. He stays up late working on it ineffectively.

Bob goes into standup having accomplished very little and gained little understanding. Bob's duty to his team and his health is to confidently state this truth. Bob is sleep-deprived and ashamed of his lack of progress. He feels motivated to escape this discomfort. He says the task will be done by standup tomorrow.

(Bullshit: It might be true, but the function to produce the statement did not take real-world evidence as a parameter)

Bob stays up late again. Bob accomplishes little. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLBO7L5G2DQ

10 days later, Bob still does not really understand how to make progress on his task.

----------------

Bob gets fired shortly thereafter. He has multiple hypotheses for what he should have done better, but none he is confident in. At his next job, he is on hyper-vigilant alert for a similar situation. When he encounters it, the memory of getting fired and the uncertainty of what to do makes him feel deeply uncomfortable. Discomfort-avoidance leads him to get on hackernews rather than focus on his work.

----------------

* "I have gaps in my skills and am capable of learning" is a healthy problem to have. "I am unqualified to judge when I need more understanding of something to move forward" is an unhealthy problem.

Thus, we should exercise a duty of care to the truth when telling people that they have Impostor Syndrome.


To be honest this seems more like a Bob problem than a Sue problem. "Just get on with it" (or some variation thereof, whether reference to imposter syndrome, stiff upper lip, etc) is thrown about all the time in all workplaces. If you are genuinely struggling or don't know what to do then it is your professional responsibility to make the right people know about it.

If Bob did stress this very strongly with Sue, and Sue was the person in charge of allocating tasks, then yes of course Sue is to blame. Giving people tasks they can't do is bad.

Perhaps Sue thinks that Bob should be able to figure it out within the 10 days and doesn't need more than that to both investigate and complete the task? If there is a large knowledge imbalance and Sue knows a lot more about the task than Bob then maybe she should take on that task instead.

So many variables!


> If Bob did stress this very strongly with Sue, and Sue was the person in charge of allocating tasks, then yes of course Sue is to blame. Giving people tasks they can't do is bad.

The trouble is if Bob doesn't know he can do it or not. It can be very hard to tell if you're actually confused about something or if you are just making excuses.

Sadly, if the latter, there really is only one way to stop making excuses.

--------

Note: While I am feeling very distressed these days. I want to reassure y'all that I am not going to stop making excuses. There are too many people who love and care about me dearly whom I know would be devastated.


(Also, I don't think I actually make excuses very frequently at all. Occasionally I deceive myself, but far more often than that I give reasons that reflect a reality which is genuinely absurd in ways that are unfair to the listener yet still true.)

yep, it is a complex multifactor problem.

> make the right people know about it.

You cannot _make_ someone else know something. Even if you to grab onto their skull and scream into their ear, it would do no good. (I assume. I have not tested this.) You can only say what you believe with whatever rhetorical skill you can muster. They can still choose to trust you with something you say you don't know how to do.

Whether the subcomponent is physical or psychological, sometimes the only way to credibly communicate about a risk is through the medium of catastrophic failure.

https://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_...


How would Bob even know if he is qualified to tell if he is genuinely struggling or just suffering from impostor syndrome? How would he tell if he is just bullshitting himself about whether or not he has real a problem?

Or rather, maybe you know how to make people know about things. Many people do not.

I still do not know how to persuade people that I DO NOT have psychic powers -- other people's brains are separate from mine.


Or maybe they just leave because of people like you who think Agile is like the Thunderdome of software development rather than a tool to manage a team.


Software is the prototype for actual bulshitter vapor ware modus operandi. I wonder why?

In many other roles, bullshit can actually get you somewhere, especially if persuasion is part of the job.

In other situations it's not just bullshit but fraud, so we consider it another category.

Software itself is unforgiving of bullshit. If it's buggy as hell, you can't just talk your way out of it. It's also opaque enough that it's difficult to definitively distinguish between incompetence, bullshit, straight-up lying, and just failing at a difficult problem (if only because of insufficient resources). It takes a significant amount of work to make that kind of distinction and that work doesn't necessarily translate from project to project.


I’ve worked with a few people they could do case studies on.

The paper only surveyed teenagers... Smells like BS to me

I think the elephant in the room for this study is the high bullshit scores of immigrants. If you're a non-native language speaker and someone asks if you understand something, you're probably used to having to figure it out offline - but you might say "yes" anyway, for a myriad of reasons.

Something I find disingenuous in this study is the failure to follow up on competency. "High bullshit index" individuals claim with higher frequency to be able to calculate the petrol consumption of a car, and are confident in their popularity. Are they wrong? Immigrants are more likely to bullshit when they are confronted with language they don't understand - but they are also highly experienced at figuring out things they don't understand after the fact.

I found it queer that the tasks asked about where relatively mathematical, and the domain they used to measure bullshit was also mathematical... if the checklist of "could you find the gcd of two numbers" "could you find all the complex roots of this polynomial" etc. were interpreted as "if you were prompted (in good faith) on a homework assignment to do this task, are you confident you could do it?" (this is a much more ecologically valid situation than being asked to do something meaningless or impossible), then the answer learned through hard experience might correctly be "yes", despite the respondent "not actually knowing what they were talking about".

Food for thought anyway. I think the article takes an exceptionally otherizing stance towards would be bullshitters. (And uses some... hopefully ironic? ... rhetoric. "We all know a bullshitter" is the classic fallacy of appealing to popular belief).


> the high bullshit scores of immigrants

I think that statement is far too broad: I can think of some fairly bullshit free cultures, like many Scandinavian countries.

I can also think of people from specific religions that I generally find to be bullshitty, versus people from the same country but a different religion that appear to me to be much more honest.

Also a lot of people I meet from the USA appear to me to be extremely bullshit oriented compared to New Zealanders... Perhaps that is due to my own selection bias because of the type of people that emigrate or travel to New Zealand, or because I tend to meet businessmen?


> Perhaps that is due to my own selection bias because of the type of people that emigrate or travel

Tangentially to the point, I'm going to hazard a guess that "people who travel to other cultures" are going to be more bullshit-oriented than average, due to factors jknoepfler referenced above, eg "If you're a non-native language speaker and someone asks if you understand something, you're probably used to having to figure it out offline".


Did you read the paper? They literally measure this. I was quoting a stat from the paper.

The point of my comment was to think critically about how they interpret their findings, in light of their very own findings.


> high bullshit scores of immigrants

I'm culturally from the US west coast. I have an instinct that directly asking someone from a face culture to admit ignorance is 'sensitive'


I'm from a non bullshit culture. They first greek word you learn is "den katalava", do not understand. (δεν κατάλαβα)

The 2nd phrase you learn is "den xero", do not know. (δεν ξέρω)

Some cultures prefer to be polite and therefore lie, some cultures prefer to tell the truth.




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