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  • Geoff Mulgan

Bullshit and intellectual fog

When I was younger I was often impressed with people who could speak confidently, in sweeping, quite abstract terms about big questions. I often didn’t quite understood what they meant but assumed the failure was mine not theirs.

As I’ve grown older I’ve discovered that in some fields the failure is indeed mine. Despite many attempts, I still struggle to understand quantum physics and many other fields, from the intricacies of genetics to linguistics.

But in the fields closer to my expertise I’ve increasingly discovered that the fault usually lies with the speaker not the audience. Indeed, I’ve been increasingly struck just how many fields resound with a constant background hum of apparent profundity which doesn’t stand up to examination. Sometimes the perpetrators are consultants and sometimes they are so-called ‘thought leaders’. They usually have charisma and magnetic personalities - but these disguise the weakness of their content.

There are striking patterns in the methods used by this mainly, but not exclusively, male group. Some of these were well-captured in Harry Frankfurt's classic book 'On Bullshit'. These are some additional ones:

First, they deliberately try to talk in ways that audience doesn’t quite understand. The audience assumes, as I did, that it’s their fault, but actually I now realise that it’s part of the method. Being incomprehensible is a feature not a bug, to use the language of software.

Second, they talk in generalities with words that all sound plausible, but combined into sentences or paragraphs that are opaque at best (a good sign of this is that it’s very hard to think of what might challenge or disprove their sentences).

Third, another tell-tale sign is that they very rarely give examples – it’s all vague. There may be the occasional anecdote, but nothing more concrete.

Fourth, they talk a lot about questions, but steer away from answers.

Fifth, they often favour abstract diagrams, which hint at deep insights (but, again, never have specifics, let alone numbers)

Sixth, they use pace to impress. Some talk quite fast: the audience races to keep up with them and assumes that they are missing out on brilliance, but never quite catch up. Others speak particularly slowly, which gives the appearance of profundity.

Finally, a key feature of this group is that they never make specific propositions and, because they never say anything precise, they are very hard to argue with or disprove.

What’s amazing is how many people can sustain whole careers doing exactly this. Indeed, if they are smart at maintaining an aura of mystique, they may reap high financial rewards.

I’ve seen more than my fair share of these phenomena because concepts of strategy, transformation, complexity and system – all of which I’ve worked on, are like magnets for this type. They are issues that matter and that have very high stakes and, rather like religions, they attract charlatans as well as saints in part because the stakes are so high.

The people who are most adept at working as intellectual fog machines are most often found at the top end of the ideas market. They are valued by multinational companies; the UN and business conferences, though their preferred environment is the small scale retreat or seminar.

Often, they are very capable in terms of emotional intelligence and charm. They make their audience feel good, and clever, even if the audience doesn’t quite know what they are being told. They are smart at spraying on fragments of complexity theory, neuroscience, leadership or systems thinking, though these are never fully digested or understood.

As a result such people are corrosive. They clog up time and space, and mental attention, with intellectual fog. They use beautiful ambiguity, and often beautifully designed websites, to cultivate an aura of exclusivity and of being just out of reach of the comprehension of ordinary people. But they are the enemies of clear thought not friends and they embed a bias against practice and practical knowledge.

The simple antidote, if you think you may be in the presence of an intellectual fog machine is to keep asking simple questions. What is an example of what you’re saying? What specifically would you do in this situation? How could we tell if what you’re saying is right or wrong?

In my experience, when these questions are put to the bullshitters they simply elicit more rambling fog. If that happens, my advice would be to thank them, but not to ask them back.


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