June 27, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations by André Spicer

Rather than the usual books, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations is a paper by André Spicer. Normally it'd be something to include in the Interesting Things on the Internet... editions, but there were too many nuggets to quote so I figured it warranted its own post.

As ever, remember to heed Laurie Anderson's advice: "Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it."

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In this paper, I claim bullshitting is a social practice. I will argue that in particular speech communities people are encouraged to play the language game of bullshit-ting, and when it is played well it can bolster their identity. Under certain conditions, bullshitting is relatively harmless and can even be beneficial. But bullshitting can quickly spiral out of control and take over an entire organization or industry.

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While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth (Bok, 1978), bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’, Frankfurt writes.


Cohen pointed out that sometimes ‘the shit wears the trousers’ (p. 324). Instead of focusing on the bullshitter’s inten-tions, he argues, we should look at the structure of bullshit. Cohen goes on to identify ‘unclarifiable unclarity’ as the key feature of bullshit (p. 333). These are statements which are unclear (‘unclarity’) but for which there are no procedures to make it clear (‘unclarifiable’). A bullshit state-ment is ‘not only obscure but cannot be rendered unobscured’. Furthermore, ‘any apparent success in rendering it unobscured secretes something that isn’t recognizable as a version of what was said’

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A lie is a statement which the liar believes to be false but they present as if it is true, often with intentions of deceit (Bok, 1978). In contrast, bullshit is not presented as if it were true and the intention behind it is not always outright deception. This distinction is captured by Frankfurt (2005) who argues that a liar is concerned about the truth, but attempts to replace it with falsehood. In contrast, the bullshitter is unconcerned with the truth and speaks with no reference to it. The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods

Boris Johnson is a bullshitter, not a liar.

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Littrell and colleagues (2020) found that bullshitters tend to have lower cogni-tive ability, be less honest, less open-minded, have lower feelings of self-worth and a higher tendency for self-enhancement. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socio-economic background (Jerrim etal., 2019).

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A second sub-sector with a significant concentra-tion of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneur-ship industry’ (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017). This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepre-neurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantre-preneurs’ (Verbruggen & de Vos, 2019). In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.


A second aspect of a speech community which can foster bullshitting is noisy ignorance. This is when actors lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it.

This reminds me of so many "digital and creative" strategy discussions in the city.

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When an actor is relatively ignorant about an issue, they do not have the wider back-ground knowledge in order to compare new claims. Nor do they have an understanding of the right questions they might ask. This means they rely on relatively crude understandings of an issue yet tend to be much more certain than an expert would be (Raab, Fernbach, & Sloman, 2019).

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowl-edge or understanding.

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For instance, following the financial crisis of 2008, senior executives of some of Britain’s largest banks were asked to testify in front of a committee of the UK Parliament. When the bankers were quizzed about their responsibility for the crisis, many responded with evasive bullshit. They expressed regret, claimed they had already apologized and shifted blame to others (Tourish & Hargie, 2012). This evasion had a game-like quality. The inquisitors kept asking questions aimed at establishing the veracity of claims while the bankers continued to avoid the questions. This points to a significant chal-lenge for people calling bullshit: the effort they need to put in to refute bullshit is often of an order of magnitude greater than what is required to produce the bullshit in the first place (Brandolini, 2014).

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Finally, bullshit can become sacrilized when it is legitimated by wider institutions. This hap-pens when meaningless terms are embedded within commonly accepted practices, rules and cognitive schemes. When this happens, what was previously bullshitting within a particular organization can begin to seem like something which is inevitable and highly valuable across an entire field. For instance, within the cultural sector in the United Kingdom, a wide range of empty terms such as ‘creativity’ began to be used by actors in increasingly reverential terms (Belfiore, 2009). When this happened the idea of creativity began to be treated as a sacred value.


For instance, a participant in a meeting may resist being swept up in a presentation filled with manage-ment buzzwords and ask for precise under-standings of how this will work operationally. When this happens, resolute disbelief can become a significant barrier to ongoing bullshit-ting.


When bullshitting becomes part of the rou-tine processes in an organization, it is more likely to be undermined through de-routiniza-tion. One way this happens is through unlearn-ing. This occurs when actors consciously question the bullshit they use in an unthinking way. For instance, if a management buzzword is identified as bullshit, actors have to consciously reflect on their language and find alternatives. A second way routine bullshitting can be under-mined is through anticipatory defence. This means actors who expect bullshitting will put in place prophylactic measures to protect them-selves.

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As well as undermining routinized bullshit-ting, actors can question bullshit which has been integrated into the formal structures of an organization. This happens through the process of de-formalization where what appeared as legitimate organizational processes are shown to be illegitimate. One way this process can occur is through theorizing. This is when claims which appear to have a rational gloss are sub-jected to deeper and more searching inquiry by experts. For instance, overblown claims about the effectiveness of a management technique may be deflated through careful empirical tracking of actual impacts. A second way bullshit can be deformalized is through de-sanctioning. This can occur when people in for-mal positions of leadership ‘call out’ bullshit in an organization and question its use. When this happens, organizational members are less likely to routinely bullshit. Finally, bullshit can be deformalized through public repudiation. This happens when an organization as a whole com-mits itself to avoiding management jargon, unnecessary acronyms and other forms of busi-ness bullshit.

Posted by Adrian at 10:20 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 20, 2021

Can't Buy Me Innovation

A few months back, the Government announced its plans for some big, grand capital-I innovation programme that they'd like to invent the next Internet or something.

It's the sort of thing that in theory I'd be very interested in, but I've learned to mostly ignore such developments. I'm pretty confident that it'll achieve little beyond wasting huge amounts of public money. That's a genuine shame, but I think the best way to deal with that is to build an alternative approach that makes it obsolete. So that's where I'm focusing my efforts.

However, since Laura James pointed at this excellent blog post on ARIA (the name of the Government's initiative) from Nick Hunn, and Rachel Coldicutt live-tweeted a thread about Dominic Cummings' appearance at the Science and Technology Committee talking about ARIA, some thoughts about it have been rattling round my head. Let's see if I can get them out and into this post.

Nick's blog post does an excellent job of explaining the cultural problems with the UK R&D funding landscape, which won't be solved by throwing more money at it:

The people who put together the scoring schemes for our current development grants would run screaming from the room at the prospect of a mere 20% success rate, as would almost every civil servant. This is despite the fact that the real success rate of current grants, at least in terms of game-changing innovation, barely registers. The people administering them have invented some very novel scoring criteria which make them look as if they are successful, but that is probably the most innovative thing which has come out of them.

I think part of the problem is that they don't know what they want to "buy", beyond "innovation". And the problem with that is that it isn't something you can buy. When asked what they did today nobody replies "I innovated", it's "I wondered what would happen if..." or "I thought it would be interesting to try...".

Those doing the work, and potentially innovating, are too close to the work to make the call. Is anything I do innovation? Either it almost all is, or hardly any.

The ur-example of this sort of approach is always DARPA. The difference there is that they weren't buying "innovation", they were buying "new defence technology". That's actual things rather than a vague concept. I think that's a key improvement that could be made to the UK approach: not defence spending, but spending on things that Government wants or needs. That will mean that:

  • You'll have an idea of if you succeeded or not. Failures are okay, and this way at least you'll know if you've had any!
  • Some level of commercialisation is likely to have taken place.

Maybe I'm just arguing for the cash to be given to the SBRI (the Small Business Research Initiative, which funds R&D from small businesses responding to challenges from Government). That'd be more useful than many of the other options. The problem then becomes one of generating the ambitious, interesting ideas of what to buy, which is likely to be just as susceptible to capture by those good at networking and navigating bureaucracy. We'd surface more of the failures though, which you'd hope would provide more of a corrective feedback loop than the present system.

Moving onto Dominic Cummings, lots of discussion has been about his love of "weirdos and misfits". While I agree that he'd be a poor arbiter of weirdos and misfits, I think that a diverse and alternative group of misfits and weirdos would be a good way to increase the variety in areas explored.

Cummings mentions Bell Labs, and as Making Art Work documents, that did enable a bunch of interesting art and tech crossovers.

One of the replies to Rachel's thread makes the important point that "weirdos and misfits" mustn't be conflated with the myth of the lone genius. Definitely. This is a place for Brian Eno's scenius.

Or for a different collective approach, we could look to The Lucas Plan. They got so close in the 1970s(!) to pursuing a bunch of technologies that we could really have benefited from now; think what they could have achieved with backing and funding.

If you find the right sort of weirdos and misfits then the hardest part is going to be persuading them to take the funding. Anyone doing something interesting and different is going to have encountered, and been failed by, the existing system. The independence to follow your own interests, hunches and research is not given up lightly.

The DoES Liverpool community is a good example of the sort of scenius and cross-pollination of ideas between misfits and weirdos, with interests in IoT, plastics recycling, CNC tools, knitting, civic software, biomaterials, and more, plus permutations and combinations of all of them. With no funding in its decade of operating, and despite a much broader remit than just innovation, it runs rings around other innovation hubs funded to the tune of double-digit millions.

That's not to say that we couldn't do more if we were generously funded. We could have more space, and more equipment, and members of the community could be paid to follow their interests full time rather than having to balance that with other work to pay the bills. But it's the people, not the money, that's the important differentiator.

Another of the replies in Rachel's thread summed it up nicely: "the really radical answer is a living wage UBI". Let people follow their interests, that will unlock more "innovation" than any Government quango (or private corporation, for that matter).

Posted by Adrian at 10:40 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 06, 2021

East Liverpool Loop Cycle Ride

I do a lot of cycling these days—partly because it's my sole means of transport, but mostly because it's fun—but don't write about it much. Not here at least.

I see from my blog post at the start that it's been over five years that I've been marking my #InTheSaddle rides. I have no idea how many there've been though, because Instagram has no interest in my interest in my photos; and the set of embedded posts that they've broken on that blog post reinforces how they're web-hostile and is one of the reasons I'll be leaving them soon. I should really have known better, but it's never too late to make the change.

Anyway, this isn't the post about why Instagram are terrible, you've all got that to look forward to when I find time to write it. This is about sharing a nice ride that I've found of late.

Every other Friday, Peloton Liverpool (not the exercise-bike startup, this is a local bike coop doing lots of good bike-related activity in the city) run a social group ride after work. It's great fun—a real mix of people and abilities; they can lend you a bike if you need one; the pace is pretty relaxed; and you can be as chatty and sociable as you want (or just keep yourself to yourself and get some exercise).

We do somewhere between 15 and 25 miles, over a few hours. I've started tracking the routes and adding them to this map of Peloton Rides.

Recently I was wondering if I could find a suitable route for us taking in my regular ride through Croxteth Hall and the Stocksbridge Village and Gellings Lane greenways. They're part of the route I've been doing for years, to get out into the countryside and across to Rainford to visit my parents and sister. It'd be nice to get out onto the Coach Road, but there's not a good way to loop back from there.

The National Cycle Network actually has a route from Knowsley Industrial Estate through Kirkby and over to Fazakerley. I knew how to get onto the Loop Line from there, although my routes around there tend to either involve a section on a major road and/or a gated look-both-ways-to-check-for-trains crossing over the railway. Neither of which would work well for a group ride!

I've found a better route through Fazakerley, and have reccied it a couple of times now (the first time, I got caught in a hailstorm and then torrential downpour), and last Sunday got a decent GPS trace and not a terrible timelapse video to give a feel for it.

It's the gold track on this map of some of my routes shows the route. It's about 17 miles in total. Ice-cream at the top of Everton Brow overlooking the city is optional, but recommended.

Posted by Adrian at 11:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack