By Bill Stork, DVM
A wild-eyed young laborer finishing his ham-and-Swiss-on-Rye lamented, “Me and my wife just bought a place out in the country. We’ve got a house and twenty acres, two cows, a chicken coop, and a well that’s gone dry.”
Brett was making over ten dollars an hour laying rebar the size of a meat cutter’s forearm at the Clinton Nuclear Power Plant. Still, it was going to take several months of Sundays, at double time, to make $2500 to drill a new one.
Next to him, Dad snapped back to conscious after his trademark seven-minute-nap. Thirty years of screamin’ diesel engines had left his hearing selective at best. He caught up to the banter, hovering just outside the circle as men packed up their lunch boxes and commiserated: blown transmissions, bald tires, and child support.
As he settled his hard hat and safety goggles, Dad pried, “Just out of curiosity, Brett, where do you and your wife live?”
“Oh, ‘bout eight miles east of Maroa,” he responded.
“You know, Carl Eads is just about five miles or so north of you. We were out there cutting wood Saturday. We had the truck and trailer half loaded, and were getting dry when my son noticed a pump handle and a windmill out in the corner of the pasture. I’ll bet it didn’t take four strokes and that thing was gushin’ the coldest, best-tasting water I’ve ever drunk. Tell him you’re in a tough spot, I bet he’d sell it to you for a little-a-nothin’.”
Carl was an ex-Marine and cowboy. Lacking patience, or a lift, he once clean-and-jerked a Mopar 440 V-8 with a blown head gasket from under the hood of his farm truck, to the work bench. He was also the union steward: middle management between the company building a nuclear generating station that would go nearly 1000% (seriously) over budget and twelve hundred heavy equipment operators who, at one point, worked seven-twelves… for a year.
Two days later, Brett tracked down Carl. His sun glasses like welding goggles hid the crease in his temple. Carl knew exactly where this line of B.S. had started. He shifted the wad of Copenhagen, and spat a brown bullet between the toes of the young man’s Red Wings. “I reckon we don’t need that well, ain’t had cows in ten years. Either me or my wife oughta be around all weekend. Stop and take a look at it”.
For the Tuesday, March 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein wrote an article titled, “Fine-Tune Your B.S. Detector: You’ll Need It.” According to Bernstein, in the digital age, misinformation - from nonsense to lies - spreads faster than ever, and is becoming an area of scientific research.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on,” has been credited (inaccurately) to Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and others.
Her article makes a number of inarguable points.
Ms. Bernstein cites studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that show people are more likely to B.S. when they feel obligated to have an opinion on a topic they know nothing about, or feel they aren’t going to be challenged.
Without a doubt. The Smallmouth Bass I caught up on the Flambeau Flowage is a good six inches longer at the Tyranena Brewing Company, than at Easter when my brother-in-law, Tracy, is sitting at the table. He was in the boat.
Dr. John Petrocelli of Wake Forest University calls this the “Ease of Passing Bullshit Hypothesis.” He also explains that B.S. will strengthen a weak argument, “I don’t care what the research says,” but weaken a strong argument.
Bernstein draws from the work of authors in journals at universities who rightfully contend that we are more likely to succumb to B.S. when we are tired, or fail to think critically. Yup.
The fork in the road.
She mentions that, at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, scientists and researchers presented a paper titled “Bullshitting: Empirical and Experiential Examinations of a Pervasive Social Behavior.”
The researchers go on to explain that B.S. is a form of persuasion that aims to impress the listener while employing a blatant disregard for the truth.
The SPSP’s definition is consistent with the work of Princeton Professor Emeritus Harry Frankfurt, who (literally) wrote the book On Bullshit. Dr. Frankfurt claims that B.S. is different than lying:
“Liars are aware of the truth, and choose to push it aside.” *
B.S.ers don’t necessarily care about the truth at all.
Well Dr. Frankfurt, Ms. Bernstein, and members of SPSP, my B.S. meter is tuned up. The needle is pinned, and it’s shooting sparks and blowing black smoke.
I was raised by, and work for, construction workers, farmers, machinists, fire fighters, truck drivers, and teachers. In the business of B.S., they are the best. On their behalf, I beg to differ.
The Wollin farm was leveled by a tornado in 1990. When a 111mph derecho did it again in ‘95, Ed called his son who was completing his ag degree at UW River Falls, “I think God’s trying to tell me something. If you’re coming back to farm, we’ll build it again; if not, I’ll get a job in town.”
The notion of a 9 to 5 is torture for farm folks. Today, Ed and his two boys run a 150-cow robotic farm. Standing in the office, I asked their take on B.S. Erich is stout as a stump and polite as an altar boy. He is not prone to disagree with authority, “Oh I think there’s a thread of truth in every line of B.S. Charlie Untz told us he sold his corn for five bucks a bushel. Translated: a lady gave him a $5 bill for a bushel to feed her deer, and refused the change.” You always consider the source.
Rick Schultz is the herdsman on Kevin Griswolds’ two-thousand-cow dairy. He was the valedictorian of his high school class, and graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin. Keeping his herd healthy and productive involves coordination between non-English-speaking milking crew, maintenance, and ownership. He knows his cows like a kindergarten teacher knows her kids. We were walking the quarter-mile (uphill, into a 50mph wind) from the heifer barn back to H.Q.
Rick said, “Bullshit can be used as a stall-tactic.”
A skill taught to me by my good friend Arlin Rodgers, DVM, PhD: “Yeah Willy, if you don’t know why the dog is coughing, limping, and ataxic, just crease your brow and take an ear swab. Tell the client you’re going to look at it under the microscope. Then you can run to your office and look it up in a book, or call somebody.”
Bernie Williams is a scientist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “My boss asked me how it was going. I waved a lax hand and assured him everything was under control.”
She was staring at a hundred new emails and a million-dollar grant.
I filled in, “But you knew you’d have it handled by the time it mattered.”
The oft repeated idiom goes, “You can’t Bullshit a Bullshitter”. The Stork caveat says, “Unless you’re better.”
My dad went to Bull Shoals, Arkansas, twice a year with a handful of buddies to Crappie fish. They had a ringer. Their friend Jay Smith had retired from Illinois Bell after thirty years. He traded his bucket truck for a bass boat, and called himself a fishing guide, A.K.A. Professional B.S.er.
Smitty was a little nervous. His cardiologist had found an occlusion in his greater coronary artery. After their fishing trip, he was going in for stent placements. Dad dropped a chartreuse jig next to a stump and paused to wait for a bump.
“Ahh, Smitty, it ain’t no big deal. They just make a little cut down there by your business and run it up there like a boring machine. Just don’t let ‘em charge you full price.”
Smitty was silent until the cleaning table. The men were carving filets big as a bread-slice from twelve-inch Crappies. He took a swig from his PBR, “Bill, what the hell do you mean don’t let them charge me full price?”
“If you ask the doctor ahead of time, you can get used stents. Hell, Smitty, we’re darn-near seventy years old, we’re never going to wear them out anyway.”
There is unspoken B.S.
It was that first day of spring when the ditches and alfalfa are blinding green, and Strasburgs had a calving. I excused myself past three waiting clients while Claire put the third phone line on hold. Dr. Clark was already double-booked. An hour later I had blood splattered on my forehead, and manure and straw stuck to the afterbirth on my coveralls. A heifer calf was bawling in the straw. Dave offered the milkhouse hose to knock the chunks. I waved him off. Don’t want the techs to think we’re leaning on the tailgate, telling stories.
Lies, damn lies, and statistics.
Jamie Lauderdale works two jobs to make payments on a single-wide mobile home and support her son, Buddy. Buddy has Asperger’s. He is plenty bright, but struggles with a world that does not always go his way. The only one who understands is his Shepherd-Chow cross, inaptly named Sugar. We hadn’t seen Sugar in six years when she presented panting and pale, with abdomen engorged. The very fact that she didn’t rip our faces off dropped the prognosis from poor to grave. The basketball-sized tumor on her spleen was inoperable.
When they picked up Sugar’s ashes, we carved out a corner in the lobby to share fresh tears, and a hug. Fighting for composure, Jamie conjured a smile, attempting to manage Buddy’s emotions, “Dr. Stork, if we had been able to afford more regular care, is there anything we could have done to prevent the tumor?”
There have been the Hannah and Mowgli miracles. The McFarlanes and Howells presented the girls to us at the first sign of illness. After bloodwork and radiographs we found the tumors, and referred them to Veterinary Specialty Services for ultrasound, radiographs, surgery, and chemotherapy. All for the cost of a good used Mercedes.
It is equally true - and the version I shared with Jamie and Buddy – that more than sixty percent of splenic and liver masses are malignant.
“Jamie, the majority of these tumors are nasty. By the time we discover them, they’ve already spread.”
We didn’t invent the truth, we just manage it.
Dear Dr. Frankfurt, Ms. Bernstein, and members of SPSP, your research and writing are enlightening.
After reading a number of your articles and listening to lectures, I’ve learned that a philosopher can lose me in lingo faster than a lawyer. As for these B.S.ers who will speak to inflate their position, I know them well. I’m usually saddened by the suspicion they never had a family sitting across the dinner table from them. We’ll leave that for the psychologist.
Wikipedia and Webster fully support your definition, and the Dictionary of American Regional English let us both down. I may be going rogue, but I’ve got an army behind me. With all due respect, I call bullshit.
Contributors to this article include machinists, veterans, farmers, construction workers, Ph.D.s, electricians, teachers, poets, potters, and Sylvia Sippel. Every one of us agrees that our brand of Bullshit is not a disregard, but rather an active dance… with the truth.
Do not tell us we’re not bullshitters.
Tom Frederick got East Side Marine to pull a bait-and-switch with his new fishing boat. He, Dave Oldham, and Dick Rentschler laughed until they wet themselves as my dad paced, panted, and ranted. For the first time in his life, the adaptation he built for Tom’s boat did not fit.
Diagnosed ten years previous with Parkinson’s disease, Tom was also holding my mother’s hand forty minutes after Dad called to tell him she’d been diagnosed. Dick and Dave drove four hours, once a month, to take Dad to fish fry after his stroke.
Jackie Schroeder was on the verge of tears when I returned from reading the cytology. The lump on the inside of Peyton’s back leg was a benign fat tumor. I knew the fastest way to shatter her anxiety was to tell her Peyton had – astonishingly - grown a third testicle. I also knew Kelly was looking over my shoulder to shake her head, smile, and blow my cover.
No one gets hurt.
If Brett is going to get his feelings hurt over trying to buy a used well off a retired rodeo hand, his lifespan in construction is finite. Jay Smith had a week of playing cards, and fishing with his buddies, more concerned with getting a good deal on a gently used cardiac stent, than dying on the operating table. His wife is a nurse, and set him straight before he made a fool of himself to the doctor. Dad knew that.
There is a class of people who take pride in being known as Bullshitters. Timing, target, and intent are all integral to the art. As is integrity. If they sell you a boat or a car, it’ll float, it’ll start, and the oil has been changed every 3000 miles.
* Clarification note from earlier in the story: "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." - Dr. Harry Frankfurt