mardi 21 février 2017

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

 from the department of anti-link-rot-action 

Somewhat at random it has been my custom to follow the blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in my RSS reader, and occasionally I would even feel moved by the spirit of enlightenment to offer up a comment to the august minds philosophizing there. Sadly the blog now seems to be in a state of permanent technical failure, effectively removing these comments from public view. My cacheing system has worked nicely though, so I guess it's up to me to take over the hosting from here on. I was particularly pleased with this comment, which pulls together my thinking on attention, agnotology, peer review and bullshit, written in response to this article by Brian Earp:

The key problem with bullshit that enjoys a certain "truthiness" is attentional: its presence is a time-wasting distraction from the good stuff. The agnotological processes whereby e.g. the tobacco companies, or climate change denialists, skew "debates" by creating false controversy is well-studied. In theory scholarly publishing should be relatively resistant to this process by the diligent application of peer review, but this merely displaces the reader's attentional process to a consideration of the judgement of the peer reviewers, potentially also prone to the retransmission of bullshit. The detail and verbosity of scholarly refutation amplifies the attentional problem.

Whilst freedom of expression worthy of the name must surely include the freedom to bullshit, the solution surely lies in maintaining reputational systems that offer the user efficient filtering systems that enable the basic command "never show content by this author again." It would be an error to universalise such judgement, for we all have our own foibles and tolerances. For example the Facebook system assigns a single "interest score" to each post which is then used to rate each post for all users. Twitter's "follow/unfollow" mechanism, which delegates filtering to the judgement of each individual user is much closer to what is required. The Pirate Party's attempts to implement "liquid democracy," whereby rank and file members anoint experts as delegates on any particular issue is also worthy of study.
Drinking at the commenting firehose at a heavily-trafficked site can be made less overwhelming using ranking systems (see Slashdot). And so on.

Frankfurt's book is of course itself somewhat bullshitty, devoting as it does, a substantial part of its rather slender discussion to a lengthy argument establishing that bullshit is synonymous with humbug. (What is humbug?) But hey! It's a fun cite on any reference list.

Harry Frankfurt seems a most charming man. This interview is a better outline to his thought than the book. He has humbly acknowledged elsewhere his surprise that his university press wished to work up his essay into a slender book:

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