On “On Bullshit” (Princeton University Press, 2005)

I wish I had thought of the title. This 2005 booklet of eight thousand words by Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Princeton, was first published in 1985 as an essay. It was on the NYT best seller list for twenty-seven weeks. The message is that we are swamped with bullshit, which differs from lies in that there is no deliberate attempt to deceive, rather a milder form of deception either deliberately undertaken, or because the originator feels obliged to give an opinion about something she or he knows nothing about.

Does bullshit matter?

In many instances no, but when it causes conflict or expenditures of vast sums of money, it’s worrisome. Religion and the climate debate often fall into these categories. Frankfurt notes that “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted or dumped” (21-22). There are mounds of bullshit in different religions, which are or often have been in conflict with each other, not just Christians, Muslims and Jews, but within each of these beliefs, between Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia Muslims, orthodox and non-orthodox Jews

Climate Change

An example of modern-day religion is climate change. Its Old Testament was the 1972 publication of the Limits To Growth by a group of distinguished writers. Forty-one years later in 2013, it was found to be wrong in many respects both about pollution and resource use – see http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-growth-and-its-critics-by-bj-rn-lomborg . The world did not run out of resources. On petroleum and gas, North America with a larger population, will become self sufficient, and the decline of output due to conflicts in the Middle East is coinciding currently with a fall in oil prices. They could rise again, but global energy shortage is not now seen to be a major problem.

When the price of materials which were forecast to be in short supply rose, either new deposits or substitutes were found. While renewable energy provides only a small fraction of energy requirements today, that share is increasing and other energy saving measures are found. In my house in eastern Canada in 1970, there was no insulation in the roof or walls. Older houses have now been insulated and new ones designed to require less heat. The revolution in communications has in many ways been energy saving.

Environmental Movement

Limits To Growth also became the Old Testament for today’s environmental movement. Watch out for not just traces but rich deposits of bullshit, which if the environmental storyline is wrong will cost us large sums of money, and cause as much trouble in its way as religious disputes appear to be doing today.

In order to separate the good stuff from the excrement, consider some of the facts, on the basis that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” (Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four time elected US senator who died in 2003).

Matt Ridley, a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the British House of Lords has reported on climate change for 25 years. His summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change is published in The Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9

“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and technology in the 21stcentury and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario, Ridley notes, produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining. The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

Listen well to Frankfurt, so as not to be buried under tons of what is currently being spread.


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