A brief history of bullshit (book review)

In my work as an oceanographer and climate scientist, I’ve come across numerous people who spread misinformation with seeming disregard for truth. Entrepreneurs seeking startup funds, internet personalities looking for relevance, and politicians putting out fires all have reasons to pretend they know more than is true. However, few people are truly equipped with the necessary tools to smell bullshit and baseless claims often yield their desired results.

Seeing how far the signs of bullshit have percolated through some crucial sectors of our society can be a frightening rabbit hole to fall into. With my PhD graduation looming in the horizon, I’d like to transition into steering decision makers towards better judgement in ocean and climate matters. Therefore, I was instantly drawn into a Spanish translation of Tom Phillips’s book “Truth: a brief history of bullsh*t” when I saw it in a Guadalajara bookstore. Phillips is an editorial journalist with extensive experience in fact checking, so I thought he’d have an intriguing perspective on this topic.

Unfortunately, the book did not meet my expectations. It is written in a light hearted voice that translates poorly to other languages and distracted me from the content, which was not too substantial anyway. I was expecting to receive some profound overarching idea about the nature of bullshitting and deception, but I was met only with a vast collection of tales about (mostly) British con artists, scammers, and unethical communicators. In some cases, misinformation was born and proliferated out of the most benign intentions, but Philllips didn’t manage to squeeze enough juice out of these tales (see for example, the non-existent Kong mountain range, which many believed ran all across the African continent between the Ivory Coast and Ethiopia).

Rather than a lengthy list of tales with great similarity, I would have rather spent my time reading about that which makes the tales so similar to each other. This type of information was sprinkled throughout the book, but switching gears to cover stories of bullshit across eras, topics, and settings took focus away from the core esesnce of those tales.

If there is any overarching piece of insight that Phillips seeked to convey, it probably is that bullshit and misinformation have been an issue for a long, long time (even though most tales come from Britain, the US, and the last 3 centuries). Aside from that, I must highlight my favorite tidbit, which I found in the Introduction and relates to the difference between a liar and a bullshitter:

A liar spreads information that they know is inaccurate because they have a specific interest on subverting the truth.

A bullshitter spreads information with complete disregard for what the truth is or might be.

My personal distaste for this book definitely stems from my personal preference for maximalist books that go after some core piece of translatable insight that can explain the world around us (I should have known not to expect this from a book that is 250 pages long). Therefore, I can see how some people would find this an entertaining book to read, but it’s simply not my cup of tea.

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