Alberto Brandolini, an Italian software engineer, in 2013 formulated what is now known as “Brandolini’s Law” or the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. Here’s the original statement of Brandolini’s Law:
Of course, this is not a “law” like Newton’s laws of motion are laws, but more like how “Murphy’s Law” is a law – meaning that it is a colloquial general truth. Let’s dive into Brandolini’s Law!
What is Meant by “Bullshit”?
In order to fully appreciate Brandolini’s Law, it is helpful to understand what is meant by “bullshit.”
The go-to source on bullshit is Princeton Professor of Philosophy Harry Frankfurt who defined bullshit in a 1986 essay titled “On Bullshit.” The entire 20 page essay concerns what exactly is, and is not, bullshit (the Professor went further into depth by later turning the essay into a book). You can find the essay here: On Bullshit.
Basically, bullshit is a statement made without regard to the truth and connotes overstatement, exaggeration or falsehood. Spewing bullshit, however, is not the same as lying; rather the bullshitter has no real knowledge or care as to whether what they are saying is truthful or not. A bullshitter is not constrained by the truth but isn’t necessarily telling lies. From a 2016 article in TIME, Prof. Frankfurt summarizes:
The liar asserts something which he himself believes to be false. He deliberately misrepresents what he takes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not constrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his assertion, he is indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.
What is the Profile of a Bullshitter?
In a fascinating study, researchers at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Germany analyzed over 40,000 teens in nine Anglophile countries, including the U.S., to determine the characteristics of bullshitters. According to their research, here are the characteristics of people more likely to be bullshitters:
- Males are much more likely to be bullshitters than females. Duh.
- Not surprisingly, bigger bullshitters score out as more confident than those who bullshit less. Bullshitters are more likely to say they “can handle a lot of information”, “can easily link facts together”, “are quick to understand things”, and “like to solve complex problems”.
- Young people from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds have higher average bullshit scores than their less advantaged peers.
- Immigrants are more likely to bullshit than non-immigrants, but being a non-immigrant was nearly a flat correlation, so being an immigrant is correlated to being a bullshitter, but not being an immigrant doesn’t really make you less likely. and
- People from the U.S. and Canada are much bigger bullshitters than those in Europe, Australia or New Zealand.
Here’s a helpful graphic from The Economist summarizing the research:
So, the typical bullshitter is a North American male who is wealthy and very confident. Of course, there are female bullshitters, poor bullshitters and bullshitters who have low confidence. These are just generalities.
Back to Brandolini’s Law – Why is Bullshit So Hard to Refute?
Bullshit, by its very nature, is often hard to refute. Typically, it isn’t an out-and-out lie, but instead an exaggeration, a statement that is close to the truth or sounds like it should be true. It is easy to spew bullshit and sound correct. For example, consider the following statement:
People in Canada are actually in favor of global warming because a warming planet will mean that their property values will increase dramatically as their arctic climate becomes more temperate. More of their country will be inhabitable and arable which will be an economic boon to them.
I made that up. I have no idea whether its true or not. However, it sounds plausible. Maybe it is true. BUT I HAVE NO IDEA. It’s bullshit.
Now, think about how much research it would take to disprove that statement. I’d have to find and dig into surveys of Canadian views of global warming. Not just whether they believe its happening or man-made, but also whether they welcome it. Even if I could find a survey addressing this point, there’s a pretty good argument that it’s skewed as I would think that even if some Canadians are in favor of a warming planet many probably wouldn’t say that out-loud to a someone taking a survey. So, my simple bit of bullshit would take quite a bit of effort to refute, whereas thinking of it and typing it out took no time or effort at all.
Another thing about bullshit – now that you’ve read the above sentence about Canadians liking global warming maybe you are thinking: “huh, I actually wonder whether Canadians like global warming – It does sound plausible.” So, maybe at a party, or hanging out with friends, you might say “I heard that Canadians are in favor of global warming, what do you think?”This is how bullshit spreads – it sounds plausible and is repeated. A future report that no, Canadians aren’t actually in favor of global warming, may not spread around because a refutation isn’t as “sticky” or “viral” as the juicy gossip-like bullshit statement that Canadians are in favor of cooking the earth (those assholes!).
Bullshit can be more dangerous than a lie. As noted by Prof. Frankfurt above, a bullshitter’s goal is “to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.” Bullshit often appeals to our emotions or to our existing worldviews and once ideas become lodged in our emotions or confirm our views of the world they can become extremely hard to dislodge – even by the truth.
LESSON: be wary of bullshit and bullshitters. Don’t allow the burden of proof to fall on those who have to refute bullshit. Let’s hold bullshitters accountable for their own bullshit! As Annie Duke suggests in her excellent book Thinking in Bets – when someone states something, ask them how certain they are of it in terms of how much would they bet that its true.
Let’s have a healthy dose of skepticism about pretty much everything. While bullshit predates the internet, the internet makes the problem much worse because it is very easy to publish an opinion on the internet (this blog as a perfect example – low barriers to entry!) and even though something is “published” it may still be bullshit. Even when we hear something plausible, let’s be skeptical and require some sources for our views/facts/beliefs.
It’s also important to listen to and give appropriate credence to experts. Not everyone gets an opinion! A fantastic book on this point (one of my top books I read in 2018) is the Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols. Highly recommend it.