Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On Bullshit and the Air Force


In the last posting about “Lies and More Lies” Larry suggested that it wasn’t actual lies the Air Force was spreading, but bullshit as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt. Larry wrote:

Back in 2005 there was a little (and I do mean little) book published by a retired Princeton Philosophy professor—Harry Frankfurt. The book was titled “On Bullshit” (which I will hereafter abbreviate as “BS”). It purported to be the first scholarly treatment of the subject of BS, even though the term BS is commonly utilized by everyone speaking the English language. If you haven't read it already, I would recommend getting your hands on a copy.

One of the main ideas (and the relevance to this posting) is that BS is a category of behavior distinct from lying. In lying, there is at least respect for the distinction between truth and fiction. In BS, there is contempt for this distinction; the motive is to get the one receiving the BS to form a particular opinion about the one dispensing the BS in some way. This is why we often associate BS with, for example, politicians. It is a common perception that politicians will say anything to get elected. I think that the Air Force Blue Book operation was—technically speaking—BS. The whole idea was to get the public to believe the message: “we’re not worried folks—no national security issues here!” They would put forth any statement that advanced that meme—sometimes even the truth.
Which is an interesting position to take on all this. So I looked this paper up and found it on line at:



Although this is a somewhat esoteric argument to make, it seems that what is being said is that the Air Force wasn’t engaging in lying so much as it was engaged in bullshitting. Frankfurt wrote:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensable distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
Or, when we look at what Hector Quintanilla said about certain UFO cases, or when he offered explanations that don’t seem to fit the facts, he wasn’t necessarily lying to us. He was bullshitting us. Frankfurt is telling us that Quintanilla’s (or any other UFO spokesman) aim is to impress us with words that are favorable to his position with no regard to the truth.

And what I find interesting in all this is that the person spreading the manure isn’t even worried about the tales remaining consistent with what they have said, what they are saying or what they might say in the future. He just doesn’t care about any of that. Quintanilla, when he offered multiple explanations, or when any of those in the Air Force offered multiple and sometime contradictory explanations, they didn’t care as long as there was an explanation floating around out there that someone would believe.

This little discussion gains us nothing in the long run. All we really have done is engage in semantics. Is the person lying to us or engaging in bullshit? In this particular case, that is the Air Force and UFO explanations, the ultimate purpose is to convince us to expend our time and effort in another arena and let the Air Force worry about UFOs… or to not worry about them as they would have us believe today. 

13 comments:

cda said...

A good example of BS explanations is from the CIA Historian some years back in which the author (Gerald Haines?) offered the reader spyplanes, e.g. U-2 & SR-71, as the answer to the unsolved cases. I do not believe he gave a single example of such a spyplane causing a UFO sighting, just an overall 'assurance' that such planes can and do cause UFO sightings.

He is right. Or is he? Some readers will be impressed by his conclusions. The truth is that whilst these spyplanes have probably accounted for a VERY small percentage (nobody really knows the figures) of the UFO sightings not explained by other means, it is a total red herring and misleading. In other words it is BS. The casual reader is led to think the UFO problem is therefore 'solved', and we can forget about it.

The man is an AF, or CIA, historian, therefore he must be knowledgeable, therefore he must be right. At least, that is the impression given to the public. And that is precisely the impression he and the CIA WANTED to give the public.

But it is still BS.

Steve Sawyer said...

I don't think we need choose between the terms bullshit vs. lying when it comes to USAF UFO project explanations for anomalous incidents in the past.

In fact, I would suggest it may be more appropriate to combine the two terms, as a more accurate semantic descriptor: either lying bullshit or bullshit lies.

The real question that needs asking (and answering) is why the USAF lied.

Robert Blakey said...

Bullshitting liars is what I would go with, Steve.

David Rudiak said...

cda wrote:
A good example of BS explanations is from the CIA Historian some years back in which the author (Gerald Haines?) offered the reader spyplanes, e.g. U-2 & SR-71, as the answer to the unsolved cases. I do not believe he gave a single example of such a spyplane causing a UFO sighting, just an overall 'assurance' that such planes can and do cause UFO sightings.

He is right. Or is he? Some readers will be impressed by his conclusions. The truth is that whilst these spyplanes have probably accounted for a VERY small percentage (nobody really knows the figures) of the UFO sightings not explained by other means, it is a total red herring and misleading. In other words it is BS. The casual reader is led to think the UFO problem is therefore 'solved', and we can forget about it.

The man is an AF, or CIA, historian, therefore he must be knowledgeable, therefore he must be right. At least, that is the impression given to the public. And that is precisely the impression he and the CIA WANTED to give the public.

But it is still BS.


Gee I agree with absolutely every word CDA has written here. Go figure. (Perhaps CDA has reached his yearly bullshit quotient and must now be very logical and sensible in his posts.)

Bruce Maccabee demolished Haine's claim that U2's accounted for more than half of UFO sightings by actually testing it against UFO sighting statistics, which in reality showed no changes in numbers pre- and post-U2.

The U2 BS was repeated a year after Haines in an internal CIA history of the U2 program, which likewise claimed that U2's accounted for more than half of UFO sightings and that there was a "tremendous increase" in UFO sightings once the U2 became operational.

This nonsense was picked up by the BBC only two weeks ago and repeated as virtual fact on Ufocon blog site by no less than Paul Kimball (who should have known better).

Likely U2's accounted for a SMALL percentage of UFO sightings, but there was no "tremendous increase" in UFO sightings because of the U2, and they certainly didn't account for over half of all sightings, unless they flew many thousands of missions in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Larry said...

To my mind (and I think what Professor Frankfurt was trying to say) is that the important thing about bullshitting is the degree of contempt it shows for the one on the receiving end.

Most people, by the time they are 3 or 4 years old recognize that there is a qualitative difference between truth and falsity. Furthermore, they recognize that there is a survival value in knowing the truth. This is supposed to be why all societies place a positive value on truth telling.

Except for one's adversaries. There are many societies where it acceptable--even required--to be deceptive to one's enemies. In such cases, it is still important to know what the truth is, so one can craft a clever lie to misdirect the enemy. Frankfurt points out that in this case, the liar still respects the truth and (importantly) the enemy. You have to have respect for your adversary as a worthy opponent to even bother to construct a good lie.

The bullshitter is showing contempt for both the truth and the target of the bullshit. The message behind the Air Force's message was, "we don't care whether you (the public) believe or disbelieve what we say--your opinions in the matter are not important. We expect you to shut up and go away."

And for the most part, that is exactly what happened.

KRandle said...

Larry -

I think you have hit the nail on the head...

albertguitar.com said...

There are some interesting anthropological questions here. Why does the AF (or any Gov't agency) bother to lie/BS about UFOs? It's not like folks are marching en masse in front of the White House demanding answers. (It may not be possible to march en masse anywhere, so that sort of thing might soon become a metaphor).

Perhaps we are conditioned by our society to go to the 'experts' when we have questions, and expecting them to always have an answer. (if they say "I don't know", then they are not an expert).

The Bush Administration used outright lies as excuses to invade Iraq, yet almost no one here in the US objected. Why would we expect different behavior from the AF or CIA, regarding UFOs (or anything else)? We don't, and we shouldn't.

Governments have a fetish for secrecy and a burning need for propaganda. In fact, it's an obsession in the clinical sense. I say that because the Power Elite have forgotten how to evaluate information. They don't know what's safe to release, and what isn't, so they err on the side of secrecy and don't say anything. I'm not talking about covering up criminal activity, though a lot of that occurs.

Propagandists make deft use of facts, half-truths, and lies.

Fact: The secret U-2 was made operational.

Half-truth: there was a change in the number of UFO sightings. (there are always changes in the number of UFO sightings)

Lie: A tremendous increase in UFO sightings is attributed to the U-2.

Even if there was a tremendous increase, there's still no causal connection. Actually, any percentage of increase in sightings attributed to the U-2 could have been proposed.

The best propaganda would lead the reader to make the connection on his own, without actually saying it. Failing that, it's time for the BS.

I gotta go...

P.S. I failed to note the birthday of the FOIA: 4 JUL 1966., signed by LBJ.
We should all read about it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_Information_Act_%28United_States%29

and especially note the folks who tried to subvert it, and the folks who fought to maintain it.

It's an amazing bit of history, considering the possibility of such a bill becoming law today (the words 'snowball' and 'hell' come to mind).

TTFN

Bob Koford said...

We know now what it was about...there is no longer conjecture.

Though one could say I was ahead of the game with the title Unknowns/Unidentified Defensive Ground Environment, for GRUDGE, the Blue Book UFO program, we now know, was an important component of the Air Defense Program for 1952 known as: The Blue Book Plan.

Really, it all can be traced to Kaplan and his Patrol Camera/Satellites plan. We only needed investigations to fill in until the satellites became reality.

In the mean time, we couldn't have anybody noticing the seriousness of the subject.

Therefore, they played it down.

It was just to buy time.

Anthony Mugan said...

CDA gives an excellent example, and I completely agree with his analysis of the U2 hypothesis.
Albert highlights that this approach to 'informing' the public is hardly restricted to UFOs. Very few serious policy issues ( e.g Iraq 2003) are presented to the public using the actual logic of the situation that drives policy makers ( at least not in the mass media, you can find serious news at the very top end of the media such as the FT, the economist or orogrammes such as, in the UK, Newsnight).
Perhaps they feel that most people would not accept the pragmatic or realpolitic approach that is usually necessary, ( Iraq is different...the neo con philosophy was neither pragmatic nor based on realpolitik but most people would probably have viewed it as morally repugnant and morals are generally a handicap in international affairs)
Don't get me wrong I actually think they are probably right as our education system simply does not develop critical thinking in the majority of the population and arguments based on simple messages are probably necessary. The point I'm making is that the BS or spin or lies, or being economical with the actualite ( my favourite term for it) is just normal practice.

Curt Collins said...

Is it possible that the AF believed what it was saying because they only accepted evidence that conformed with their beliefs and expectations?

“[M]erely cynical manipulators... who knowingly purvey fiction as fact? Perhaps. But an alternative hypothesis is that they are true believers whose perceptions are filtered through the ideas, values, norms of their subculture.” - Charles A. Ziegler, UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth pg. 65

Robert Blakey said...

Bush didn't lie, he was just wrong. Saddam wanted Iran to think he had WMDs, and he fooled western intelligence agencies instead.

Bob Koford said...

I am not intending to veer off topic, here. I don't like the way they operated any more than you do, I'm just saying that it is explainable, with evidence, now.

There just wouldn't be two Blue Book operations going on, simultaneously, with the military agencies, and it not be part of the same, secret operation.

McNarney was tasked to put together SIGN, and he, according to Air Force historians, was tasked to pull together 4 million dollars, secretly, to help jump start the Blue Book Air Defense Plan, for 1952.

What this seems to tell me, anyway, is that UFOBs WERE deemed to be a National Security threat, regardless of the many denials.

It could also shed light on why Moon Dust operations appear to be older than once thought, as well.

albertguitar.com said...

Regardless of who says what, the message is what we take away.

Actors, Presidents, spokespersons, PR officers, etc. are "Stand here, say this" people. Some know the truth, some don't. If push comes to shove, few would fall on their swords to defend their statements, especially if they had 'plausible deniability'.

One thing is sure: we are products of the dichotomy of Western Civilization. Everything is black or white, good or evil. "We present both sides!", "If you're not with us, you're against us!", "You're either part of the problem, or part of the solution!"

We don't want facts, data, analysis; we want conclusions.

"Based on our data, there's an 75% chance that Iraq has WMDs, so in we go!".

"Our data shows that only 5% of UFOs have no known explanations, therefore we conclude that there's only a 5% chance that some UFOs don't have mundane explanations."

Such messages are unacceptable.

Questions about the motivation of an agencys message are interesting, but fail to reveal, with metaphysical certitude, the underlying facts.

I gotta go...