The existence of what’s colloquially known as “bullshit”—a combination of lies, exaggerations, and inaccuracies that makes it hard to figure out what the truth is—is familiar to all of us. Most of us have come across an individual so skilled in deploying it to advance their goals that we refer to them as “bullshit artists.” Given it’s such a prominent aspect of human behavior, however, you might be surprised to learn that field of bullshit studies is relatively young. Researchers trace BS back to an obscure 1986 essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, but it didn’t pick up traction until it was expanded to book form nearly 20 years later.
Even then, another seven years had to go by before other researchers expanded on Frankfurt’s theoretical framework, and empirical studies have only really picked up over the last several years. Now, a group of social scientists (John Jerrim, Phil Parker, and Nikki Shure) have done a massive study that polled 40,000 school students to find out who bullshits and why. The researchers use the phrases “bullshit” and “bullshitters” throughout, so we are, too.
As defined by the academic community, bullshit can be contrasted with lying by the fact that the people who use it are indifferent to the truth. While lies are often a strategic mix of truth and falsehoods deployed for a specific goal, bullshit is just a collection with a random accuracy meant to establish an impression. So how do you test for that?