Defining bullshit.

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March 2 2005 7:37 PM

Defining Bullshit

A philosophy professor says it's a process, not a product.

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Bullshit, Frankfurt notes, is an inevitable byproduct of public life, "where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant." But politics is not a creation of the modern era; it's been around for centuries.

Why should bullshit be so prevalent now? The obvious answer is the communications revolution. Cable television and the Internet have created an unending demand for information, and there simply isn't enough truth to go around. So, we get bullshit instead. Indeed, there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer bullshit. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can't talk in clipped sentences. In his underappreciated book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner found a negative correlation between media mentions and scholarly citations for the 100 public intellectuals most mentioned in the media—and these 100 accounted for 67.5 percent of all media mentions!

The Bush administration is clearly more bullshit-heavy than its predecessors. Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, put his finger on the Bush administration's particular style of lying three years ago:

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If the truth was too precious to waste on politics for Bush I and a challenge to overcome for Clinton, for our current George Bush it is simply boring and uncool. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered.

But by Frankfurt's lights, what Bush does isn't lying at all. It's bullshitting. Whatever you choose to call it, Bush's indifference to the truth is indeed more troubling, in many ways, than what Frankfurt calls "lying" would be. Richard Nixon knew he was bombing Cambodia. Does George W. Bush have a clue that his Social Security arithmetic fails to add up? How can he know if he doesn't care?

Correction, March 4, 2005: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described these words as adjectives. In fact, they are nouns. Return to the corrected sentence.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.