On bullshit

Oct 26 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

I've spent the last couple of days exploring The Guardian's secret philosophy / religion section and reading interviews from the Paris Review (and reading more and more Marquez; I can understand why Bolaño makes fun of him now, though it's hard not to find the man's scribblings adorable).  The last interview I read this afternoon was with Haruki Murakami, who changed my life at fourteen with Norwegian Wood (him and Eugenides; see: The Virgin Suicides).  There are two quotes I loved, in particular :

"In the 19th and early 20th centuries, writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it’s the real thing. But I don’t. I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I want to write about."


"I like to write comic dialogue; it’s fun. But if my characters were all comic it would be boring. Those comic characters are a kind of stabilizer to my mind; a sense of humor is a very stable thing. You have to be cool to be humorous. When you’re serious, you could be unstable; that’s the problem with seriousness. But when you’re humorous, you’re stable. But you can’t fight the war smiling."

This came, of course, directly after reading a joyful interview with the comic writer P.G. Wodehouse who must have been the merriest man alive. But still -- these words gave me some solace. "You can't fight the war smiling." Of course you can't, though you must try to delight in what you can.

And then there was this Don DeLillo ruby hidden in the midst of a beguiling David Mitchell interview :

"It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams."

I suppose, in the heady pursuit of science, it is impossible to bury reality.  In the academic world, there is the interminable reality of rejections; politics; ghastly ideas (and some ghastly people promoting them as well).  That strange, fake world.  But sometimes, for a moment, it's nice to forget it -- and to struggle on, imagining the rightly impossible to be very near.  Sometimes I think that perhaps what is so devastatingly wrong with the current state of academic psychology is the lack of wonderment among certain careerist academics; the obsession with protocol and publicity and status and not (rightly) with the meat and marrow of ideas, which might transform our world, which might bring us some much needed relief. When money and career are at stake, there are far too many too easily compromised.  And for what?

Should earnestness be a requirement in a good scientist?  Or should science teach us to be cynical?

(Link is to "On Bullshit," the Frankfurt essay.)

8 responses so far

  • GuessHandsOn says:

    See what makes Language Log such a great blog is that the contributors religiously stick to linguistic topics even when they feel the temptation to blog about digressions.

    Perhaps blogging about child psychology, language acquisition (and also evidence that corroborates Chomsky's views) is more topical for this blog.

    It's only been a month (or so?) and you have begun linking to/writing about irrelevant crap. (Who cares about Haruki Murakami?)

    When are you linking to kitty videos on YouTube?

    I'm overcome by a sense of curiosity and marvel in child-like fashion at that last question - the kind that "academic psychology" lacks but we can find in Apple stores.

    • melodye says:

      The questions are rhetorical, of course.

      Personally, I think you're just bitter that I referenced "On Bullshit" 😉 You'll have forgotten now, surely, but you're the one who told me about it. It seems a fairly apt thing to reference in re: academic psychology.

      This is grabbed from Wiki, because I don't have the book on me :

      "Both lies and bullshit can either be true or false but bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements (it is because of this that Frankfurt concedes that "the bullshitter is faking things", but that "this does not necessarily mean he gets them wrong"). While liars need to know the truth to better conceal it, bullshitters, interested solely in advancing their own agendas, have no use for the truth. Thus, Frankfurt claims, "...bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are" (Frankfurt 61)."

      P.S. "But I am le tired."

  • "Shecky R." says:

    Is it humanly possible for you to write an UNinteresting, predictable post!?...
    BTW, one school of cosmological physics argues that linear time and causality (as we falsely perceive it) simply does NOT exist... in which case much of life would be BS 😉

  • Speaking of nerd cred, once a person comes in and posts "Why aren't you blogging about science?", it means that you've officially arrived as a science blogger.

  • Bob O'H says:

    Have you read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum? It makes a nice (if longer) counterpoint to this post.

  • mcfly says:

    hello melodye. I know that the field of study of psychology is filled with bullshitters, many teachers of mine are like this, but i look with hope at the work that people like you do and i think slowly but surely better understandings of so many issues will develop. At least you are in a good position in a good university to do some interesting work, where i study (psychology in a latin american university) people have turned the world around and formed a new religious cult around scientistic bs. There is extra hunger for it if it comes from some "expert" from the usa or europe to teach us how to do things. I don't mean that we don't have some smart people doing work, but it's hard to find these people among the posers. i don't want to sound envious about your position, but sometimes i am, in a good intentioned way ;), nice blog by the way

  • Louise says:

    I bumped into this while looking for another post of yours, and it has cheered me up immensely. It's good to know one is not alone, and that others find an apparent lack of wonderment among careerist academics all rather depressing.
    It also links to something you said in your recent post about the lack of language research in Nature and Science: of those papers that were published, a number concerned some nifty human-like capacity being found in another species. This characterizes most comparative papers published in Nature or Science. Clearly, making ever more sensational claims about animal minds is seen as the path to a sensational academic career, but this desire to see ourselves in other animals, accompanied by (what seem to be) increasingly lax standards of peer review and editorial judgement, is having an enormously harmful effect on comparative psychology and we are all the poorer for it (as I see it; most disagree and accuse me of being in 'anthropodenial').
    I'm all for earnestness, by the way, as long as its only with respect to one's work, and not to oneself. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true among many of the status-hungry, high profile types to which you refer.
    Anyway, like I say, when it all gets a bit much, at least I know where to go for something that reflects all that makes science in general, and psychology in particular worth doing. Your blog is delightful.
    Chin up and rock on, as my friend Catherine always says.