On Horseshit

In a classic essay entitled ‘On Bullshit’, philosopher Harry Frankfurt proposed a theoretical understanding of the term bullshit. He argues that the defining characteristic of bullshit is that the speaker does not care whether what they say is true or false. This distinguishes them from a liar, who is well aware that what they are saying is false. “[A true bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”

This definition has served me well. Recently, however, I’ve realised that there is a significant sub-class of bullshit common in international development circles, to which the above definition does not apply. For the sake of conceptual clarity I will refer to it as horseshit.

Someone who speaks horseshit, unlike bullshit, honestly cares whether they are wrong or right, and agonises about the truth or falsity of their statements. The speaker’s statements may superficially be meaningful, or even profound. The distinguishing characteristic of horseshit is that the speaker does not have enough experience to really understand what they are saying, nor what the practical implications are.

This is problem because meaning in language derives from some mental link between our thoughts achnd the real world. When I say the word ‘chair’, it has meaning because the bundle of attributes which I associate with chair match some objects in the real world. For example, you sit on it, you find them next to tables, it looks like the picture on the left, etc. If I utter the phrase “Was man nicht weiß, das eben brauchte man”, it has no meaning for me because I copy and pasted it from a German website, and don’t actually have a clue what it means*.

Someone who speaks horseshit, consequently, is like me copying and pasting German phrases. What they say may make sense, and may even be correct. But because they don’t really understand what their advice would look like in practice, it is meaningless. There may be a state of the world which links to the words they use, but they have no idea what it is.

Monitoring and evaluation is particularly full of horseshit. Take theories of change. A recent flurry of consultancy reports, annual reviews, and other literary treasures have suggested that organisations develop one. Many of the people offering this advice, however, have not tried to develop theories of change themselves, nor wrestled with the practicalities needed to make it a useful tool. They may sincerely believe that a theory of change is a good thing – but their mental picture of ‘theory of change’ is so unspecific that their advice is meaningless. They are simply talking horseshit.

Take another example – evaluators who believe that anything can be measured through randomised control trials. All too often, they simply do not understand what it would mean to do so, nor the practical constraints that prevent randomised interventions. A recommendation to introduce random assignment of variables into a programme may simply not correspond to any real-world situation which could actually make this recommendation come true. The speaker understands the meaning of the words he speaks – but not how his ideas could interact with the context to produce a possible state of affairs. They are, again, talking horseshit.

Horseshit is everywhere. So here are a couple of handy tips to avoid the worst of it:

Ask for examples, not theory. Always ask how new theories and ideas can be put into practice, and how they can be applied in your particular circumstance. If the answers coming back are evasive – or just refer to more theory – the speaker may be talking horseshit.

Be cautious of anyone without field experience. Not everyone in the aid sector has to have field experience. But the levels of horseshit indisputably ramp up the closer people get to donor offices – and the less time they’ve spent out of the field.

Never assumes that everyone else understands. The horseshitter’s greatest asset is the assumption on the part of their audience that everyone else understands what’s going on, and so it would be embarrassing to admit that you don’t. Never be afraid to admit ignorance and ask for clarification.

I sincerely hope it’s nothing offensive.