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.

6 thoughts on “On Horseshit

  1. This is by far the best post I have seen in my short time on AL. The author has uniquely qualified the difference between bullshit and horseshit. He deserves a raise from someone: maybe in another life. I would add that home offices are often full of horseshit and although everyone smells it, we nonetheless have to act like we agree and are complying. Many people are experts at this maneuver. My only change to the article would be to drop the B. Russell chair example and substitute the image of a cold beer in the mind and then tell how some people offer water. The reality vs unreality of the two images might have been more meaningful. Thanks. Duke

  2. The first example of horseshit that came to my mind is “resilience”. Too many people are talking about it and telling everyone else that they should “build resilience”, obviously without stopping for one second to consider what they actually mean by “resilience”, let alone how could such a vague concept be translated into practice. In my experience, the word can be used to indicate, at the very least:
    1 – the capacity to return to a previous state (not necessarily an ideal one);
    2 – the capacity to keep going after having survived a shock, usually without waiting for external assistance nor complaining about it (“Oh, Filipino people are SOOO resilient, they lost everything in the typhoon but they are still trying to rebuild their lives and keep smiling!”)
    3 – aid programmes conceived to go beyond disaster relief, trying to address root causes of poverty and/or vulnerability (with varying degrees of success)
    One could wonder whether you really want to see some of these types of resilience in place (particularly #1), but more to the point, whether #1 and #2 can actually be “built” or taught. Totally horseshit.

  3. I know this is a soft/slow moving target, but “innovation” is the perfect storm for horseshit. I’m not sure from where it came, this god-like concept (probably the second-coming of tech saviours in the form of Zuckerbergs), but it has truly infected our discourse. I don’t think people are bullshitting when they use it – “innovative solutions to end extreme poverty” – they are, by your definition, secretly agonising over the truth/falseness of their claims about innovation in development. (Or to borrow Colbert, the truthiness of their claims).

    To reference my friend Annalisa and her resilience rant (a good one at that), innovation is tricky because it can be put into practice. Particularly, technological innovation. (see Play Pumps, OLPC). Programs and projects can easily be manipulated and labelled “innovative” without a second thought to the veracity of that claim. If we get to a point where everything is innovative, then surely, nothing is innovative. The prefix of technology adds an element of newness to the sheen of innovation. Something that has never been done. Yet, technology is only as good as the users who wield, build and field it.

    So, I’m calling a double horseshit on anything labelled “technologically innovative” or “innovation through technology”. Show me examples (that are grounded in good theory).

  4. The author’s desire to be unoffensive is laudable, yet impractical. For example, when an evaluator asks, “What is the theory of change?”, the evaluator is usually trying to be unoffensive while privately entertaining 3 common & simple questions: 1) What on earth are these clowns trying to achieve? 2) How can anyone believe this is going to work? 3) How to gently communicate “hopeless, hapless & ham-fisted” so that it doesn’t piss everyone off? Theory of change may be horse-shit, but at least it is well-intentioned horseshit when you read between the lines.

  5. Pingback: What does changing complex systems look like in practice? | AID LEAP

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