One of the great essays in modern analytic philosophy is Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit (here). The essay delineates the conceptual characteristics of BS differentiating it from lying, exaggeration, hyperbole etc. BS’s main characteristic is a complete indifference to truth. Whereas a lie aims to contradict the truth, BS simply disregards it. Truthiness (a concept not yet discovered (invented?) when Frankfurt originally wrote his essay) maybe, truth not at all. Given the ubiquity of BS all around us, the interest of Frankfurt’s investigation should be self-evident. However, I mention it today for its relevance to my little part of the world. Let me rant.
Spring comes and a young linguist’s fancy turns to NSF grants. These have become a larger and larger part of the linguistic universe as they function to support graduate education, top up academic salaries, and support travel to conferences in pleasant venues. I am a big fan of NSF grants (though I personally think that they have a deep built in conservative bias, but that’s a topic for another day) and I wish that the linguistics division had more money to distribute. However, there are two parts of the process that I believe have helped foster the spread of BS within our small domain. Indeed, the NSF may be responsible for a recent spike in the science BS-ometer that pieces like this one in the NYT seem to regularly generate. How does the NSF foster this? There are two ways.
First, there is the “look scientific” requirements of the formats. For example, the NSF has come to value research agendas that provide detailed schedules specifying when you will do what work. Example: Year 1- run pilot studies on X followed in year 2 by wider studies on Y. In year 3 the project will spend 5 weeks in Z collecting data on W, which will be compiled in the last two months of year 3. None of this is crazy to ask for if your project is primarily empirical. If you are doing a psycho project then you have planned out pilots that you want to run and follow up studies depending on how they turn out (actually, as we all know, these pilots have been run as have the follow up experiments and we already know the answers before we submit the grant for if this has not been done there is little chance of getting the grant. This, of course is another BS accelerator, though I will leave it aside as it is not of recent vintage). Ditto for a project aiming to study the properties of X in some languages Y: what to study first and when and where is pretty easy to outline and it is reasonable for the NSF to ask for your plans.
However, not everything fits nicely into this schema. For example, some people submit theory grants. By ‘theory’ I don’t mean applying formal techniques to descriptive ends, I mean trying to figure out how some bit of formal work relates to another (e.g. a personal favorite, how/whether to reduce Control to Movement). Now, this sort of work is not easily timelined. Consider: in the first 6 months I will come up with some novel/original ideas relating the apparent disparate domains X and Y. In the next six months, having reduced X and Y to a common core Z, I will extend the yet to be discovered methods/ideas/principles of Z to X’ and Y’ thereby unifying all of syntax, morphology and phonology. The last six months of the grant will demonstrate that the principles underlying Z follow from the Godel numbering of sentences in roman numeral notation. As should be evident, the problem with theoretical work is that you don’t know what to expect. The problem is pretty clear (one hopes) and the avenues to be pursued can be outlined. However, whether the problems will yield is completely up in the air. Indeed, if a grant could specify a credible time line it should not be funded for it indicates that the research has already been done (but see above). So, for this kind of work, the requirement that the proposal be squeezed into the indicated rubrics will necessarily generate BS. After all, the proposer knows that this is silly, the reviewers (if not brain dead) know that this is silly so the only reason to provide this kind of fiction is that you are required to provide something. Nobody cares if any of this is true or reasonable, only that it be there. In other words, asking for this is asking for BS.
A second place where BS oozes is in the last section where proposers are asked to indicate “wider impact.” Now, this section need not be PhD level BS (recall: BS, MS, PhD= bullshit, more shit, piled high and deep), and asking for wider impact while possibly asking a researcher to think outside of her/his comfort zone to make connections with nearby domains of inquiry can actually be a good thing. However, what the NSF appears to mean by ‘wider impact’ is roughly on the level of curing cancer, solving world hunger or getting lions and lambs to peacefully cohabit a king size bed.
The aforementioned NYT’s piece provides some choice examples. The brain sciences (if funded lavishly) will explain our “thoughts, desires, agonies and ecstasies” as these all “emerge from the details of the neural landscape.” Sounds impressive huh? But wait, there’s more! It will also cure “Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and Huntington’s” and “brain tumors, autism, dementia, paralysis and so on.” I love that ‘and so on.’ Right now, neuroscience can’t even explain why we see triangles as triangles or can identify a green blob as a cabbage in a picture. But never let that stop you; after all that would not be a worthwhile “wider impact” and that’s what we need to get that spigot open.
Oh, btw, there’s more, much more. It seems that once we cure all human disease we can move onto “societal health.” Brain science will cure crime, eliminate mental health problems, win the war on drugs, kick start new industries in artificial intelligence and bio-engineering. I’m sure I’ve left some stuff out, or the author has due to space limitations. But you get the gist. Fund me and I will solve ALL your outstanding problems. This is the kind of BS that the NSF’s insistence on “wider impact” statements promotes.
Now, you may be thinking that all of this doesn’t really matter. After all, we all know this is BS so how does it hurt? Precisely because it corrodes the scientific ethos. Scientists, for obvious reasons, have all the vices of other humans. However, culturally, the enterprise favors certain intellectual and moral virtues (even if they are not easy to live by), e.g. integrity, the respect for truth, clarity, modesty, care, etc. BS values none of these and by making the manufacture of BS in large quantities an integral part of the funding process, we corrode and undermine these values. And this cannot be a good thing. It makes much of science part of the advertising industry, just another way to get saps to buy our stuff. Fooey!!
As I mentioned, this is as true in linguistics as other NSF funded domains. And it seeps into everyday linguistics as well. How many papers have you read lately where the author, after presenting whatever evidence or argument for a certain position then tells you how the evidence is “surprising” or “strong” or “unexpected”? Why are these phrases added? Do they signal that the author thinks that all the other arguments are weak or inconsequential? Doubt it. Does the author have some measure for identifying the strong arguments from the weak? Never. In fact, these additions add no cognitive content. They are just pretty blatant forms of self-advertising aimed at getting you to ‘yes.’
Linguistics is lucky: we are small, pretty socially marginal field whose results are not particularly politically charged (compare with economics or climate physics). This is what makes it so exciting intellectually. The problems are interesting and can be explored in relative independence from hot button ideological concerns. However, even here the rising smell of BS is detectable. Is resistance possible? Damn if I know.
 There is another possibility, viz. that the NSF linguistics division actually has no interest in supporting theoretical work and this is just a way of derailing any such support. I discount this for I have asked if this is so and have been assured that it is not. Of course, this too may be BS; turtle shit all the way down?
 You know this is BS just by the conjunction of these two terms. Why not “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”? Probabaly a movie buff rather than a sports nut.