At the public library last week I picked up a copy of Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven Digital World, by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West (2020). The authors teach a class, also called “Calling Bullshit,” at the University of Washington, and if the title hadn’t already beckoned to me—yes, I have a weakness for strong language—then the back-cover blurbs, from the likes of math expert Cathy O’Neill and physics laureate Saul Perlmutter, would have sealed the deal.
Library copy of Calling Bullshit flanked by my own copies of On Bullshit and Corporate Bullshit.
In the very first chapter, “Bullshit Everywhere,” I learned this week’s eponymous law. (The authors label it a principle, but almost everywhere else it’s called a “law.”) In the authors’ words:
Perhaps the most important principle in bullshit studies is Brandolini’s principle. Coined by Italian software engineer Alberto Brandolini in 2014, it states:
“The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it.”
The axiom is actually a little older than that. Brandolini originally tweeted about what he dubbed as “the bullshit asimmetry [sic],” in a January 10, 2013, tweet.
(There’s a certain poetic justice to Brandolini’s surname, because so much of branding, I’m sorry to say, amounts to bullshit.)
In subsequent tweets, Brandolini said he was inspired to create the term when he read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and then watched an Italian political talk show in which journalist Marco Travaglio and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attacked each other (via Wikipedia).
The principle has existed in various forms for centuries. Someone—possibly Jonathan Swift, but not Mark Twain, to whom the quote is often misattributed—said or wrote “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
And in 2010, a few years before Brandolini tweeted his axiom, Italian blogger Uriel Fanelli had postulated something similar, which Google translates as “an idiot can produce more bullshit than you can shovel” (un idiota puo’ produrre piu’ merda di quanta tu non possa spalarne). Fanelli called his principle “la teoria della montagna di merda”—the mountain-of-shit theory—and named his blog Niente Stronzate: No Bullshit.
Further reading #1: the Gish Gallop, which amounts to “baffling them with bullshit.”
Further reading #2: This September 2019 post on John Jennings’s Interesting Fact of the Day (IFOD) blog, which helpfully defines bullshit and bullshitter (“the typical bullshitter is a North American male who is wealthy and very confident”) and gives a good example of bullshit that’s tough to refute.
Further reading #3: Also see the blog of American software developer and consultant Matthew Reinbold (“I write about Sociotechnological Electroblaborgaborasm”), who has compiled a whole bunch of technology laws, aphorisms, rules, paradoxes, and effects, from Ashby’s Law (“complex problems require complex organizations”) to Hanlons Razor (“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”) to Zeno’s Paradox (“any forward motion is an illusion”).
Further reading #4: Mark Peters’s Visual Thesaurus columns about euphemisms, gobbledygook, and bafflegab—in other words, bullshit.