“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”


The immortal words of W. C. Fields, who also said, “Whilst travelling through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days.”

But when you look around the weight of bullshit has increased almost exponentially over recent years. What’s the purpose?

Some of it is professional. The last thing the members of a profession need is for those outside the profession to suddenly understand the system. After all, if we were all fluent in law or tax accountancy (to take two examples) then we’d not need to hire lawyers or accountants. But gaining professional fluency takes time, I’ve noted that lawyers tend to hire accountants, and in need, accountants hire lawyers. Life it probably too short to master too many jargons or argots.

On the other hand a good professional jargon can be a disguise, a distraction, to conceal from the people who fund the profession that the professionals haven’t got a clue and are desperately hoping we don’t notice. It’s a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the Emperor suspects we might have noticed and tries to keep his hands moving rapidly enough to avoid embarrassment.

On top of having a good incomprehensible professional jargon, you also need to move the goalposts occasionally. The last thing you want is to keep things measurable; otherwise some clown will measure things and show you’ve failed.

Hence governments constantly tinker with how they measure things like cost of living, which ensures that the new figures are not comparable with the old figures but strangely enough always show whatever it is government wishes to show.

Another example is teaching where at one point, when I was in the system, we had first years, second years etc.

Now we have year 1, year 2 etc, and on top of that, in case somebody worked out an easy way to compare one to the other, we now have ‘key stages’ where you have things like key stage 1 and key stage 2.

If you’re part of the system then of course you know what they mean and it’s so obvious. But if you’re just somebody listening to a radio report over breakfast but the time you’ve converted things in your head to work out what exactly they’re talking about, the conversation is over and you never did find out what was going wrong.

Thanks to the internet this sort of thing has proliferated even more. The level of what W. C. Fields might have described as bullshit has hit whole new levels. But now it isn’t merely camouflaging failure, it’s actively trying to deceive.

So a photo of Turkish football fans arriving at an unidentifiable European airport is described as an army of refugees and asks where their women and children are.

As a lad I was told, ‘Believe nowt you read and only half of what you see.’ It struck me as good advice then, and I’d recommend it to you.

On the other hand if you fancy a read I’ll recommend two books. If you can find it

Darrell Huff, ‘How to Lie with Statistics.’


A classic work, slim, easy to read, and great fun.

Also if I may, another classic work which is also slim, easy to read and great fun




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14 thoughts on ““If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 2, 2016 at 4:29 pm Reply

    I have always LOVED How to lie with statistics.

    The problem is that it is SO good, that, for the rest of your life, your BS detector is in full sway, and it removes you from the pool of good little people who don’t think.

    There are still many ways to TRY to deceive us, and new ones being invented daily (some by Nigerian princes, shame on the Nigerian royal house; and shame on Trump, every day, of course).

    It is good to be a scientist.

    Also, re education, if you change the system every three years, as they do here, there is never any need for accountability, as you’re either setting up a new system, learning it, or getting ready to do something else – and there is no period when the system settles in and is held accountable.

    My husband managed to teach physics and chemistry to adolescents who actually learned it, but retired the minute he could, because of the paperwork and BS interfering with him actually teaching.

    • jwebster2 November 2, 2016 at 4:33 pm Reply

      you might ponder why the EU seems to introduce changes to the Common Agricultural policy on a three year cycle 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm

        Same reason? No one can make them accountable that way?

      • jwebster2 November 2, 2016 at 10:33 pm

        pretty much. By the time people start complaining that the system is unworkable they can say in all honesty, “But we’ve changed it.” Pity it’s for another unworkable system

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 2, 2016 at 11:25 pm

        Yup – and no accountability anywhere along the line.

      • jwebster2 November 3, 2016 at 8:11 am

        accountability is for the little people 😦

  2. lercio November 2, 2016 at 10:28 pm Reply

    Statistics always amuse me to some extent.
    For instance, I was in hospital for a small procedure, a spinal injection.
    A junior (very) doctor was chatting to some of the patients in the ward, all waiting to see the consultant anaesthetist.
    My turn for his calming words.
    “Don’t worry” he said “this is only a small procedure and it has an eighty percent success rate”. With a confident smile.
    Suddenly , that gown they gave me let a small breeze in, and left me feeling more vulnerable than ever “eighty percent,” I said, “that means a one in five chance of failure”.
    That wiped the smile off is face as he suddenly rushed over to speak to a male nurse, giving me a shifty look over his shoulder.
    That the trouble with statistics, I mean if he had said ninetynine percent and there was only ten patients in the ward.
    Does that mean total success, or that one is had a reminder every time he sat down?

    • jwebster2 November 2, 2016 at 10:35 pm Reply

      yes that’s the problem when they start trying to medicate entire populations, a 1% failure rate can destroy the lives of large numbers of people.

  3. Mick Canning November 3, 2016 at 9:32 am Reply

    Well, golly, you’ve talked me into it, you silver-tongued snake oil salesman, you.

    • jwebster2 November 3, 2016 at 12:50 pm Reply

      I’m still guessing I’ll sell more books for Darrell Huff than for me 😉

      • Mick Canning November 3, 2016 at 12:52 pm

        Mr Huff will owe you, then!

      • jwebster2 November 3, 2016 at 12:54 pm

        alas he passed away in 2001 so showing his appreciation is going to be a bit of a stretch for him

      • Mick Canning November 3, 2016 at 12:55 pm

        That does pose one or two problems, I agree.

      • jwebster2 November 3, 2016 at 1:04 pm

        he’s slower to reach for his cheque book than he was

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