At Last, a Law for our Times
A FRIEND THIS WEEK introduced me to Brandolini’s Law, known on the Internet as “the bullshit asymmetry principle.” First, though, some background.
Many years ago the foundation had the good fortune to commission a brilliant woman, a nationally known economist. We asked her to analyze the budget submitted that year by the Indiana governor at the time, the fiscally nimble Evan Bayh. The analysis cost $10,000, as I recall.
We were quite proud of the paper that resulted. The foundation had done its job, that is, to put the best mind on what had become a serious policy problem, in this case the increasingly fanciful numbers in state budgets. Her analysis suggested — proved, to my mind — that the governor was flat-out lying to the Legislature and to Indiana citizens. He was fixing the numbers.
So of course we wanted to share the findings with the statewide newspaper. An interview was arranged. The reporter was impressed with our economist and her analysis. An article was scheduled for the next Sunday’s edition, the largest circulation day of the week.
New to public policy, we patted ourselves on the back. This is a simple game, we thought. You just gather the facts and let an untrammeled press do the rest.
So I was unprepared for what I saw when I opened the newspaper. There was our economist’s carefully cited article on one half of the page. On the other half under the same sized headline was an interview with the governor’s press secretary saying that our economist’s numbers were “wrong.”
No, the press secretary didn’t offer anything to support that. Nor did the newspaper independently pursue the evidence that our economist had handed it, evidence pointing to fraud and malfeasance in the state’s highest office. The reporter had merely called the governor’s office for a statement. A casual reader would have seen nothing more than an honest difference of opinion on a boring topic between two equally credible sources.
That, I have belatedly learned, was a reverse application of Brandolini’s Law, formulated a few years ago by an Italian programmer, Alberto Brandolini, while watching a political talk show. It reads in full: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than that needed to produce it.”
Indeed, the foundation’s president at the time had to pull me aside a few days later to say in the kindest way possible that we wouldn’t be commissioning such ambitious papers in the future. It made no tactical sense, he said, we couldn’t afford it. “We on one side spend thousands of dollars when the other side only has to pick up the phone,” is the way he put it.
Yes, I should have known better. A favorite philosopher around here nailed it 178 years ago.
“We must confess that our adversaries have a marked advantage over us in the discussion,” Frederic Bastiat wrote in “Economic Sophism.” “In very few words they can announce a half-truth; and in order to demonstrate that it is incomplete we are obliged to have recourse to long and dry dissertations.”
Let me conclude by reminding the membership that my example of asymmetrical bullshit was from a time when journalism was journalism. Today, we wouldn’t be able to get an interview. Nor would we want one. — tcl