Calling Bullshit in Philanthropy
Relearn the art of skepticism, and improve grantmaking.
“The world is awash with bullshit, and we’re drowning in it,” Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West declare at the beginning of their helpful new book Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.
“Politicians are unconstrained by facts,” Bergstrom and West continue. “Science is conducted by press release. Silicon Valley startups elevate bullshit to high art. Colleges and universities reward bullshit over analytic thought. The majority of administrative activity seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.” That’s some disarming honesty there. Refreshing, really.
They go on, still jarringly forthright. Engagingly so, actually. “Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit. We wink bank—but in doing so drop our guard and fall for the second-order bullshit they are shoveling at us.”
Plenty to go around. Maybe you can think of more examples, maybe even in philanthropy. While Calling Bullshit doesn’t include any material specifically about philanthropy, participants anywhere along the spectrum of the grantseeking and -making enterprise can and should learn (or relearn) from it.
There is some bullshit in philanthropy, after all, no? Just hypothetically, among other things, contemplate much of that which is included in grant requests; in what foundation staffs present to executives and boards of directors; and in what executives and directors tell their colleagues at other foundations, their contacts in the other upper echelons of elite society, and those policymakers in government and influencers in the media. Conceivably all winking, too, by the way.
Speaking from experience, there’s a reason foundation work tends to breed cynicism. There might be benefit to some skepticism, however, according to Bergstrom and West. In fact, we need to relearn the art of skepticism to better spot bullshit, they believe, especially because it has evolved.
Bergstrom is a biology professor at the University of Washington. West is an associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, where he co-founded the DataLab and directs the Center for an Informed Public.
Schools and Their Languages
“Old-school” bullshit comes in the form of rhetoric or fancy language, as Bergstrom and West describe it, and it’s not going away. A temp agency, in an example they give, says “Our collective mission is to functionalize bilateral solutions for leveraging underutilized human resource portfolio opportunities.” Bullshit. Old-school. Familiar, unfortunately, but at least familiar.
“New-school bullshit uses the language of math and science and statistics to create the impression of rigor and accuracy,” they write. “Dubious claims are given a veneer of legitimacy by glossing them with numbers, figures, statistics, and data graphics.” In another of their examples, then: “Adjusted for currency exchange rates, our top-performing global fund beat the market in seven of the past nine years.”
Bullshit? Hmm. Dunno, or at least not quite sure. “How were returns adjusted? How many of the company’s funds failed to beat the market and by how much?” they ask. “[W]as there a single fund that beat the market in seven of nine years, or was it a different fund that beat the market in each of those seven years?”
New school. Harder to detect, and defend against. Perhaps purposefully so.
Detecting and Defending
But it’s doable to defend against, and we must try. To avoid being taken in, Calling Bullshit devotes a particularly useful chapter to six common-sensical, but crucial habits of mind that should be cultivated (or further cultivated) and maintained, which philanthropists and professionals in philanthropy should certainly try to do.
- “Question the source of the information.” This might require making some educated guesses, Bergstrom and West admit—in this context, including about that which a request for support is asserting. So intelligently educate yourself as much as you can, which takes time and effort. Make the time, take the effort. Discount the information accordingly, if and when warranted.
- “Beware of unfair comparisons.” In comparisons or rankings—including, in this case, of existing and/or would-be grantees or grantmaking programs—“apples-to-apples” metrics and definitions of them and that which is being measured matter, they underscore. Know, or learn, them.
- “If it seems too good or too bad to be true . . .” Dig to the source, Bergstrom and West urge, then keep digging, if and when necessary. If too much digging is necessary, there’s a problem—here, with the request, maybe the program staff’s recommendation, or the foundation colleague’s presentation.
- “Think in orders of magnitude.” “When people use bullshit numbers to support their arguments, they are often so far off that we can spot the bullshit by intuition and refute it without much research,” they write. “For spotting bullshit on the fly”—be it in the office, on a site visit, in the boardroom, or at the pre-gala reception with officials from the friendly foundation that’s looking to close a favored nonprofit’s budget gap—they suggest that making mathematical “approximations in powers of ten is often good enough.”
- “Avoid confirmation bias.” Our pre-existing beliefs—or, in this context, the foundation’s mission and vision—are true, right? Bergstrom and West quote sociologist Neil Postman’s dictum: “At any given time, chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.”
- “Consider multiple hypotheses.” Above and beyond incorrect facts, bullshit “also arises in the form of incorrect explanations for true statements,” Bergstrom and West warn. “[J]ust because someone has an explanation for some phenomenon doesn’t mean that it isthe explanation for that phenomenon.” (Emphases in original.)
Relearn the art of skepticism. Spot and call more bullshit. Philanthropy will be better for it.
This article first appeared in the Giving Review on September 3, 2020.