“I work in the bullshit industry,” Evan Davis begins telling a room full of budding journalists. “We’re going to encounter a lot of bullshit.”
On Tuesday, I found myself sitting in a lecture from Davis. While he used the word ‘bullshit’ 124 times in the space of 85 minutes, the presenter of Newsnight and Dragon’s Den also taught us some very valuable lessons on the subject of fake news.
Davis joined the BBC in 1993 and has used his extensive knowledge as an economist, journalist and presenter to formulate his latest book called Post-Truth.
“Bullshit is a broad category,” he explains. “There are four forces in which the bullshit falls into.”
The first of which is where the bullshit in question has a deep subtext of truth.
“You have to ask what the underlying message is,” Davis says. “Journalists took Donald Trump literally without going deeper. When he claimed the unemployment in America was actually 30 percent instead of 7, perhaps he meant that he cared about the blue collar worker.”
Unsurprisingly, Davis referenced Trump severals times during his lecture.
“Ultimately, though, he will be judged on what he delivers,” Davis decides. “If you don’t like Trump, say my goodness, he’s connected to so many people, what is it they were so angry about?”
The second of Davis’ forces is short-termism, where what you say is good for today but not for tomorrow. He gives the example of news editors talking a dull story up. The public may swallow it for now, but will eventually discount everything you say by 10 percent.
Next comes culture, the force I found most interesting.
“When the builders said that it was going to take four months, I knew really it’ll take eight months.
“There’s the pressure for people to bullshit if where the norm is for people to bullshit. There’s a dilemma of how to fit in.
“Everyone on a dating website lies about their age. They say they’re 36 when really they’re 41. If they didn’t lie, it would be an unlevel playing field.”
Davis’ final force of bullshit concerns the psychology of a human being – the double bluff effect. Why do people buy something that is priced at £9.99 instead of £10? Davis says it comes down to perception, but it doesn’t always work.
“Bullshit works and has a social impact, but bullshit too much and people will label you a bullshiter,” Davis tells us.
In journalism, Evan insists that the biggest challenge is to remain open-minded. In fact, he uses that word a lot (although no way near the number of times he said bullshit).
Remaining open-minded is hard because we do not want to seem “gullible”. It means getting out of the comfort zone of your own prejudice.
“Do not swallow things at face value,” Davis insists. “It is your job to call out bullshit.”
Listening to Davis speak was fascinating. It opened my mind to the reasons behind bullshit and fake news, while reaffirming that things will not change overnight.
“I don’t want laws to govern information flows,” Davis concluded. “Most of the time, truth is a process of discovery.”