Thursday, December 19, 2019

Recently I happened upon the little book at the right (1), and since it covers a topic that interests me, I bought it. Essentially an essay at about 8000 words, it can be read in the time it takes to drink two beers if you drink them at the rate I do, which is slightly faster than average, probably. Since some people still might consider the title profane (I don’t), I’ll refrain from using the key word and politely replace it with BS.


The author of On BS (former Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt) writes at length about how there is a difference between BSing and lying. Liars, like truth tellers, recognize what the truth is and know the power it holds. BSers, on the other hand, don’t care what the truth is. Frankfurt says “It is just this lack of connection to the truth, this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of BS.”

Frankfurt goes on to define BSing as “deliberate misrepresentation”. Unlike lying, successful BSing twice deceives: firstly by creating a false belief of the truth and secondly by deceiving the victim on the BSer’s own state of mind. The BSer “does not reject the authority of the truth…he pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, BS is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Since the BSer is convinced that reality has no inherent nature, he has no devotion to it. Thus he commits himself to being true to what he does know: himself.

As you probably know, I write about water quality and perhaps the steamiest pile of BS associated with this topic is that weather “causes” poor water quality, and especially that associated with nitrate pollution. I must say that in some cases, the folks advocating this position perhaps don’t know any better. But as Frankfurt says, a person has to care what the truth is and be motivated to find it. The truth is this: there’s a difference between something that happens after an event and something that happens because of an event.

The best example of this is crime. Social scientists have known since at least the 1960s that crime, and especially violent crime, is more common in hot weather.  Cohn (2) stated that "In general, it appears that most violent crimes against persons increase linearly with heat..." Yet, how many times have you heard someone say that weather “causes” crime? Probably none. That’s because it is understood that crime is caused by a complex mix of socio-economic and cultural factors that are more commonly manifested in hot weather. Replace “crime” with “degraded water quality” and “hot” with “wet” in that last sentence, and there you have it.

green lake

But such is the superpower of BS that this “weather as villain” concept is enshrined in the Nonpoint Source Policy (3) of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS): “The approach to addressing the diverse and weather-driven nutrient transport (my emphasis) from Iowa nonpoint sources involving Iowa’s 90,000 farmers must be different from the approach to address the controlled and relatively constant nutrient discharge from Iowa’s 130 major cities and industries.” Read: Agriculture shouldn’t be regulated because weather is driving the problem. This aligns eerily well with a passage in On BS: “What the [BSer] necessarily attempts to deceive us about is his enterprise.”

Clearly the thinking behind this is that scapegoating the weather absolves the production system of its environmental consequences. Now I will be the first one to acknowledge that Iowa’s weather is challenging for farming and just about every other human activity you can imagine. But if we BS ourselves into thinking weather is the problem, then there truly will be no hope in improving Iowa’s water quality.

Since Governor Branstad, Ag Secretary Northey and ISU Dean Lawrence announced the release of the INRS seven years ago (3), we know these things with a near certainty:

We are less certain but still confident of these things:

  • Iowa stream phosphorus loads have increased about 25% (9).
  • Sales of commercial nitrogen fertilizer have increased (10).

It’s my opinion and that of most of my colleagues that the INRS science assessment is sound. However, while admitting they might exist, I know of not a single scientist that thinks we can tinker with and engineer our two-species crop rotation and concentrated livestock system such that we will get the water quality we want. And for sure we won't get it while continuing to expand the system in the ways outlined above. But the state seems determined to find out anyway, with the possible (likely?) reformulation and funding of the Iowa Water and Land Legacy Act.

I will finish this by returning to Frankfurt. He says that BSing is essentially bluffing. It’s more a matter of fakery than it is falsity; it’s not false, it’s phony. This description resonated with me. I’ve seen a whole lot of this bluffing for the better part of 20 years now.

Saying we can engineer our way to better water quality within the existing economic and structural framework is something that could be included in Frankfurt’s book.

I’m calling it: it’s BS.


(1) Frankfurt, H.G. and Wilson, G., 2005. On bullshit (p. 553). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

(2) Cohn, E.G., 1990. Weather and crime. The British Journal of Criminology30(1), pp.51-64.

(3) Iowa Department of Agriculture, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Iowa State University, 2017. Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico.

(4) Jones, C.S. and Schilling, K.E., 2019. Iowa Statewide Stream Nitrate Loading: 2017-2018 Update. The Journal of the Iowa Academy of Science126(1), pp.6-12.

(5) Tomer, M.D., Meek, D.W., Jaynes, D.B. and Hatfield, J.L., 2003. Evaluation of nitrate nitrogen fluxes from a tile-drained watershed in central Iowa. Journal of Environmental Quality32(2), pp.642-653.

(6) Baker, J.L., Campbell, K.L., Johnson, H.P. and Hanway, J.J., 1975. Nitrate, phosphorus, and sulfate in subsurface drainage water. Journal of Environmental Quality4(3), pp.406-412.

(7) David, M.B., Drinkwater, L.E. and McIsaac, G.F., 2010. Sources of nitrate yields in the Mississippi River Basin. Journal of environmental quality39(5), pp.1657-1667.

(8) Iowa DNR Animal Feeding Operation Database, 2019.

(9) Schilling, K.E., Streeter, M.T., Seeman, A., Jones, C.S. and Wolter, C.F., 2020. Total phosphorus export from Iowa agricultural watersheds: Quantifying the scope and scale of a regional condition. Journal of Hydrology581, p.124397.

(10) Iowa Department of Agriculture Commercial Feed and Fertilizer Bureau, 2019.