Brandolini’s law (also called the bullshit asymmetry principle), is the adage that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”. This denotes that it’s generally much easier to say something without concern for things such as the truth, evidence, or logic, than it is to prove that what was said is wrong.
Brandolini’s law has important implications in many contexts, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about Brandolini’s law, and see what you can do to account for it in practice.
Examples of Brandolini’s law
An example that illustrates Brandolini’s law appears in a situation where someone makes up a complicated conspiracy theory and posts it to social media, without verifying any of the associated claims. This takes them little effort compared to the large amount of effort that others will then need in order to refute the theory with proper evidence and argumentation.
Another example that illustrates Brandolini’s law appears in situations where people spread pseudo-profound bullshit. This type of bullshit is “a collection of buzzwords that follow a syntactic structure and constructed with the intention of impressing the reader… [it is] vague, empty, and essentially meaningless, but it is constructed such that it appears to convey a deeper, profound meaning by using an obscure lexicon”. One example of pseudo-profound bullshit is the following:
“We are non‐local beings that localize as a dot then inflate to become non‐local again. The universe is mirrored in us.”
This type of statement can be very easy to produce, since it’s essentially meaningless, and requires no evidence or proper reasoning. Conversely, debunking such statements requires much more effort, since they have no clear meaning that can be refuted in the first place.
Similarly, it takes almost no effort to attribute bullshit statements—including pseudo-profound bullshit—to a famous authority figure, without checking if the figure actually made those statements, in order to make the statements appear more meaningful. For example, this can involve making up some adage that supports one’s views on education, and then attributing it to Albert Einstein in order to make it appear as if it came from an authoritative source. This attribution requires little effort, but proving that the authority figure in question didn’t actually make that statement generally requires much more effort, if it’s possible at all.
Rationale behind Brandolini’s law
There are a number of reasons for the asymmetry between the ease of creating bullshit and the difficulty of refuting it:
- Bullshit is generally created with little or no concern for things such as truth, evidence, and logically sound reasoning, whereas a proper refutation needs to take such things into account. This also means that the generation of bullshit often involves the use of intuition and heuristics, whereas proper refutation requires more analytical reasoning processes, which generally require more cognitive effort to engage in.
- There are many more ways to be wrong about something than to be right, since every single true fact can be distorted in an infinite number of ways. This doesn’t matter to the bullshiter, since they generally don’t care about using proper argumentation, but can pose difficulties to people who want to refute bullshit using proper argumentation.
- Bullshit often involves confusing phrasing or vague claims. This problem, which is common in certain contexts (e.g., politics), doesn’t make the bullshit harder to produce, but often makes it harder to refute it, for example if it makes it necessary to reverse-engineer the bullshit in order to figure out what sources it’s based on.
- Bullshit can involve claims that are unfalsifiable, or that are very difficult to disprove, which can cause further issues for those who seek to refute it.
The definition of bullshit
There is no consensus regarding what bullshit is exactly, and various sources have proposed different definitions for it, though these tend to be similar to one another. As one paper notes:
There is no single agreed upon definition of the term bullshit, with many scholars using different terms to refer to similar concepts.
Postman (1969) described bullshit as pointless talk. He then described a bullshit taxonomy containing four categories. Pomposity is characterized by the use of fancy titles, terms, and sentences designed to obscure the bullshitter’s insufficiencies and make listeners question themselves. The second category is fanaticism, and the two most dangerous types are bigotry and Eichmannism (i.e., intolerance of any data not confirming the bullshitter’s point of view). Inanity is the third category, defined as “ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity” (p. 2). The rise in its use was credited to the development of the mass media, which has provided both the channel and the audience for unsolicited opinions that make no real contribution to public debates—as noted by Barr (2015) who considers the current era to be one not only of information but also of misinformation: “the age of Bullshit” (p. 1). The final category is superstition: the authoritative expression of a belief not supported by factual or scientific evidence, styled as “ignorance presented in the cloak of authority” (p. 2).
Frankfurt’s (2005) significantly more popular On Bullshit attempted to correct the lack of a bullshit theory… He concluded that the essence of bullshit lies in the “lack of connection to a concern with the truth” (p. 8) and that it “is not that it is false but that it is phony” (p. 12). The bullshitter has no concern for the accuracy of what is being transmitted as long as the desired effect is obtained (e.g., to impress, to gain advantage, and to get out of a particular situation).
Buekens and Boudry (2015) distinguished between obscurantism and bullshit, claiming that because the bullshitter is uninterested in both the language employed and the audience’s reception, obscurantism is an attempt to mask the lack of depth and insight using elaborate linguistic formulations that suggest the need for further, more comprehensive investigation. Moreover, obscurantism specifically aims to keep the audience perpetually trapped in a futile search for deeper understanding and maintaining the speaker’s more desirable, knowledgeable image.
More recently, Meibauer (2016) has added a third aspect to the definition of bullshit, drawing on Frankfurt’s definition, namely, that there is a loose concern for the truth and that attempts are made to obscure this fact from the listener, and the bullshitter therefore expresses more certainty than the issue requires. Wakeham (2017) argued that bullshit is not just a general epistemological problem, but specifically concerns social epistemology, that is, how we acquire knowledge through social resources and the problematic nature of second‐hand sources. He drew on research showing that people generally believe that their interaction partners are honest, particularly those close to them, and that social familiarity lowers epistemic vigilance (Bond & DePaulo, 2006).
Pseudo‐profound bullshit, empirically investigated by Pennycook et al. (2015), has the added attribute of being intentionally vague so as to inspire profoundness and a sense of deep meaning. Consistent with the definition of obscurantism, its goal is to impress and not to inform.
— From “Reception and willingness to share pseudo‐profound bullshit and their relation to other epistemically suspect beliefs and cognitive ability in Slovakia and Romania” (Čavojová, et al., 2019)
This variability in how bullshit is defined can be partly attributed to the fact that this term is used in various senses:
“Any suggestion about what conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely—simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal meaning. For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean. Nonetheless it should be possible to say something helpful, even though it is not likely to be decisive.”
— From “On Bullshit” (Frankfurt, 2005)
As such, people often use this term while relying on an intuitive understanding of its meaning, rather than on a formal definition, as is the case with many other such phenomena. Nevertheless, one study offers the following comprehensive definition of bullshit, which takes into account many of the previous definitions:
“Bullshitting involves intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, communicating with little to no regard or concern for truth, genuine evidence, and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge…
As such, bullshitting is an insidious and common communicative behavior… often characterized by, but not limited to, using rhetorical strategies designed to disregard truth, evidence and/or established knowledge, such as exaggerating or embellishing one’s knowledge, competence, or skills in a particular area or talking about things of which one knows nothing about in order to impress, fit in with, influence, or persuade others.”
— From “Self-regulatory aspects of bullshitting and bullshit detection” (Petrocelli, Watson, & Hirt, 2020)
In the context of Brandolini’s law, and when it comes to the practical implications of bullshit in general, it’s often sufficient to rely on this definition or on an intuitive understanding of the term.
Caveats about Brandolini’s law
Brandolini’s law is a general observation, rather than an empirical fact. As such, it is not expected to be entirely true in every situation. Specifically, two notable caveats about this principle are the following:
- Bullshit can sometimes take less energy to refute than to create. For example, an expert might be able to easily refute bullshit that someone else spent a lot of time and effort creating.
- Even when bullshit takes more effort to refute than to create, it’s not always an order of magnitude more. In some cases, it can take more energy to refute bullshit than to create it, but not an order of magnitude more. Alternatively, in other cases, it can take much more than an order of magnitude more energy to refute bullshit than to create it. However, both these options, and especially the second one, still support the general sentiment expressed by Brandolini’s law.
These caveats are important to consider when accounting for Brandolini’s law, because they mean that this principle may not hold in every situation.
Based on this, a generalized corollary of Brandolini’s law, which takes these caveats into account, can be defined as follows:
“Bullshit often takes more energy to refute than to create.”
Note: The idea that bullshit may take more than an order of magnitude of energy to refute than to create is expressed in Hartley’s corollary to Brandolini’s law, which denotes that “Brandolini was an optimist”.
Accounting for Brandolini’s law
There are several ways in which accounting for Brandolini’s law can be beneficial.
First, it can help you determine whether bullshit is worth refuting. For example, it can help you realize that some meaningless piece of bullshit will take much more effort to refute than is worth the trouble for you.
When assessing whether you should refute bullshit in light of this, you can consider factors such as:
- How wrong is it? For example, is it fairly close to the truth, or is it completely nonsensical?
- What kind of outcomes can it lead to? For example, is it harmless, or can it lead to serious problems?
- Who will it affect? For example, is it likely to influence only a few people, or can it shape the opinion of millions?
When considering this, it can also help to keep in mind the following:
“Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.”
— From “Take the time and effort to correct misinformation” (Williamson, 2016)
In addition to deciding whether to refute bullshit, accounting for Brandolini’s law can also help you understand how to handle bullshit better. For example, it could help you realize that it’s more effective to focus on publishing correct material in a certain field, than on trying to debunk every piece of bullshit in the field directly.
Similarly, it can be beneficial when it comes to understanding how to respond to large amounts of bullshit, as in the case of responding to a Gish gallop, which is a rhetorical technique that involves overwhelming your opponent with weak many arguments. Specifically, since Gish gallops tend to involve a lot of bullshit, Brandolini’s law can help you realize that rather than refuting every piece of bullshit that you encounter, it might be more effective to focus only on its key points, or on reminding the Gish galloper that they’re the ones with an initial burden of proof when it comes to supporting their argument.
Furthermore, understanding Brandolini’s law can also help you understand and predict people’s behavior. For example, it can help you understand that an expert in a field isn’t responding to every piece of bullshit that people spread because the cost of refuting it, in terms of time and effort, is too high. Similarly, it can help you predict that a certain bullshitter will continue spreading bullshit, because they know that people are unlikely to bother correcting them.
Finally, when accounting for Brandolini’s law, it’s also important to keep in mind the caveats about it. Most notably, remember that it’s just a general observation, rather than something that will necessarily be true in every situation. This means, for example, that there are cases where bullshit will take less energy to refute than to create for some reason, which can influence your decision of whether to refute it or not.
Overall, accounting for Brandolini’s law can help you determine whether bullshit is worth refuting, help you understand how to refute bullshit better (e.g., by addressing only its key points), and help you understand and predict people’s behavior (e.g., by understanding why an expert isn’t responding to every piece of bullshit in their field).
Note: When it comes to refuting bullshit, two other principles that can be useful to apply are Sturgeon’s law, which denotes that “ninety percent of everything is crap”, and Hanlon’s razor, which denotes that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.
Refuting bullshit is not always enough
Refuting bullshit generally means proving that it’s wrong. However, even if you’ve refuted some piece of bullshit, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll successfully convince people that the bullshit is wrong, since people might continue to believe in bullshit even after seeing it refuted. This can be attributed to various factors, such as that people find simple bullshit more appealing than the complex explanations needed to refute it, or that the bullshit confirms their preexisting beliefs.
As one book notes, in the context of misinformation about there being a link between vaccines and autism:
“This particular misconception has a number of characteristics that make it more persistent than many false beliefs.
Autism is terrifying to parents, and as yet we do not know what causes it. Like the most successful urban legends, the basic narrative is simple and gripping: ‘A child’s vulnerable body is pierced with a needle and injected with a foreign substance. The child seems perfectly fine for a few days or even weeks, and then suddenly undergoes severe and often irreversible behavioral regression.’
This story taps into some of our deepest fears—in this case, fears about hygiene and contamination, and anxiety about the health and safety of our children. The story caters to our desire for explanations, and to our tendency to ascribe cause when we see two events occurring in succession. And it hints at a way we might protect ourselves. Successfully refuting something like this is a decidedly uphill battle.”
— From “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World”
This means that, in order to get people to stop believing bullshit, it may be necessary to go beyond refuting it, for example by using debiasing techniques to reduce the cognitive biases that cause people to believe bullshit in the first place.
In this regard, convincing people that a certain piece of bullshit is wrong won’t necessarily change their associated stance. For example, if someone believes in a link between vaccines and autism, convincing them that some bullshit that they said in support of this is wrong won’t necessarily get them to change their broad stance on the supposed vaccine-autism link.
Finally, another obstacle to changing people’s minds about bullshit is reaching them in the first place. Specifically, even if you produce a viable refutation of certain bullshit, that refutation still has to reach people who believed the bullshit in order to change their minds, for example via social media.
Reaching people can be difficult for various reasons, such as that bullshit is often more dramatic or novel, and therefore tends to spread more easily between individuals. Furthermore, refutation tends to be reactive, meaning that it generally follows the bullshit that it refutes (unless it intends to inoculate people against bullshit in advance). Accordingly, bullshit tends to reach people first, and not everyone who encountered it will also encounter the associated refutation. Moreover, trying to track down and reach those who encountered the bullshit can be difficult, which further contributes to the large amount of effort that’s needed to refute it.
Overall, simply refuting bullshit, by proving that it’s wrong, doesn’t necessarily mean that people who believe it will accept that it’s wrong, or change their associated stance. Getting people to believe in refutation, and to change their stance accordingly, can often require more work than simply refuting bullshit, such as using debiasing techniques to address the cognitive biases that lead people to believe in the bullshit.
Note: Just as refuting bullshit doesn’t necessarily convince people that it’s wrong, it’s possible to convince people that certain bullshit is wrong without properly refuting it.
The origin and history of Brandolini’s law
Brandolini’s law is named after Italian software developer Alberto Brandolini, who proposed it in a tweet on January 2013, which said the following:
“The bullshit asimmetry [sic]: the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
When asked about this principle, Brandolini said that he was inspired by Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, and specifically by “seeing Berlusconi vs Travaglio” after reading the book (this refers to a televised debate between Berlusconi, a former Prime Minister of Italy, and Travaglio, an Italian journalist).
In addition, similar concepts as Brandolini’s law have been expressed by others, at earlier points in time.
For example, Italian blogger Uriel Fanelli proposed the “Shit Mountain Theory” (sometimes also referred to as the “mountain of shit theory”, originally in Italian: “La teoria della montagna di merda”), which suggests that “an idiot can produce more shit than you can shovel” (as translated from the Italian “un idiota puo’ produrre piu’ merda di quanta tu non possa spalarne”).
Similarly, another associated concept is expressed as follows:
“…as the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect: like a man, who has thought of a good repartee, when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who has found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”
— From “The Examiner” (Number XIV, Thursday, November 9, 1710), by Jonathan Swift [the key part of the quote has been bolded here]
This concept is sometimes also phrased in similar ways, such as:
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
[Also phrased in various other ways, such as “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” and “A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes”]
Finally, similar formulations of this concept also appear in various proverbs, such as:
“A fool may throw into a well a stone which a hundred wise men won’t be able to get out.”
“One fool may ask more questions than seven wise men can answer.”
Summary and conclusions
- Brandolini’s law (also called the bullshit asymmetry principle), is the adage that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”.
- This denotes that it’s generally much easier to say something without concern for things such as the truth, evidence, or logic, than it is to prove that what was said is wrong.
- Brandolini’s law is a general observation, rather than an empirical fact, so there are situations where it’s wrong; a generalized corollary of this principle, which holds in more situations, is “bullshit often takes more energy to refute than to create”.
- Accounting for Brandolini’s law can help you determine whether bullshit is worth refuting, help you understand how to refute bullshit better (e.g., by addressing only its key points), and help you understand and predict people’s behavior (e.g., by understanding why an expert isn’t responding to every piece of bullshit in their field).
- Refuting bullshit doesn’t necessarily mean that people who believe it will accept that it’s wrong, or will change their associated stance; this often requires additional work, such as using debiasing techniques to address the cognitive biases that lead people to believe in the bullshit.