Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review: 'Truth: A Brief History of Total Bullsh*t' by Tom Phillips

A book called Truth would likely tackle issues like fake news, malicious rumor and egregious error. But that’s not what Tom Phillips’ Truth is about. His book is a collection of anecdotes that don’t add to a potential theory. They are mixed stories that can very loosely be placed in buckets/chapters, but easily fall into others. They are amusing, but really nothing more. The book is neither rigorous nor scientific. It is more fun than anything serious. And it is more about greed than truth.

Phillips is a fact-checker, so he lives lies for a living. He has come to the conclusion that everyone does it, all day long. The difference here is that the lies became truths that hurt people. He says there are two kinds: outright liars and habitual bullsh-ers. Examples of both are plentiful.

As far as theory goes, Phillips cites feedback loops, which he calls bulls—t loops, by which a false sentence can appear on say, a Wikipedia page. The false fact might then appear in a newspaper or magazine article. Finally, that article might later be cited on the Wikipedia page to prove its truthiness. But in this post-truth age (which Phillips does not get into), everybody knows that.

The stories are built up to be funny or amazing. Phillips likes to scatter fourletter words to help that along, without adding any substance to the stories. It does make it hard for me to quote great lines here, because unlike books, review services don’t particularly like them cuss words. Especially when they add nothing and are totally avoidable.

Phillips is quite glib and loose, which is okay for what turns out to be this kind of book. Here is his take on Benjamin Franklin not being allowed to contribute to the Declaration of Independence:
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Declaration as it stands is a solid piece of work, but it’s not exactly noted for its banter. It couldn’t have hurt to chuck a couple of gags in there to lighten the mood.”  

He says very little with a lot of words. For example, instead of just writing UK, he writes “In the country of the United Kingdom...” It’s not a lie, just a lack of editing, much in evidence throughout. Between chapters, there are five blank or nearly blank pages, adding 60 pages of no content at all.

Benjamin Franklin is the unabashed hero of the book. He pops up in many chapters. He was a practical joker, a verbal assassin and a debunker of frauds. Nothing dry and dull about Franklin, and Phillips manages to end the book with one last Franklin story in which (for once) he is the good guy.

A lot of the book has to do with fraud. Bad men and women defrauding their fellow beings with outrageous claims, stories and offers. They made up whole countries where the rivers dripped gold, or borrowed millions based on a trove of bonds that never existed. There are worthless mines promoted, ripoff traders stealing fortunes, and con men galore with their various modi operandi sprinkled throughout Truth. Cartographers copied mountain ranges onto African maps where none existed, because someone with street cred put them there once. They remained there for nearly a century, and several adventurers claimed to have climbed them.

PT Barnum makes an appearance. Everyone knew he was perpetrating frauds, but they paid for the entertainment value, and got their money’s worth.

The book is almost random in its selection of tales, there being so much to choose from. In an entire chapter on King James I and his obsession with witch trials, as many as 50,000 obviously innocent Brits were convicted, jailed and/or executed, 500 years ago. Yet Phillips misses that the same thing has happened this current decade, as Recep Erdogan imprisoned 300,000 people across Turkey for attempting to assassinate him after someone tried to take him out with a drone at an outdoor ceremony. The perpetrator was probably not even among the hundreds of thousands of lives that were sacrificed to Erdogan’s paranoia, much as James I took on his witch hunt because the Danes told him everyone knew witches were responsible for Scotland’s bad weather. Same thing, really. Just six times bigger these days.

Truth is fragile, but Truth shows the abuse of it can be entertaining.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.