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Fyre and the Age of Humbug

Last weekend, two documentaries emerged on the infamous Fyre Festival of 2017. The first is from Netflix, the second from Hulu. Trailers are below.

For those of you who missed it or only have a semi-comical memory of the Fyre Festival, this was a supposed music festival in the Bahamas created by rapper Ja Rule and Fyre founder Billy McFarland. Promoted relentlessly by internet celebrities, attendees were promised luxurious beach villas, gourmet meals and dozens of bands. Packages were marketed for as much as $250,000 with a typical package supposedly going for $12,000. Despite rumors that something was awry, about 5000 people bought tickets, of which about 500 made the initial trip only to discover that all the music was cancelled, their luxury villas were water-soaked tents and their food consisted of a few desultory sandwiches. It was an epic disaster that unfolded on social media to the delight of those who weren’t there.

The documentaries combine interviews, footage of the preparations for the event, footage from the attendees and commentary. Each covers some ground that the other doesn’t. The Hulu one includes an extensive interview with McFarland and focuses more on how Fyre became a phenomenon. It’s a bit too cute at times though (at one point, McFarland describes solving the problems as playing a game of whack-a-mole and it literally shows a game of whack-a-mole). The Netflix one covers more of the nuts and bolts of how the festival was supposed to work and didn’t. While they are not great documentaries, I ended up watching both as I was fascinated by what happened (if you want the short version, the Internet Historian has an 11-minute summary here).

Both documentaries end up driving home the same point: the Fyre Festival was not some outlier episode in our current culture. It was, in fact, in exact keeping with our culture. It was perfect representation of the age we are living in, what I am now starting to call the Age of Bullshit.

On Bullshit

I don’t like to use profanity in posts, generally speaking, but I wanted to be very precise with what I mean here. I use the word “bullshit” deliberately, as explained by the book “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt. Here he is explaining why he uses this term instead of just “lies”:

For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

A liar knows the truth, cares about the truth and doesn’t want the truth to get out. They are very specific about the truths and lies they tell. They are, in their way, very knowledgeable. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not really care about the truth but about what is most convenient to say in that particular moment. They may occasionally say something true. But this is entirely incidental. Their purpose is to make themselves look brilliant or insightful. Bill James:

“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.

“There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.

“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”

Sometimes, however, bullshit is not that specific. It often comes not in the form of made-up facts and spontaneous pseudo-reasoning, but in vague reassurances of the bullshitter’s brilliance and expertise. As I explained in a post on my own site:

If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.

Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.

(To keep the profanity from distracting from my point, I’ll mostly use the word “humbug” for the rest of the post.)

There is something I would add to all of the above as a final defining aspect of humbug: we are suckers for it. We are absolute suckers for it. Humbug artists have an amazing track record of convincing people that they know what they’re talking about even when they absolutely don’t. Sometimes it’s as harmless as a sportscaster reassuring you that the outcome was predictable all along. And sometimes it’s a con man who bilks people out of their money, their time and their dignity.

Why are we such suckers for humbug? Two reasons, I think. The first is that humbug tends to be presented with a confidence that real knowledge lacks. People who aren’t dealing in humbug tend to be cautious in what they say and reserved in what they promise. They make caveats, they avoid bold sweeping conclusions, they acknowledge alternative explanations. And, for most of us, that makes us trust them less. It’s a kind of an inverse Dunning-Kruger effect. The stock broker who says, “Well, this stock looks promising. It could do well. It could also do poorly but it’s worth a risk.” will get no sales. The one who says, “I’m telling you, Doug, this one is going through the roof. Guaranteed!” will live on a yacht.

A good example: one of my first posts on this blog was about Steven Hayne and Michael West, two shysters who managed to convict a bunch of people based on pseudoscience and garbage. One thing Balko notes is that these men were successful because they presented their humbug with complete and absolute confidence. Real forensic experts — scientists who knew the field extremely well — were more cautious in their conclusions, which made them seem less credible to judges, lawyers and juries.

The second reason humbug works is because if often appeals to our vanity. In the David Mamet film “House of Games”, the con man Mike explains to Dr. Ford how the con works: “I give you my trust, you give me your money.” You let someone think they’re getting an inside deal. You let someone think they’re getting something exclusive. You let someone think they’re special. And, in return, they give … whatever you want.

These two factors — confident ignorance and appeals to vanity — are increasingly defining our era as the Age of Humbug: a time when we are easily fooled, grasp onto fads and trends, leap feet-first into narratives before the facts come out and, yes, end up cold and starving in the Bahamas because we listened to a bunch of social media stars.

Trump

Perhaps the apotheosis of the Age of Humbug is our current President. Trump is frequently called a liar, but that’s not quite what he is. If you read Frankfurt’s description above, Trump really is a humbug, making it up as he goes and saying whatever is convenient to the moment. Franklin Harris, more than a year before the election:

Richard Nixon lied. Bill Clinton lied. George W. Bush either lied or was lied to and passed it on. Hillary Clinton is intimately acquainted with the truth and wants no part of it.

Trump bullshits all the time, no matter the subject. Does he still believe thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11? Who knows? He said it, and he’s sticking with it. The truth isn’t something to avoid or embrace; it just doesn’t matter.

The same goes for illegal immigration. Trump speaks off the top of his head, calling upon half-remembered headlines and something he may have seen on TV. The details are unimportant because the truth is unimportant. All that matters is Trump says what he says with gusto, that he convinces his supporters he’s the fighter they longed for.

The news media can fact-check Trump and proclaim his pants on fire, but for Trump that’s just another baseless attack. Truth is irrelevant to the bullshitter. Trump gets that, so why can’t those losers at The Associated Press and The Washington Post?

And here is a supercut of him claiming to be an expert on … well, everything. Note what I said above: when someone is more interested in telling you how much they know than what they know, that’s a red flag that they are full of humbug.

Whether you think Trump is a great President or an awful President, his career has been defined by humbug. He makes things up as he goes. He claims to be an expert on everything and puts forward his ignorance with supreme confidence. And, like most purveyors of humbug, he appeals to people’s vanity. Trump University appealed to people’s vanity by promising to make them wealthy real estate moguls. Trump steaks did so by promising luxury food at “reasonable” prices. The Trump Shuttle. The Trump hotels. All of it sold by promising the trappings of a glitzy lifestyle for those with a not-so-glitzy budget.

Even his Presidential campaign appealed to our vanity. What was “Make America Great Again” but a statement that America was great, that it had been ruined by nefarious liberals and only Trump would bring us back to the greatness we were owed? Never did he talk about hard work, trade-offs, taxes or sacrifice. No, all these wonderful things were just going to happen. Trade wars are good. And easy to win!

And .. Trump’s humbug works. It worked enough to make him rich and famous. It worked enough for 60 million people to vote for him and put him in the White House. It works enough for his approval rating among his supporters to remain sky high. It works enough that when people who do know what they’re talking about contradict Trump, they’re branded as fake news.

Theranos, Vaccines and Hedge Funds

But Trump isn’t unique. He is the apotheosis of a society that has increasingly been defined by humbug. Consider:

  • Theranos. A company that made things up as they went, confidently proclaimed their non-existent technology worked and suckered in millions by appealing to the vanity of investors looking to get in on the next big thing.
  • Vaccine “skepticism”. A fraudulent study pushed with confidence by a disgraced physician. In this case not appealing to vanity but to people’s concern for their children’s health.
  • “Alternative medicine” and fad diets. A field rife with fraud, sold by hucksters and appealing to our vanity that we can get healthy and skinny without effort.
  • Enron. The self-proclaimed “smartest guys in the room” who knew nothing, made nothing but appealed to the vanity of investors.
  • Various hedge funds and investment funds. Most notably Bernie Madoff, who promised “exclusive” investment opportunities that sounded too good to be true because they were.
  • The 2008 financial crisis. An economic meltdown caused, in part, by self-proclaimed financial experts who had no idea what they were investing in. One of the biggest losses was posted by an elite trading unit at Morgan-Stanley that failed to realize they were betting the same crappy mortgages against themselves. And it was based on a housing bubble that talking heads on cable confidently insisted was not a bubble.
  • Political Grifters. Political media personalities who spread lies and misdirections with impunity in an attempt to grift donations, book sales and media ratings. Again, appealing to people’s vanity by telling them what they want to hear about the other side in our political culture.

Humbug, all of it. “Facts” made up for the sake of convenience. Sales pitches and ideas put forward with undeserved confidence. And people who should have known better suckered in by their own vanity and greed (or in the case of vaccine truthers, their desperation).

Theranos is a particularly relevant comparison to Fyre. Like the Fyre Festival, Theranos was led by a charismatic fraudster who charmed smart savvy people into coughing up millions in their own money to invest in a product that they had never seen. Like Fyre, Theranos drew in investors by appealing to their vanity: convincing them they were paying millions to be part of a technology company that would be worth billions.

The Fyre Festival

That brings me back to the impetus for this post — the two documentaries on the Fyre Festival. Watching them really opened my eyes to the age that we are living in. There are a lot of facets to the Fyre Festival debacle: the absolute incompetence of management, the willingness of the festival organizers to lie and people’s willingness to be lied to, the unremitting greed of those in charge (in a stunning moment, McFarland, out on bail for fraud charges, starts up another fraudulent enterprise to try to milk even more money out of his victims).

But I think there is something deeper here and something the Hulu documentary goes into more in depth: the insidiousness of so-called “influencer” culture. This is not something I can comment on very well, being too old, too fat, too nerdy and too unconcerned with hipness to pay attention. But social media has filled with influencers — people like Kendall Jenner or Bella Hadid or others — whose job, apparently, is to influence people to buy things. In my day, this was called advertising and was seen as such (and indeed, Congress is now trying to crack down on influencers to force them to reveal when they’ve been paid to “influence” people toward a product).

What really made the Fyre Festival take off was the way the organizers captured the social media scene, filming an ad in the Bahamas with a harem of super models, getting “influencers” to hype the festival and blasting out their “brand” on social media. Some of these influencers later apologized, but the point is not that they got scammed too. The point is that they were and are pointing people to consume products they themselves aren’t familiar with.

Again: ignorance presented as confident knowledge.

And then there’s the vanity. That’s where the documentaries really shine, in showing how Fyre appealed to attendees’ vanity. What Fyre was selling was not a music festival, but an image. They were selling a fantasy that attendees could act like rich people — jetting off to a private island to party with celebrities. This is what influencer culture is all about — selling people the delusion that if they wear this brand or use this beauty product or eat this food, they too can be like Kendall Jenner or Emily Ratajkowski. They are sold the idea that they can feel as popular, as famous, as rich or as beautiful as the influencers without actually having to be popular, famous, rich or beautiful (in a revealing sequence, the Netflix doc shows a popular service that will let you sit on a luxury jet, pose like a rich person and get your picture taken).

This was the thing that Fyre most readily exploited. They claimed that tickets were $12,000 and that some packages were going for $250,000. But the typical price seems to have been more like $1200, sometimes as low as $500. What they were selling was less a music festival and more the idea that someone could have a $12,000 rich person’s experience for the bargain price of $1200.

And this was not McFarland’s first goat rodeo. His previous endeavor was Magnises, a supposedly elite credit card that promised exclusive access to events but turned out to be Ponzi scheme. His scam after his indictment was selling supposedly exclusive tickets to things like Burning Man and Coachella. Both scams involved convincing suckers that they could indulge like rich people without having to actually be rich.

And McFarland himself bought into this delusion. He took on the airs of a powerful rich CEO — expensive cars and trips with supermodels — without actually being a powerful rich CEO.

(This is another reason the Theranos parallel immediately struck me. Elizabeth Holmes was another person who was interested in the aura of being a powerful billionaire CEO — she consciously modeled her behavior, wardrobe and business practices after Steve Jobs — and not so interested in the hard work and genius needed to actually be a powerful billionaire CEO.)

Not everyone was fooled. One of the things that set up the disaster of the Fyre Festival was Comcast being alerted that he was a fraud and refusing to invest $25 million in the Fyre app parent company. And Calvin Wells, interviewed for both documentaries, started the FyreFraud account to try to raise the alarm. But it worked well enough for McFarland to milk millions out of short-term lenders and young people, steal free work from hundreds of Bahamians and lure 500 young people out to be part of the hilarious blazing pyre of incompetence in Great Exuma.

So has anyone learned anything from this? Of course not. Social media influencers are as popular as ever. YouTube is filled with “life hacks” that are nonsense. You can’t hurl a stone into the internet without finding some deal that promises a millionaire lifestyle on a thousandaire budget. The Fyre Festival will not be the last of these debacles. I think we will one day look back on it as just the first in a series of scams, the true herald of our entry into the Age of Humbug. The lesson here is not that millennials are suckers; the lesson is that we all are.

It is, perhaps, the supreme irony of our time that when we have access to all the information in the world literally in the palm of our hand, humbug has become more powerful than ever. We use this enormous informational power to buy into delusions and fantasies, to craft our own little reality, to put ourselves into a holodeck simulation of our own design where we are wealthier, prettier and smarter than we really are.


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Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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55 thoughts on “Fyre and the Age of Humbug

  1. There was a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin, with his hair combed and neatly dressed, asks Hobbes to take his picture. Calvin was sitting on a neatly made bed, with the messiness of his room pushed away. The gag was that he was creating a “good” childhood for when he was a famous adult; I can’t remember if it was generic fame or if he was talking about a political career.

    Watterson wasn’t making predictions, but this strip offered a picture of social media’s humbug about a decade before social media existed.

    Even people who aren’t trying to be influencers (ugh), use social media to spread all manner of humbug. I think of a former boss who would post the “late night at the office” pics on instagram, when she probably didn’t arrive to the office until ten and was only working late because she procrastinated on whatever project she needed to complete. The same boss had a colleague cover her class when she was at a conference and asked the colleague to send her a pic. She then posted the pic to Twitter saying, “Look, I’m conferencing and teaching at the same time, y’all.” My colleague said the students were lost and didn’t understand what they were doing.

    There are even websites about people exposing the humbug posts: The sites showcase pics with the person saying “this traffic is killing me” when you can see from the reflection in their sunglasses that there is no traffic, or the “bae caught me sleeping” pics with a reflection showing that it’s a selfie. And don’t get me started on the tendentious political memes and their humbug. The most recent example was a post shared by a friend that said, “18 million illegal aliens are still getting their government checks.”

    I’m not one to blame social media for all of our society’s ills, but it’s an effective tool for spreading humbug.

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  2. “Influencers.” A couple years ago both of my kids were just dying for some toy. It seemed kind of random to me, but these things happen organically, and always have. Fidget spinners are a recent example, but I remember when I was a kid the year that everyone was suddenly avidly into yo-yo’s, followed by the year when we weren’t. I figured it was something like that, and it was age appropriate and not outrageously priced, so they got them for Christmas. The actual products were underwhelming. Not an outright scam, but not nearly so ecstactically wonderful as the kids expected.

    Only much later did I learn that they had been pushed by some YouTuber. Kids don’t watch scripted TV shows nowadays. They watch YouTube videos. A popular YouTuber can have an utterly absurd number of fans. This is monetized partly by YouTube directly, with advertising being behind that. But a popular YouTuber can also have paid sponsors, for whom they flog products. This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as there is transparency, but even transparency is problematic when the audience is kids who don’t yet understand how this works.

    I consider that disappointing toy a valuable life lesson for my kids. We have had productive conversations about media influences and conflicts of interest. My older one wanted good quality art supplies for Christmas this year. I don’t know anything about the subject, so I couldn’t tell you what is good and what is merely expensive. We had a good discussion, in which she showed a healthy skepticism about recommendations from YouTubers. I was very pleased.

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    • There was a channel on our Roku that was filled with YouTube toy videos, and Bug would watch the hell out of that if we weren’t paying attention.

      We deleted that channel. We got sick of him constantly asking for the latest stupid bit of Avengers crap, etc.

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      • They will never get away from marketing. Rather than trying to isolate them from it, which will lead inevitably to wackiness when they leave the nest, it is better to teach them to recognize it and make the appropriate evaluation. That being said, I can sympathize with deleting a particularly annoying channel.

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    • I’m a bit too old to really get the Instagram influencer thing. I’m a bit too old to understand Instagram generally. The latest scammer on Instagram was a woman named Caroline Carroway. As far as I can tell, she is a relatively privileged and pretty American who went to Cambridge for undergrad and got a British boyfriend. She turned this into 800,000 followers on Instagram and a book deal. The book deal fell through and know she owes 100,000 dollars to her ex-publisher. So now she is doing “creativity workshops/seminars” and they might got the scam alert via twitter.

      The “best” defense I saw for her was, “Caroline Carroway is not a scammer. She is just self absorbed.”

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      • There is nothing to “get” about instagram. It’s just a platform for people to do the same things people have always done: pics, video, write, gossip, show off and try to be famous. There is really nothing new at all there. And i like insta for pic and video though i mostly follow runners and skiers. Even there people are well acquainted with the idea that we only the best, most inspiring pix.

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  3. Great post! Th are issues that I think about all the time.

    I only saw the Netflix doc and one of the things that I took away, is that McFarland probably could have pulled it off had he just drastically downgraded expectations. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t move away from this vision of exclusivity. Theranos was similar. Elizabeth Holmes was selling a dream and she couldn’t settle for a more modest, and therefore more deliverable, product.

    I think that these are indeed metaphors for a larger American problem. We have expectations and a lot of those expectations are simply not going to be met. Let’s see if we are willing to take the writedown or we just keep deluding ourselves until things start to fall apart for real.

    Separately, I highly recommend the podcast The Dream, which is all about multi-level marketing. There’s a strain of ponzi that runs right through the American spirit.

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    • Concur, great post!

      Managing expectations is a big part of my job. Luckily, I work in engineering software, and not fadish productivity apps, so my customer base appreciates it when we are honest with expectations and don’t try to sell the moon before we know we can deliver.

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      • I used to have a boss who loved SalesForce. Which is the most idiotic timewaster I have seen, rivaling FB. Why do you want me to be tracking my time for everything when I could be doing stuff? I know that probably 90% of the use of that software is people puffing up expectations.

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        • We still use SalesForce at work. No one tries to sell it internally as ‘The Greatest Thing’. It’s a tool, it has uses. Within the next year or so, we’ll be transitioning over to something else. Or, at least the sales and support teams will.

          The way software is marketed as being ‘life changing’ or some similar BS irks me. I’ve never had software change my life, except for the negative. Like being forced to use some craptastic productivity tool because someone else swallowed the marketing. That changes my life by adding additional stress and frustration that I didn’t have before.

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          • It occurs to me that the gamification of everything, where you get “virtual trophies” for various stuff is a form of BS in itself. (I have a ResearchGate account, mainly as a way of getting a few papers otherwise paywalled. I uploaded a few of mine, because, hey, maybe someone needs them. I got an “achievement” the other day for a certain number of people having read a paper on which I was like third author, and it felt really…..weird, but also hollow and dumb. And I’m someone who is literally addicted to praise, having grown up being told she was a “gifted and talented” student).

            They also push us to have “virtual trophies” and crap on our BlackBoard pages for the students accessing a certain number of times or something and I just refuse. I use those pages merely to provide convenience for my students, so they can get the handouts or something if they lose their copy.

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    • One of the older organizers of the Fyre Festival, it was the guy with salt and pepper hair that looked to be in his forties or fifties, confessed that he remained a believer until the end because people remember Woodstock as a success rather than for the horrendous traffic, lack of food, and other failures. My thought was that the organizers of Woodstock were not trying to pull of an ultra-luxurious festivals for the hot and glamorous, so whatever flaws in their planning had a less of a chance of causing the entire thing to go awry. Plus, it was a more amateurish age and even famous and popular musicians didn’t like to be too mercenary because of the style of the times.

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  4. My paternal great-grandfather, Burt, was a con-man. And I mean a real one, not this Humbug silliness. He would take a shotgun, load it full of gold dust and shoot the walls of caves and such in the Arizona desert. Then, try to sell the land as having mining potential. Defrauding whoever fell for this scam. See, his actions set out to do this on purpose. To lie to with malice aforethought.

    All politicians, job seekers, potential dates, and humans puff up their best qualities and push down their failures. But these aren’t lies, they are selective truths. These are how we get through the day, feed ourselves and move on to the next. Do we want to tell everyone who asks us in the morning “how are you?” Well, coming down with a cold, had maintenance sex with the wife last night, told my kids that yes, I do love oatmeal like you should, yadda, yadda, yadda.” No, you answer, “I am OK” and move on. Does Shamwow really work, are subprime mortgages good? Well, depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?

    My point is, there are differences in lies, and their purpose is just as important. Often, it starts with something small, that keeps getting covered up. Sometimes it is innocuous. Sometimes it is malicious. We have a legal system to use if and when that is the case. Otherwise, shrug and move on.

    Oh, and anyone who tells me a ribeye has more flavor? I know they are bullshitting me.

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  5. “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking all is lost” Gustave Flaubert. The key thing that struck me when watching the Netflix Fyre documentary was that I don’t remember being that gullible when I was in my twenties. It would never occur to me to think that this Fyre Festival was going to be really awesome because of some model in an ad. Even older people can be gullible.

    I think what unites all bullshitters past and present is that many people are looking for the magic bullet that would release them from their humdrum lives. The bullshit merchant is offering this to his or her marks. With this concert or hair styling product, your life will totally change. It will become glamorous.

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    • I don’t know that stupid has much to do with it. With the level of social engineering these kids have been through, many of them never had a chance. Think about what it means to be in the age group that got social media in middle school.

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  6. I think for individuals, a sense of humility can counteract the temptation to “humbug.” I think a lack of humility: of willingness to admit you don’t know, or that you are wrong, is one of the things that is rampant in our culture right now. And that it is almost certainly a bad thing. I know I am immediately suspicious of people who seem to “quick” and too certain with an answer, or who have simple answers or explanations to complex problems, or who keep persisting in their insistence that they are right when someone else challenges their version of the facts.

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in teaching-assistant training (Most professors don’t get a lot of on-the-job training of how to teach; I was lucky in that my grad school had a robust program for increasing the knowledge and skills of TAs and I think it helped me a lot) was “If you don’t know the answer to a question a student asks, be up-front that you don’t know.”

    A number of times in my career I’ve said some variant of “That’s an interesting question/I never considered that, and I don’t know the answer, but let me do a little research and get back to you” I figure it helps the student realize that nobody can know everything, and also (hopefully) it models for them what they can do if that happens to them on the job.

    But I had professors humbug at me when I was a student. And I remember how discomfiting it felt (I remember one prof’s “explaining” what the Ivory Tower was but apparently he had heard it as Ivy-y Tower because he got off on how most old college buildings had ivy growing up the side of them and I was sitting there in the class going “I don’t think he’s right but I’m not gonna put my hand up” and it was just very weird and very uncomfortable)

    Of course, I’m a “loser” who will never amount to anything (or maybe “chump” is a better term) because I’m unwilling to humbug. But maybe that’s OK.

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  7. One thing I was thinking about more this morning: all of these grifts have their Cassandras, people trying to warn us that we’re being had. Theranos has an army colonel who realized they were not going through proper FDA channels, Fyre had Calvin Wells, Roubini and Buffet tried to warn us of the pending financial crisis, etc.

    We need to listen to the Cassandras.

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    • Problem is, there are a lot of HumBug Cassandras warning people because diverting attention serves their interest, and not from a sense of altruism.

      Like someone starting negative rumors about a company because they’ve shorted the stock.

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        • Just the other day, I was thinking about how the progression seems to have gone rapidly from “Goldbugs” to “cryptocurrency enthusiasts” to “people promoting the new pot-based economy” very rapidly. Yes, there are now ads saying you can get in on the ground floor of the giant windfall that marijuana will be, and it people promoting this were like the last people I would think of being associated with weed.

          (I have complained at some length how the ONLY new businesses in my town in the past six months have been medical-marijuana outlets. There have to be close to a dozen of them, in a town of 15,000. I am thinking people are only seeing dollar signs and are not thinking, “Oh, hey, there might be some competition for this.” Especially considering that the small local pharmacy where I get my allergy meds also seems to be selling some of the stuff now….)

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          • Good grief. Are the dispensaries restricted in some fashion, like a dispensary can serve only a certain number of people with prescriptions? Or do they expect that “medicinal” will turn into “recreational” in practice? Here, post-medicinal but pre-recreational, what you overheard at parties went from “I know a guy…” to “I know a doc…”.

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            • I’m really really curious to see what will happen to the number of medical marijuana prescriptions here, now that people who don’t have a medical need don’t get much of an advantage out of having a prescription…

              I cynically suspect that it’ll turn out that at least 75% of the medical users were actually recreational users who “knew a doc”, but I hope to find out I’m wrong.

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            • I suspect they’re planning on a pivot to recreational being legal, and my state legalizing it before the one immediately to the south of us (we are about 15 miles from the state line) and just like the casinos here get the sweet, sweet out-of-stater money, they’re hoping to cash in, too.

              I am strongly suspecting most of the places don’t survive; for one thing, even if recreational becomes legal I suspect there will still be “black market” dealers who undercut the official shops. And also it’s apparently legal to grow a few plants for your own use, though I don’t know how “picky” of a plant it is to grow.

              Some of it may also be people who are just cannabis enthusiasts who want a supply that is officially sanctioned by the government. I don’t expect those storefronts to last all that long either, ‘cos they probably won’t bring in as much money.

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              • In the summer, it’s not picky at all — one of the reasons the use of hemp fibers was so widespread in history is that it’ll grow well under a very wide range of conditions. Every Medieval village in Europe had a communal hemp field that provided the fiber for clothing, rope, etc. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s I worked summers at a few-square-miles ag field lab that had been WWII ordinance storage. The ravines were still full of the industrial stuff, self-propagating from when it was planted in the early 1940s. Growing it indoors in the off-season is more complicated. Once mold and some bugs get in, they’re very hard to get rid of. Plus the electricity bill, even for LED grow lights.

                The black market dealers will have to compete not only on price, but on quality. The industry in Colorado has very quickly bred up plants that have higher yields and higher THC content. The quality of the product is also sensitive to proper curing, which has improved dramatically. The smuggling direction has reversed — instead of bringing Mexican “ditch weed” to Colorado, the cartels smuggle high-end Colorado pot to Mexico to sell to their more discerning clients there.

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              • There was a subculture in that area that used it as currency. I mean quite literally getting paid a days wage with the stuff on several occasions. (Early lessons in exchange rates)

                Probably the only place on the planet that had right wingish, free market, hippies. I could only imagine what their kids are like, maybe these are a distant echo.

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    • The entire point of being a Cassandra is that nobody listens to you. Beside what Oscar said about the Cassandras often having something to sell, many people don’t like listening to the anti-humbug people because they often seem like austere scolds trying to take away good fun. Humbug might be erroneous but it is exciting and sexy. What honest anti-Humbug offers is something entirely less enticing.

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    • The whole thing about the Cassandra myth is that she was cursed to have no one believe her. Oscar is not wrong to point out that some “Cassandras” have their own ulterior and less than altruistic motives. Bill Akerman raising alarm bells over Herbalife and shorting the stock is a good example here. He might have been right but the fact that he stood to make boat loads of money if he was right did not help his cause.

      People want things to be true and people hate things that are boring. Kurt Anderson comes back to this again and again in “Fantasyland: How Americans went Haywire.” Theranos would have revolutionized medicine if it worked but no one wants to hear “these tests need lots of blood for a reason” that is boring and painful. Fyre Festival was as you note an attempt to get a really luxury experience at a fraction of the price.

      Some of the best ways to invest are very boring. I.e. through index funds and passively so you get a lot of who like to do riskier and more social investments like being a part owner of a bar or various real estate deals.* It is much sexier to tell a young lady that you are a part owner of a bar than you have some index funds that you put cash in.

      *A few years ago there was a story in Vox about Harry Reid’s real estate deals and schmoozing. Matt Y pointed out he would have made just as much or more money if he just parked his savings in index funds.

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  8. Good post and thanks for sharing. As an in-house attorney in a highly regulated industry I spend my life wading through humbug and humbug artists. I can easily see how something like the Theranos scandal could occur. It’s actually a testament to how well our regulatory bodies can work, even if it took them awhile to catch on. People were still hurt but it could’ve been much, much worse.

    One thing to also keep on mind on the Balko piece is that, while those individuals were particularly egregious, law enforcement forensics outside of DNA testing lack scientific rigor. Even DNA evidence comes with some caveats that rarely makes it into reporting on the subject.

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  9. This is a good post. I think you have got a lot right about the current state of America. I don’t have much else to add. I guess what strikes me is how people get caught up in how things are new or different because of tech. None of the dynamics of people are different for better or worse. How people work or get duped hasn’t changed but you slap an app to it and people think you discovered sliced bread. This could be a reason why tech people need to read a lot more humanities/fiction. Also a lot of us were told by their mom’s “if it seems to good to be true, it is.” That is not a bad lesson to learn.

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  10. Yeah, one thing to look out for in any sale being made to you is situations that flatter the recipient.

    Nietzsche was one of the first to come to mind. “Only smart people will read this”. (“Golly! I’m reading it!”)

    Also look out for people who not only flatter with how good you are but with what you deserve. Oh, my gosh. Can you believe that you have to die someday? That’s so unfair! Here. Try this. It’ll help.

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    • The Emperor’s New Clothes is like the Ur-version of that, and also seeing through the flattery.

      I wonder if most kids hear those old stories any more. I heard ’em all from parents and grandparents but I remember being kind of startled about 10 years ago to find out that almost no one in a group of 10-16 year olds knew “The Little Red Hen” when I made a reference to it.

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