Why Do Some Americans Speak So Confidently When They Have No Clue What They're Talking About?


The Harvard Business School information session on how to be a good class participant instructs, “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 percent, say it as if you believe it 100 percent,” Susan Cain reported in her bestselling book Quiet. At HBS, Cain noticed, “If a student talks often and forcefully, then he’s a player; if he doesn’t, he’s on the margins.”

Cain observed that the men at HBS “look like people who expect to be in charge.... I have the feeling that if you asked one of them for driving directions, he’d greet you with a can-do smile and throw himself into the task of helping you to your destination — whether or not he knew the way.”

HBS alumni include George W. Bush, class of 1975, as well as:

  • Jamie Dimon, 1982, CEO and chairman of JP Morgan Chase
  • Grover Norquist, 1981, president of Americans for Tax Reform
  • Henry Paulson, 1970, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, former CEO of Goldman Sachs
  • Mitt Romney, 1975, former governor of Massachusetts, co-founder of Bain Capital
  • Jeffrey Skilling, 1979, former CEO of Enron, convicted of securities fraud and insider trading

People with great power over our lives, in government, business, medicine, and elsewhere, who don’t know what they are talking about are scary. Even more scary are people in authority who don’t know what they’re talking about but who have spent a lifetime perfecting how to appear like they do. Complete conviction and total certainty are sources of great power, especially over vulnerable and uncertain people. And so the pretense of conviction and certainty can be quite damaging.

Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s “Mad Money” and former hedge-fund manager, received his BA from Harvard and his JD from Harvard Law School. In 2007, Market Watch quoted Cramer: “What's important when you are in that hedge-fund mode is to not do anything remotely truthful because the truth is so against your view, that it’s important to create a new truth, to develop a fiction.”

Some Harvard graduates have famously rebelled against bullshit training, as Harvard alumni also include Henry David Thoreau and David Halberstam. Halberstam’s 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, with its ironic and mocking title, takes down pseudo-certain Harvard (and other Ivy League-educated) presidential advisers who convinced American leaders and the American public that the Vietnam War was a great idea. To be fair to Harvard alumni, some of America’s most famous pseudo-certain government officials did not attend Harvard, including Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton) and Alan Greenspan (New York University).

Our society once routinely called people “bullshit artists” if they spoke with total certainty without any basis for such certainty so as to persuade others and get attention for themselves. Nowadays, bullshit training is called “leadership training” and unashamedly taught at “elite institutions” and at expensive leadership seminars.

Bullshit Artistry: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Expensive

In Tony Robbins’ talk "The Power of Certainty and State of Mind," he tells us “The person who is most certain will always influence the other person.” If you missed out on Harvard but have $895, you can attend a Tony Robbins seminar, and you too become a successful persuader. Robbins’ multi-day seminars cost up to $10,000, and his Platinum Partnership membership, which gives you the opportunity to go on exotic vacations with Robbins, costs $45,000 (Robbins’ net worth has been estimated to be $480 million).

The Harvard Business School Press ranks Robbins among the “Top 200 Business Gurus,” according to Robbins’ website, which also lists many testimonials for Robbins from celebrities, including Bill Clinton and Pitbull. Described as a “world-renowned music sensation and international businessman,” Pitbull tells us that he grew up listening to his mother’s Tony Robbins tapes, which “was like my university. ... It was my Harvard.”

Sounding completely confident when one lacks any real certainty can be disastrous in government, business, medicine, and many other areas. However, depending on the context, it may not be such a bad thing.

Tony Robbins also reports glowing testimonials for himself from tennis greats Serena Williams and Andre Agassi. Greatness in sports is about talent, practice and confidence, and so learning to completely believe in oneself is vital to achieving greatness in athletics. Teaching athletes to believe in themselves is part of what great coaching is about, and Pat Riley, Basketball Hall of Fame coach, gives Robbins a glowing testimony. Helping your children believe in themselves is also a part of what parenting is about, and so it can sometimes be helpful to appear like you completely believe in your child’s talent even if you believe in it only 55 percent.

However, tragedy in life routinely comes from applying what’s helpful in one area of life to all areas of life. It is the tragedy of fundamentalism. So when the HBS/Robbins theology of pretending to be certain when one is not becomes a fundamentalist religion to be used throughout government, business and medicine to persuade people, then tragedy can ensue.

I was a teenager when I discovered the hell that can be created by people in authority who don’t know what they’re talking about but who have spent a lifetime pretending that they do. I discovered how powerful Harvard-educated bullshit artists can create terror for myself and ruin American society.

When I was 14 years old, the Vietnam War continued to rage and the military draft began, and I worried about what my lottery number would be when I became eligible. I remember wishing Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson), and Henry Kissinger (Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State) would one day rot in hell. McNamara was an HBS alumni, class of 1939; and Kissinger received A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard and became a Harvard faculty member and director of the Harvard Defense Studies Program. McNamara and Kissinger’s capacity to convey confidence about the rightness of America’s Vietnam policies are major reasons for the tragic deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans and approximately 2 to 3 million Vietnamese.

Government is not the only place where we can be conned by authorities who don’t know what they’re talking about but who have spent a lifetime perfecting how to appear like they do.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was training to be a clinical psychologist, one of the most influential psychiatrists in America was longtime Columbia University professor Robert Spitzer. In an effort to convince the general public of the scientific validity of its psychiatric diagnostic bible, the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association chose Spitzer to chair the DSM-3 task force. DSM-3 was published in 1980, but by 1989, Spitzer was bragging, “I could just get my way by sweet talking and whatnot.” By 2013, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, citing the lack of DSM scientific validity, stated that the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”

As a clinical psychologist for nearly three decades, I’ve seen how emotionally suffering people and their families are extremely vulnerable to medical authorities who have complete conviction and total certainty. When the advertising business, which shamelessly prides itself on effective bullshit, was coupled with pseudo-certain authorities, it made sales resistance difficult for a vulnerable audience.

In the 1990s, Americans began to be exposed to highly effective TV advertisements for antidepressants that utilized a pseudoscientific notion that depression was caused by a “chemical imbalance” of low levels of serotonin that could be treated with “chemically balancing” antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Given the vulnerability of depressed people and their loved ones, it was easy to sell the chemical-imbalance theory, which made it easy to sell these drugs.

This chemical-imbalance campaign was so effective that it comes as a surprise to many Americans to discover that mainstream psychiatry now claims it has always known that this theory was bullshit or “urban legend,” the term used by Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times.

Pies stated in 2011, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend — never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” However, in Psychiatry’s Grand Confession (2012), Jonathan Leo and Jeffrey Lacasse respond to Pies: “But if the psychiatry community knew all along that the theory was not true, then why did they not clarify this issue for the general public? Shouldn’t they have pointed out to the general public and patients that what the pharmaceutical companies were saying about psychological stress was not true?”

For the last two decades, Harvard psychiatrist Joseph Biederman has been one of the most influential psychiatrists in America. In 2007, the Boston Globe reported in “Backlash on Bipolar Diagnoses in Children” that “psychiatrists used to regard bipolar disorder as a disease that begins in young adulthood, but now some diagnose it in children scarcely out of diapers, treating them with powerful antipsychotic medications based on Biederman’s work.” In a deposition given by Biederman to several states attorneys (reported by the New York Times in 2009), Biederman was asked what rank he held at Harvard.

“Full professor,” Biederman answered.

“What’s after that?” asked one state attorney, Fletch Trammell.

“God,” Biederman responded.

Arrogant self-certainty and a Harvard affiliation have given Biederman great influence, as he has remained a major “thought leader” in psychiatry even after he was nailed by Congress in 2008 for taking $1.6 million from drug companies, and even after he was caught pitching Johnson & Johnson that his proposed research studies on its antipsychotic drug Risperdal would turn out favorably for Johnson & Johnson.

Is there any justice? While arrogance and time at Harvard can give one great power and influence, it doesn’t assure a positive legacy. TheNew York Times obituary 2009 obituary of HBS graduate Robert McNamara states:

As early as April 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, called Vietnam “McNamara’s War.” Mr. McNamara did not object. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” he said. ... [McNamara later] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” In return, he faced a firestorm of scorn.

We don't want to hear any “mea culpas" or “my bads” from former powerful authorities who have caused great damage by appearing like they knew what they were talking about when they didn’t. We just want them to have the decency to finally shut up.

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