An Exercise in Critical thinking: Detecting and Assessing the “Pseudo-Profound Bullshit” over Balakot

The Assignment

For this assignment, there is no “correct answer;” rather, I want to see evidence that you have discerned what is known; what is unknown but knowable with reasonable resources, and unknowable for all reasonable intents, purposes and resources.

Your Task

While no one doubts that India launched a strike, significant questions persist. Your memo should address each of these below questions to the best of your group’s ability.

  1. Did Indian aircraft attack Balakot after crossing into Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? The weapon India claims to have used, Spice, is an Israeli stand-off weapon that could have reached Balakot having been fired from India’s side of the line of control. (See the map below.)
  2. How many JeM cadres were killed in the attack?
  3. How much of the structure did India destroy?
  4. Did India shoot down an F-16? (Note that the United States clarified that Pakistan did fly an F-16. A Foreign Policy article claims that the USG did an inventory of F-16s and found none missing. How likely is it that the United States could have done such an inventory when this article was written? Who would tell the journalist such a thing? Did the journalist find a supporting source that independently could support this claim? How long was this journalist working this beat? What is her expertise to detect and evaluate Bullshit? (See note below on the structure and function of Bullshit.) Note that the US Dept of Defense subsequently repudiated this report noting that it did not do such a study. Does the United States know what happened? (My view? Yes.) What incentive does Washington have to inveigh on the truth of Balakot? Consider how ‘the truth” would affect relations with the involved country?
  5. Discuss the relative credibility of Indian and Pakistani government sources having read claims up to the present to provide an overall assessment of which side won the “information war.”

You will draft a formal memo of 1,000 words (max) along with a table described below. This memo should be well-cited using footnotes. Footnotes may only contain references and no additional explanatory prose. For this reason, citations do not count towards the word limit. The word count of the table does not count towards the 1,000-word limit. The table is essentially a graphic summary of your conclusions.

I strongly recommend the following structure for your memo:

  1. Introduction with a roadmap.
  2. Data and Methods. Here you discuss your general empirical approach. You may want to do technical research on the Spice Weapons System. You may want to do more research on how many parachutes the MiG Bison deploys (hint: drogue chute).
  3. A section that addresses questions 1–4.
  4. Conclusion with a discussion of Question Five.

Note: My views on this subject are well-known. No one should feel compelled to reproduce my thinking. I don’t want y’all to be clones of me. This is my chance to learn from you and your collective expertise. Every past semester, my students taught me a lot and I’m looking forward to learning from you!

Your memo should have an annex that fills out the following table:

The most important consideration of this assignment? I want you to have fun and be curious and go down rabbit holes as needed. Feel free to consult with others in and beyond the class, but you are responsible for your own work. All Honor Code strictures apply.


Professor Harry G. Frankfurt lays out the problem of Bullshit that while we repine about its noxious and ubiquitous presence, we have little understanding of what it actually is. He writes that that “we have no theory” of or for Bullshit. He sets for himself a heroic task: to develop a “theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.”

He does not consider the ample rhetorical uses and abuses of Bullshit; rather he aims “to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not — or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.” For Frankfurt, Bullshit is “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truthThis distinguishes bullshit from lying, which entails a deliberate manipulation and subversion of truth (as understood by the liar).”

As Pennycook et al. observe in “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-profound Bullshit,” Bullshit differs from mere nonsense in that Bullshit “implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This is akin to what Buekens and Boudry (2015), drawing from Ludwig Wittgenstein, referred to as obscurantism which implies a

“deliberate move on behalf of the speaker, who is accused of setting up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists. The suspicion is, furthermore, that the obscurantist does not have anything meaningful to say and does not grasp the real intricacies of his subject matter, but nevertheless wants to keep up appearances, hoping that his reader will mistake it for profundity. This promise of a deep insight into intriguing subject matters is often sufficient to lure the audience into a futile quest for understanding.”

Moreover, this sort of Bullshit, according to Pennycook et al., comprises
Pseudo-Profound Bullshit. While Pseudo-Profound Bullshit may be one of several types, Pennycook et al. dilate upon Pseudo-Profound Bullshit “because it represents a rather extreme point on what could be considered
a spectrum of bullshit.”

I hope that you will find this formalization of Bullshit generally and Pseudo-Profound Bullshit specifically to be useful as you set upon this task.


Known Details. On 14 February 2019, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) dispatched a Kashmiri suicide bomber to attack a convoy of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) vehicles in the Pulwama district of the then state Jammu and Kashmir. (As of August 2019, the erstwhile state has been reorganized into two Union Territories of Ladakh as well as Jammu and Kashmir.) Analysts typically refer to this attack as the “2019 Pulwama attack.”

By most accounts, 40 CRPF personnel died in this assault for which JeM accepted responsibility. This attack was notable for several reasons: 1. It was the first use of a suicide attack since the JeM December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament; 2. This was the first time that a local Kashmiri boy (Adil Dar, 20) was the suicide attacker instead of a Pakistani; 3. The attacker released a “martyrdom video.” Note that there is no dispute about any of the above facts in the open-source domain.

“Pulwama Attack 2019,” India Today, updated 16 February 2019. (Links to an external site.)

Joanna Slater and Niha Masih, “At least 38 killed in deadliest attack on security forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir in 3 decades, The Washington Post, 14 February 2019. (Links to an external site.)

In response, the Modi government launched a punitive air raid on 26 February targeting a JeM base at Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The Indian government variously claimed that it killed hundreds of terrorists (see Martin Howell and Salhuddin, “Inside the Pakistani madrasa where India said it killed hundreds of ‘terrorists’,”, 11 April 2019. (Links to an external site.)) and destroyed many of the JeM facilities. However, there were immediate doubts about India’s claims.

Map (Links to an external site.):

For articles disputing these varied claims see:

Amos Chappel, “Misinformation Flies After Kashmir Air Battles,” Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, 1 March 2019. (Links to an external site.).

Martin Howell, Gerry Doyle (Links to an external site.)Simon Scarr (Links to an external site.), “Satellite images show buildings still standing at Indian bombing site,”, 5 March 2019. (Links to an external site.).

Elizabeth Roche, “IAF jets hit 5 out of 6 targets in Balakot air strike,” LiveMint, 25 April 2019, (Links to an external site.).

Marcus Hellyer (Links to an external site.)Nathan Ruser (Links to an external site.) and Aakriti Bachhawat (Links to an external site.), “India’s Balakot Strike: A very precise Miss?” The Strategist, 25 March 2019. (Links to an external site.).

The Dog Fight and the “Mystery” of the F-16

On 26 February 2019, Pakistan attempted to retaliate by dispatching several aircraft (allegedly F-16s among them) to attack targets in Indian-administered Kashmir. India scrambled aircraft from various positions and a dogfight ensued. India claims it repulsed the strike package while Pakistan claimed that it retreated after releasing its payload. (See “Surgical strikes 2.0: Pakistani jets turned back due to size of IAF formation, claim reports,” The Economic Times, 26 February 2019.
// (Links to an external site.).)

What is known is that Pakistan shot down a MiG Bison which landed on Pakistani territory. Pakistan took the pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, into custody. He was returned amidst much drama, and after a controversial tea commercial, several days later.

India claims that prior to being shot down, Abhinandan locked onto a Pakistani F-16 and shot it down before being shot down himself. Indian officials, such as the then-Air Chief, as well as the Twiteratti launched an all-out offensive to prove that this F-16 was in fact shot down by Abhinandan. They asserted the following;

  1. Pakistan initially claimed that it had shot down two IAF aircraft. However, in the end, it shot down only one. They argue that Pakistan mistook its own second downed aircraft for one of India’s aircraft from its strike package. What other explanation could account for Pakistan’s initial claims?
  2. Indian commentators among others circulated this video from an Indian think-tank analyst based in Bangalore ( (Links to an external site.)).

The video contains an image of several falling objects. Note the different rates at which they fall. The audio is clearly in a village-accented Punjabi; however, there is nothing definitively asserted by the villagers in the video. The persons heard speaking are debating how many persons and/or parachutes they saw and they are discussing among themselves how many “chutes” and “bandas” (persons) they saw. What do you see in this image? Consider why different objects are falling at very different rates. Why might this be? You will want to investigate the issue of a “drogue chute.”

Some Indian commentators assert that this video “proves” that India shot down an F-16. Does it? [What do we know about the pedigree of this video?]

  1. Indian papers published photos of the F-16 pilot whose aircraft was shot down. Indian media even claimed that Pakistani mobs attacked their own pilot mistaking him for an Indian ( (Links to an external site.)). India alleged that the downed F16 pilot was the son of a previous air marshal ( (Links to an external site.)), which appears to be untrue by the name the Indians released (the air marshal has no son by that name). The Pakistanis also published dubious reports that the ostensibly non-existent fellow is in fact “alive.” Does the person not exist or does he exist but is alive? Why is this still a mystery?
  2. India’s Air Chief began circulating “radar” images from India’s AWACS that “prove” that India shot down an F-16. Think critically about this evidence. What does it really show? How do we know that it is actually a radar image? What –if anything — can we say about this imagery? The images are available here (among other places):
  3. Several sources claim to have “‘irrefutable evidence’ that our MiG-21 shot down Pakistani F-16, says IAF,” Times of India, 8 April 2019. (Links to an external site.).

See also Sameer Joshi, “In PAF Lies and Subterfuge,” The Print, 7 April 2019, (Links to an external site.).

Sameer Joshi, a former pilot, and “talking head” on Air Force issues, continued to present “new evidences” well after the event lapsed. See Sameer Joshi, “Eight Pieces of Clinching Evidence,” The Print, 20 August, 2019, (Links to an external site.).

For fun and games check out this “exchange” of yours truly with the Indian Air Chief and Mr. Sameer Joshi (who blocked yours truly on Twitter after this event): (Links to an external site.)

You should also watch the video which is embedded in this article.

Sumit Kumar Singh, “Indian Air Force shows radar images to shoot down Pakistan’s lies: India has irrefutable proof that Pakistan lost an F-16 during an aerial combat with the Indian Air Force on February 27, Air Force Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor said on Monday, putting to rest questions raised on the Balakot strike,”, 9 April 2019. (Links to an external site.).

Warning: Social media was flooded with various complex graphics demonstrating that Pakistan flew F-16s and that India shot one down. (See the Twitter feeds of noted think-tank analysts:

Nitin Gokhale: (Links to an external site.)

Defence360_Official: (Links to an external site.)

Among numerous others including (Links to an external site.).


However, aviation wonks in the US and elsewhere immediately cast doubt on the various “irrefutable evidence” as being highly if not easily refutable. See articles here:

Iaian Marlow, “India Never Actually Shot Down Pakistani F-16 in Kashmir Clash, New Report Says,”, 5 April 2019. (Links to an external site.).

Tyler Rogoway, “Enough With The Indian Mig-21 Bison Versus Pakistani F-16 Viper Bullshit,”, 11 March 2019. (Links to an external site.);

By Joseph Trevithick and Tyler Rogoway (Links to an external site.), “Indian Radar Data That Supposedly Proves They Downed An F-16 Is Far From “Irrefutable,”, 8 April 2019. (Links to an external site.)

Joseph Trevithick, “We Cut Through The Conflicting Claims And Misinformation Surrounding India’s Strikes On Pakistan,”, 7 March 2019. (Links to an external site.).

Additional Sources:

Michael Safi (Links to an external site.)Mehreen Zahra-Malik (Links to an external site.), Azhar Farooq. “Pakistan says it has shot down Indian jets after Kashmir cross-border attack,” The Guardian, 27 February 2019. (Links to an external site.)

Joana Slater and Pamela Constable, “Pakistan captures Indian pilot after shooting down aircraft, escalating hostilities,” The Washington Post, 27 February 2019, (Links to an external site.).

Helen Regan, Nikhil Kumar, Adeel Raja and Swati Gupta,” Pakistan says it shot down two Indian jets as Kashmir border crisis deepens,” CNN, 28 February, 2019. (Links to an external site.).

See M. Ilyas Khan, “India’s ‘surgical strikes’ in Kashmir: Truth or illusion?” The, 23 October 1999, (Links to an external site.).

Tom O’Connor, “INDIA INSISTS IT SHOT DOWN A PAKISTANI F-16 AFTER U.S. REPORT SHOWS IT DID NOT, Newsweek, 5 April 2019. (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.).

Other Contextual Details to Consider.

This attack took place amidst standing tensions between India and Pakistan and followed several high-profile terrorist attacks by Pakistan-backed and based groups. For a list of significant terrorist attacks in India, see (Links to an external site.).

  1. It occurred in the final months of the first government of Prime Minister Modi, which came to power through the general elections of 2014. Modi and his party like to distinguish themselves from their main national rival, Congress, on the grounds of their “muscular foreign policy” and “tough stance on Pakistan.”
  2. As of late 2018 and early 2019, a Modi and BJP victory in the 2019 general elections was uncertain. See Alyssa Ayres, “Why Narendra Modi’s Ruling Party No Longer Looks Invincible in 2019 Indian Elections,“ Time, 12 December 2018. (Links to an external site.) and “Mood of the Nation poll: If elections were held today, what would be PM Modi’s fate?,” India Today, 25 January 2019. (Links to an external site.).
  3. By the time this attack occurred, India’s media had already been groomed by the government to silence dissent and promote patently pro-government coverage. You will find considerable coverage of the current government’s effort to stifle the media. See for example Annie Gowen, “In Modi’s India, journalists face bullying, criminal cases and worse,” The Washington Post, 15 February 2018. (Links to an external site.).
  4. Modi took credit for launching India’s putatively “first cross-border,” “surgical strike” against Pakistan in retaliation for a Lashkar-e-Taiba attack in September 2018. The media covered this event uncritically and tended to report the government’s claim with little questions. For example, see “Leopard urine, airdropping commandos and more: This is how Uri attack was avenged by Indian Army, [yes that IS the actual title]India Today, 28 September 2016. (Links to an external site.). While India’s media were not critical of these claims; others were. UK-based Shashank Joshi questioned the claim that Modi conducted the “first-ever” such strike and mustered considerable evidence that numerous previous such raids occurred; however, the previous governments which ordered them opted not to make a political spectacle out of them. See Shashank Joshi, “The Line of (Out of) Control,” 4 October 2016, (Links to an external site.). The BBC also questioned several aspects of the account. See M. Ilyas Khan, “India’s ‘surgical strikes’ in Kashmir: Truth or illusion?” The, 23 October 1999, (Links to an external site.). [N.B. Khan is a Pakistani journalist whom I have known since 1999. He does not have a history of publishing rubbish. He now works for the BBC because his previous reportage with a local publication on Pakistan’s war on terror drew undesirable ire of Pakistan’s ISI.”
  5. Several weeks prior to the Pulwama attack, a Bollywood film, Uri: The Surgical Strike, was released which dramatically retold Modi’s surgical strike to avenge Uri, as noted above. This film featured fantastical technologies which many Indians accepted real. More generally, many Indians viewed this film more as a documentary than a fictionalized account. The film’s depiction of PM Modi (as well as depictions in other films) prompted concerns that India’s film-industry was a political partisan.

See Amrit Dhillon, “A narrative is being built’: Bollywood’s battle for Indian hearts and minds,” The Guardian, 29 April 2019, (Links to an external site.); Abhishyant Kidangoor, “In India’s Upcoming Elections, Bollywood Wages a Battle for Hearts and Minds,”, 4 April 2019. (Links to an external site.). When I was in India during these events, many Indians noted that in devising a response to Pulwama, Modi was really competing with the film depiction of his own resolve in Uri: The Surgical Strike

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