Why are some inclined to embrace Bullshit as truth?

identifying pseudoscientific bullshitWe live in a world that is awash with rather a lot of pseudoscientific claims that are pure grade one gold plated Bullshit, and so it is worth thinking about why some are very susceptible to such influences and others demonstrate a robust immunity to it all.

A fascinating paper that yields some insights has been published within the journal Judgment and Decision Making. The title is

On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit (yes, that is a link to the full PDF, no paywall)

So the context is that the authors of this paper are from the department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and it outlines the results of a series of studies they conducted to look into how we all deal with bullshit. The abstract explains …

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation.

Not strictly true, Dan Sperber addressed this issue some years ago in his paper The Guru Effect, [<– If time permits, it is worth a read] and there is also Daniel Dennett ‘s concept of deepity.  However, none of that need in any way detract anything within this specific paper because it is still very interesting.

Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.

To give you an example off what they are talking about, let me simply whisper one name – Deepak Chopra. Need I say any more?

So anyway, here is what they did ..

We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”).

… and here is what they found …

Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

OK, so what exactly does all that mean?

Let’s work an actual example. Here is a statement:

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure, but is in essence a bullshit statement.

So why do some people latch on to statements such as the above as a profound truth and others correctly label it for what it actually is?

They formed a hypothesis as to why and then proceeded to conduct a series of studies to examine it all. As a side note, they actually used phrases mined from Deepak Chopra’s twitter feed – I love the idea that this was their actual go-to source for some samples of bullshit.

I’ll not dull your senses with all the details of the four studies, the associated methodology, and the results, but if curious you can read it all yourself.

So what exactly did they find out?

Basically this, and I’ve added a clarification in brackets to translate the term “ontological confusions” that they use within the context of a journal …

Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions …. 

… [belief in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. praying for healing)] …

and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

why does this matter?

There are things that we all know already that they highlight …

Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before.

… and this is not just about Chopra …

Bullshit is not only common; it is popular.3 Chopra is, of course, just one example among many. Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia (Sokal, 2008). Indeed, as intimated by Frankfurt (2005), bullshitting is something that we likely all engage in to some degree “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.”

OK, so the interesting twist here is that often we focus on those making absurd claims (religion, alternative medicine, bigfoot, etc…) and we slice and dice it all and then debunk. This turns that coin over and looks at it from the other side by asking the question – why are some receptive to embracing nonsense at truth, and yet others are not? – and so instead of focusing on the producers, it is instead looking at the consumers.

The study does indeed not only highlight some personality attributes of those that are very receptive to BS, but also gives us a way to measure how receptive people are. With such an understanding comes the possibility of being able to address it, and while we still do not truly or fully understand what is going on (yet), our comprehension of it all is getting better.

Meanwhile, here is a bit of fun

The stuff that Deepak Chopra comes out with is no different than a random collection of meaningless phrases, and to prove exactly that, here is the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator. http://www.wisdomofchopra.com/

You can use it to try this little test …

  • use the generator to create a list of 10 meaningless phrases
  • Go to Deepak Chopra’s twitter feed and grab 10 of his real quotes, or perhaps simply quote mine him from other sources.
  • Mix them all up and see if anybody can work out which is real and which is the gibberish.

You soon find that nobody can, and that then leads to the only logical conclusion – if what he comes out with cannot be differentiated from gibberish by anybody, then that is exactly what he is tweeting. He is simply leveraging the fact that some will read profound meaning into such phrases when there is nothing of any substance at all.

I do wonder … now that we have a way of measuring how receptive people are to BS, can we perhaps name the units on this new scale “Chopras”.

1 thought on “Why are some inclined to embrace Bullshit as truth?”

Leave a Reply