New frontiers in bullshitology

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Gordon Pennycook, James Allan CheyneNathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit", Judgment and Decision Making 2015:

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

See also Emily Willingham, "Why Do Some People Find Deepak Chopra Quotes Deep And Not Dung?", Forbes 11/30/2015, as well as coverage on the Improbable Research blog.  I look forward to the nucleation of a new field, and even perhaps a journal Advances in Bullshitology.

Some relevant past LLOG posts:

"Can Derrida be 'even wrong'?", 9/29/2003
"The question of the question and the question of the place", 10/11/2004
"Cargo Cult Linguistics", 2/21/2005
"A euphoric dream of being scientific", 2/25/2005
"When is subalternism conciliatory?", 4/22005
"Labov's test", 8/17/2005
"Blinded by neuroscience", 6/28/2006
"Precision, poetry, and paragraphs", 2/21/2007
"Distracted by the brain", 6/6/2007
"Preventing explanatory neurophilia", 4/27/2009
"Forgetting is a highly erotic experience", 4/24/2014

 



24 Comments

  1. Rube said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    From "Mystery Men":

    Mr. Furious: Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic? "If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up. If you want to go left, you have to go right." It's…
    The Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage…
    Mr. Furious: …your rage will become your master? That's what you were going to say. Right? Right?
    The Sphinx: Not necessarily.

  2. hector said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

    "more conventionally profound (e.g., "A wet person does not fear the rain")"

    — coined by someone who lived in the tropics, presumably. Cold rain can cause hypothermia, which it is quite rational to fear. If you're soaked through to the skin, not wearing wool, and the air temperature is cold, you should be fearful, and trying to find warmth as quickly as possible. I mean, seriously, they used this as an example of a profound statement?

    (I live in a big city, Vancouver. Every year there are idiots who hike up into the close-at-hand mountains, woefully unprepared for a change in the weather, because, hey, the sun is shining, who needs a sweater?)

  3. Ross Bender said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

    Brandolini's Law, also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle:

    The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

    See also:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshit

  4. Dan Fitch said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

    Making the rounds recently is this nice example of a bot designed to spout pseudo-profound bullshit memes:

    http://inspirobot.me/

  5. James Flynn said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

    I don't know if this is the right place to say this but I will anyway. I'm fascinated by the rationalization of said bullshit when it is revealed as bullshit, to the people who were fooled. Examples include the Penguin Poetry hoax or the Sokal affair, not to mention the Disumbrationist School of Art. Ad. Pass… c.f. etc. what have you. I blame deconstructionist thought in general and Derriduh in particular. Perhaps this idea of 'post-bullshit-reveal-rationalisation' will have a part in this bullshitology?

  6. Alex said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    I loved Harry Frankfurt's excellent essay "On Bullshit." But the article described here, which purports to build on Frankfurt's work, is nothing more than an elaboration of the authors' prejudices. I wondered for a moment if the abstract wasn't a joke -– an amusing demonstration of what it pretends to deplore. Unfortunately, no: the authors are apparently serious and actually carried out the "research" needed to arrive at their perfectly pseudo-scientific results.

    Given that they are studying reactions to what they describe as "pseudo-profound bullshit," one would expect the authors to define what they mean by that term with some degree of care and rigor. They don't. Instead, in their brief discussion, they provide something akin to Justice Stewart's famous non-definition definition of obscenity: I know it when I see it.

    The problem of course is that when it comes to bullshit, things aren't that simple. How exactly does one distinguish the pseudo-profound from the genuinely profound? The explanation that pseudo-profound bullshit consists of "seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous" sounds good (as bullshit often does) but is logically circular: a statement is empty because it is vacuous.

    Their one real-life example of the pseudo-profound is this tweet from Deepak Chopra: "Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation." Easy enough to believe that this statement is indeed pseudo-profound bullshit. But the authors don't even bother to demonstrate as much: the mere fact that Deepak Chopra said it and that its meaning is not immediately apparent suffices for them.

    I have no idea what if anything Chopra meant by his tweet, but philosophy is full of highly compressed, gnomic statements whose full meaning can be revealed only by studying the work in which they appear (and sometimes many other works as well). Here's one from J.L. Austin: "Sentences are not as such either true or false" Does that sentence contain a useful insight or is it merely pseudo-profound bullshit? If Austin's meaning isn't immediately apparent to you, the only way to make that judgment is to read further.

    The authors feel confident that by assembling random "buzzwords" they can create their own pseudo-profound bullshit devoid of meaning. They provide the following example: ""Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty." Certainly sounds like bullshit. But if we ignore the unfortunate "unparalleled," it would be easy to provide an interpretation that would show the statement to be meaningful. Abstract words like "meaning" and "beauty" are empty containers that the writer has to fill, and this quality makes them incredibly versatile – they can be made to mean almost anything. So without knowing the context within which a statement full of abstractions appears, it may be impossible to say whether it's meaningful or meaningless.

  7. Ken Miner said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

    @ James Flynn The Penguin Poetry Hoax was in the forties, so you can't blame deconstructionism for that, although the fact that in the 70s the stuff was published as real surrealist (sic) poetry and praised by people like John Ashbery could be so blamed.

    To include the whole hoax you'd have to go back blame Modernism.

  8. Ken Miner said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    @ Alex I agree with you. Take "Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena". When I read it I took it as a possible pronouncement of an idealist philosopher, in which case it is not meaningless but false, since no amount of wholeness could quiet infinite anything. Etc.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    The authors notions of what sorts of beliefs might be "epistemically suspect" or "ontologically confused" also seem like bullshit. (Maybe peer-reviewed bullshit. This is a soft science, after all.) We believe in all sorts of true things that conflict with "folk-mechanics." For example, I believe that I can cause the doors of my car to lock and unlock without touching them and from quite a distance away, simply by fooling with a mysterious amulet from the Exotic Orient (specifically, wherever Toyota or its supplier manufactures the gizmo . . .) that I keep in my pants pocket. Belief in ghosts is not dubious because the being-able-to-move-through-walls part conflicts with folk-mechanics (the ability of ghosts to do so, if proven, would just mean that our folk-mechanics are pre-scientific and inaccurate in various details), but is dubious on other grounds.

  10. Robot Therapist said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

    @James Flynn Yes, I too was immediately reminded of the Sokal affair.

    @Ken Miner, yes again. The distinction between "meaningless" and "false" is important and often overlooked. I suspect Deepak Chopra is an easy target. I'm sure one could find sentences from this log that would look "vacuous" to someone who'd never read it.

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    @Dan Fitch
    The very first quote it generated was "Never let go of an opportunity to act weird", which isn't bullshit at all but genuinely good advice.

    (Everything after that was less so, however.)

  12. mendel said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

    The Brigelli effect, first popularized by German psychologist Nadja Hermann, should also be mentioned in this context:

    "It is quite simple to pretend to expert status by foregoing scepticism-inducing terms such as 'in my opinion' or 'this suggests that' when presenting information as facts, integrating professional-sounding terminology that might as well invented because nobody checks anyway, and employing the phrase 'according to recent research'. This mechanism is known as the 'Brigelli Effect', and emerging studies indicate that it conveys authority and leads to readers accepting even bogus facts without verification." ( https://erzaehlmirnix.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/brigelli-effekt/ , translation mine)

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

    I just noticed that one of the co-authors has his academic affiliation given as "The School of Humanities and Creativity" at such-and-such institution and thought that that totally sounded like a string of words produced by a software program constructed to generate random academic/bureaucratic-sounding jargon. But googling suggests it may be an actual thing, even if (thus far!) only one academic institution with an English-language web presence has chosen that particular string of words as the title for one of its components. This would seem to support the point made above about it being hard to judge what is and isn't BS (or meaningless or vacuous etc) without attention to context. No doubt there are other strings of words now common on university organization charts that have grown familiar through use but would seem like self-parodic and/or randomly-generated BS if encountered for the first time without that context.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

    See http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Poe's_Law

  15. Rubrick said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 11:40 pm

    A belated comment is but a morsel on the path to infinity.

  16. maidhc said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 3:18 am

    When I was a college student, the public square was filled with people proselytizing various movements: TM, Dianetics, Hare Krishnas, Process Church, LaRouche, etc. etc. One day I attended an avant-garde concert where they had printed up handbills stating "Vibration is the root of creation". At the end they seemed to have a lot of those handbills left over, so I grabbed a stack of them and stashed them in my bag.

    Then every time one of those proselytizers approached me, I would fix them with a big smile, say "I have something I would like to give you" and hand over one of the handbills. They would usually look at it, say "Uh thanks, heavy, man" and back away, obviously thinking that I belonged to a cult that was even weirder than their own.

  17. Michael said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 5:51 am

    Remember the Dr. Fox effect: " Despite the emptiness of his lecture, fifty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, graduate students, and other professionals produced evaluations of Dr. Fox that were overwhelmingly positive. … The disturbing feature of the Dr. Fox study, as the experimenters noted, is that Fox's nonverbal behaviors so completely masked a meaningless, jargon-filled, and confused presentation" (Wikipedia).

  18. James said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 6:38 am

    Wikipedia has an entry on Obscurantism, with one section called According to Analytic Philosophers. That section is a bit quaint and out of date, but isn't too bad as a starting point.
    I have a vague memory that Chomsky wrote (or spoke?) a remark or two on Derrida with a kind of test for bullshit — I think it was imperfect but better than the suspicious "I know it when I see it" test.

  19. Christel Davies said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    Words like "wholeness" can have an assortment of meanings. In terms of mindfulness based therapy, wholeness means a state of mental well-being. That's in contrast to wholeness as being defined as not missing any parts. As with any set of jargon limited to a certain group, there's gonna be ontological differences. That being said, it seems the only novel finding from the study were these 22 outliers that rated supremely mundane statements as profound. The mildly amusing thing I took away from the study was how highly profound the study's author found platitudes from motivational posters… It was at that point my BS detector sounded.

  20. peter said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

    Alex @4.29 pm

    You are correct to say that the full meaning if statements may only be gained from study of the work in which they appear. Having read quite a lot of Chopra and much more of the related spiritual literature on manifestation, his statement is perfectly clear to me. He is stating that successful manifestation of desires requires both sufficient strength of desire (intention) and a continued focus on their manifestation (attention): for your dreams to come true, you need to really want them to, and you need to keep dreaming them. One could argue that this statement is false, but it is neither vacuous nor obvious. Nor is the advice implicit in the statement at all easy to follow. So I would strongly contest its labelling as bullshit, or as pseudo anything.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    The link above to the wikipedia article full of analytical philosophers being catty about their rivals makes me notice one interesting feature of the presentation. There's a certain subset of writers who are frequently mocked as being nothing more than pseudo-profound bullshit artists but who nonetheless maintain an academic respectability not currently possessed by Deepak Chopra or the adherents of homeopathy. Most of the co-authors of the linked article are at the University of Waterloo, where they have a colleague who wrote his dissertation "on the role of rhetoric in the work of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Michel Foucault." https://uwaterloo.ca/english/people-profiles/michael-macdonald. Maybe they should invite Prof. MacDonald to collaborate with them on future research, because he might have an interesting perspective to offer.

  22. Rebecca said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    "This American Life" introduced something similar to pseudo-profound bullshit, but more for the kind of long-form bullshit that anybody can wander into: "Modern Jackass", coined by somebody calling out themself for sounding like a bullshit architecture article. The whole episode us great, but only the prologue examples really belong in an issue of Modern Jackass, imo.
    http://m.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/293/a-little-bit-of-knowledge?act=0#act-0

  23. Seth Edenbaum said,

    December 3, 2015 @ 1:20 am

    "Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation."

    "A spatial object must lie in infinite space. (A point in space is a place for an argument.)"

    "To hear the melody move from C to E flat is to hear the E flat as called into being by the C – a virtual force operates between the notes"

    "Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science."

    She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
    The water never formed to mind or voice,
    Like a body wholly body, fluttering
    Its empty sleeves

    European Jews and their descendants, including those with blonde hair and blue eyes, have a "right" to "return" to Palestine, and to force the native inhabitants, including Jewish converts to Islam, off of their land. Having done so they nonetheless maintain the right to refer to themselves and their ideals as "modern" and "liberal".

    Harry Frankfurt is a master bullshitter. Philosophers and economists have a lot in common. Believing your own bullshit is something a good bullshitter should try to avoid.

  24. CD said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 3:55 am

    "Having read quite a lot of Chopra"

    "neither vacuous nor obvious."

    Dude…

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