Pennycook et al.: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

This from the November 2015 issue of Judgment And Decision Making. Here are links to the original paper (pdf) and its supplementary tables (pdf).

The authors seek to find a preliminary answer to the questions, “Are people able to detect blatant bullshit? Who is most likely to fall prey to bullshit and why?” Their study is therefore of the characteristics of the  bullshittee, rather than the bullshitter, or of bullshit itself.

They suggest that bullshit occupies a sort of halfway house between lie and truth. Bullshit is “something that is designed to impress but […] constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” (That is, the author of bullshit doesn’t care whether it’s true or not, in contrast to the liar, who is deliberately subverting the truth.) And “bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.”

I’m indebted to them for providing links to two sources of pseudo-profound bullshit, used in their study.

One, Wisdom of Chopra, uses random words taken from the Twitter feed of Deepak Chopra to construct novel sentences. Here’s an example of its output:

The unexplainable arises and subsides in the doorway to energy

The other, Seb Pearce‘s New-Age Bullshit Generator, generates an entire, beautiful page of random bullshit. Here’s one headline:

You and I are entities of the quantum matrix. By evolving, we believe

So that’s all pseudo-profound bullshit.

According to Pennycook et al., reasons you might mistake that for actual profundity include:

  • A deficiency of analytic thinking
  • Ontological confusion (confusing different categories of existence, such as the mental and the physical)
  • Epistemically suspect beliefs (such as paranormal or supernatural ideas)

Four studies are reported in the paper. They all look for correlations between the particular cognitive biases listed above with a “Bullshit Receptivity” scale—a measure of an individual’s tendency to rate randomly generated bullshit as “profound” on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all profound” to “very profound”.

I haven’t even counted the number of separate correlation measures to which the authors assign significance values; I’ll leave that as an exercise for the  Interested Reader.

But what we seem to see is that:

  • Participants tended to score random nonsense as moderately profound.
  • Participants scored selected real Deepak Chopra Tweets as a little more profound than random nonsense, but less profound than some motivational quotations.
  • Some participants scored even mundane statements like “Most people enjoy some sort of music” as having some level of profundity. These participants tended to give high profundity scores across the board.
  • To quote the authors: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (ie. verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
  • Waterloo University undergraduates (or at least, those who sign up for this sort of study) are catastrophically gullible, assigning various levels of profundity to some quite astonishing twaddle (Table 1). Snake-oil salesmen are presumably converging on the campus even as I type.

So it’s good to have all that sorted out.

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