Why producing bulls**t requires few convictions
Science is not immune to allure of BS, and we’re not as good at detecting it as we think
Head of US EPA Scott Pruitt fails ‘the BS test’.
My Collins Dictionary defines bulls**t as: “Exaggerated or foolish talk; nonsense” and my attention was arrested by the title of a recent scientific paper, On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit by Gordon Pennycook and other in the November 2015 issue of Judgement and Decision-Making. The authors reckon this work is the first published empirical research on bulls**t (BS). Most people think they can reliably detect BS but Pennycook’s work shows we are not as good at this as we think.
Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his monograph On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005) differentiates between BS and lies: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he knows the truth. Producing bulls**t requires no such conviction. A person who lies is therefore responding to the truth, and to that extent respectful of it... For the bullsh**ter however . . . he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false . . . He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up to suit his purpose.”
Pennycook and collaborators were particularly interested in a type of BS they call “pseudo-profound bulls**t”; that is statements that are meaningless but have an air of profundity about them. He generated many BS statements using a website called the New Age Bullshit Generator. Such sites assemble random buzz words to form sentences that have no intended meaning such as, “The invisible is beyond timelessness”, and, “Today science tells us that the essence of nature is joy”. The sentences are BS. Pennycook tested the susceptibility of people to accept such BS statements as being more or less profound and he also correlated this susceptibility with peoples’ thinking styles and cognitive abilities.
More than 800 subjects participated in this research across four studies. The results showed people consistently interpret BS statements as more or less profound. Pennycook and colleagues call this tendency “bulls**t receptivity”. But the study also found the higher the intelligence of subjects and the keener their analytical thinking skills, the less likely they were to interpret BS statement as profound, and also the less likely to hold religious beliefs and belief in the paranormal.
Plainly written motivational quotations that have a clear meaning were also included in the research. One example is: “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but because of its persistence.” More than 20 per cent of subjects rated this quotation as less profound than the BS statements. The thinking-style tests showed these subjects to have non-reflective and strongly intuitive thinking styles.
We are constantly bombarded by BS on a wide variety of fronts, meeting it for example in aspects of the following: politics (eg “I’m gonna build a wall and Mexico’s gonna pay for it”); advertising (eg “natural healthy sea salt”), education (eg “There is no grade inflation, only better teaching”), medicine (eg. anti-vaccine BS), environment (eg Scott Pruitt, head of US EPA – “No, I would not agree that it’s [CO2] a primary contributor to global warming that we see.”), religion, tabloid press and so on. And science is not immune to the allure of BS. How much faith can we have any more in nutritional advice for example? Dietary supplements recommended a year ago to prevent this or that bad health outcome are condemned today as risk factors for disease. And I have written before about the unreliability of much published scientific research, particularly bio-medical research.
It is obviously important to have a good BS detector to navigate in a world full of BS. Pennycook reminds us that most of us think our detectors are pretty good but almost 99 per cent of participants in Pennycook’s study rated at least one BS item to be somewhat profound. We are all particularly susceptible to BS that expresses a sentiment we want to agree with. Pennycook advises that we should all adopt a critical mindset. Ask questions like “What is the evidence?” and “How does that make sense?”.
I will finish with another gem generated by the New Age Bullshit Generator: “As you self-actualise, you will enter into infinite empathy that transcends understanding.”
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC