On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

A new paper out in the journal Judgement and Decision Making by Gordon Pennycook, James Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang. The abstract:

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.

Keywords: bullshit, bullshit detection, dual-process theories, analytic thinking, supernatural beliefs, religiosity, conspiratorial ideation, complementary and alternative medicine.

The paper is here.

Hat tip: Stephan Lewandowsky


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Is this bullshit?


By Desertphile (not verified) on 30 Nov 2015 #permalink

Seems profound to me... ;^)

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 30 Nov 2015 #permalink


By David Sanger (not verified) on 30 Nov 2015 #permalink

My personal theory: just as an electrode in a rat's brain can trigger pleasure without there actually being anything pleasurable happening; mystics and whatnot have found a way (breath control, thinking about nothing, eye fixation) to directly trigger the *feeling* of having learned something - the "Aha!" feeling. Something to do with dopamine, I suppose.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 30 Nov 2015 #permalink

“This summer, I SAW the effects of climate change firsthand in our northernmost state, Alaska, where THE SEA IS ALREADY SWALLOWING VILLAGES and eroding shorelines; where permafrost thaws and the TUNDRA BURNS; where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times.”
– Barack Obama, 11/30/15 at the U.N. climate change summit in Paris.

Should this statement require a push of the red button?

By See Noevo (not verified) on 30 Nov 2015 #permalink

Paul @ 5: You're on the right track but off about the specifics.

The three techniques you mention are used for different purposes, and produce different types of subjective states, as you'll discover first-hand if you try all of them with an attitude of objectivity (rather than a-priori bias for or against). Don't worry, your brain won't fall out your ears;-)

In particular I would recommend that atheists who fear "nothingness" at death, should spend time contemplating nothingness. Familiarity with the idea and any brief experiences of it (paradoxical though that may seem) will tend to reduce the fear and also immunize oneself against other forms of pseudoscientific nonsense such as The Singularity (quackery wrapped in tech to seem scientific).

The goal isn't (or at least shouldn't be) to trigger an "aha!" feeling, which at least in Buddhism may by itself be dismissed as "makyo," or "unusual phenomena signifying nothing in regard to enlightened thought and compassionate action."

The subjective sensation of understanding is not, at least in my views and practices, taken as equating to having gained specific knowledge of any kind via unspecified routes. Knowledge is specific and explicit. Understanding is an emotional state consisting primarily of the feeling that one's consistency-checks have been satisfied. Wisdom can be operationalized as the ability to make decisions whose outcomes and consequences are consistent with one's intentions.

We can speculate as to relevant neurotransmitters, but let's not forget the potential role of oxytocin (the "trust molecule") in certain key aspects of mystical experiences ("the sense of unconditional love"). We could probably come up with a decent list of neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and neurohormones, that play a role in these things. But doing so would not add up to a complete "understanding" of them, any more than knowing an author's ethnicity would tell you everything you need to know about his/her latest novel.

@5, 7

I'd point out that mindfulness can be practiced without mysticism and is at base as prosaic as lifting weights or jogging, being essentially an exercise to strengthen self-awareness and control of your own thoughts.

There are also ideas and perspective-taking in Buddhism that are worth taking on board, or at least thinking about, but this can be done without adding in a bunch of religious glop or elaborate, stylized language.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 01 Dec 2015 #permalink

SN (#6): Should this statement require a push of the red button?

No. Nope. Not hardly. Negatory, good buddy. Just no.

(To GL and the regulars: I held down the red button while I wrote the words "good buddy.")

By Christopher Winter (not verified) on 01 Dec 2015 #permalink

Re. Obstreperous @ 8: Yes, this: Basic mindfulness and basic concentration are both good forms of brain-exercise that promote self-awareness and control of one's own thoughts, as you said. I promote them for exactly those purposes, and also for "discernment," which I define as the ability to recognize where one's subjective biases are interfering with one's ability to think clearly. (Mindfulness enables recognizing emotional reactions, and once one gets accustomed to doing so, one's capacity for objectivity improves.)


As far as elaborate stylized language is concerned, the same could be said about anything where aesthetics come into play. One can satisfy one's nutritional needs by eating stuff that looks and tastes like cardboard, but humans generally prefer more "elaborate, stylized" meals that provide aesthetic satisfaction as well.

As rationalists and empiricists, we should recognize that the human desire for aesthetic satisfaction is highly individually variable, and is an objective fact of human existence. The fact that we don't all share all of the same aesthetic preferences is exactly zero grounds for attempting to condemn the aesthetic preferences of others as if the latter are somehow objectively "wrong." Science deals in objective measurements, not in subjective value judgements.


And that in a nutshell is also why the "pseudo-profound bullshit" study is also itself flaming bullshit: it's a clear case of confirmation bias reflected throughout the entire methodology, with the transparent primary goal of beating up on Deepak Chopra and his silly followers.

To be quite clear about this, I was able to spend less than five minutes on one of Chopra's articles where he goes on about quantum energy woo, before I couldn't take any more and had to close the page. (Someone needs to do the experiment: what's the mean average time that people with science-based views can spend on Chopra's site before closing the page, getting a headache, or throwing up?)

And I also agree that pseudo-profound BS is "a real thing" that can probably be measured.

But to do that objectively, one necessarily has to apply it to a range of types of examples. Doing it well requires examples that are within the experience of most of the subjects, and examples that can't be criticized as showing a clear ideological bias on the part of the authors.

For example if the domain was politics, one should look for examples of pseudo-profound BS involving both Democrats and Republicans. Going after one party only, gives that party's adherents a viable claim that the study is fatally biased and ideologically motivated.

Popular song lyrics are an absolutely _enormous_ source of pseudo-profound BS, and classic poetry is also chock full of examples. Using both side-by-side would make for a highly interesting study, and nobody would have a basis to complain.

Then if one gets strong positive findings for willingness to believe pseudo-profound bullshit when it comes to un-controversial examples such as popular songs and classic poetry, one also gains a decently objective basis to apply those results to empirically-justified rhetoric against Deepak and his buddies.

_That's_ how to do that arguement well. Not by a transparent attempt to go after Chopra directly, where he will only be able to claim, with decent justification, that he's being singled-out and targeted.

And I haven't even begun to go into the methodological flaws in that paper, which are many. IMHO it's worthy of undergrads with grudges, not worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Surely we can do better than that. IMHO we damn well should.


Ok. Re cardboard etc. When addressing people's misconceptions about this sort of thing, it's probably best just to keep it plain and straightforward. Know your audience.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

I would be interested in knowing whether the Mental Health aspect of the individuals were noted in this study. If so, how many had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and other disorders which (I believe) could influence their view (something they previously wouldn't have found inspirational suddenly could make sense for that reason). Also as mental health problems can affect individuals memory, reaction and have many other negative impacts on a person, I wonder if this was taken in to account during this study to make sure that they did not have more people suffering from Mental Health problems, than not. Also as drug use can distort views on what can be seen as being an 'inspirational quote' was everyone taking part tested for recreational drug use? It would be interesting to see how many of the people that were inclined to go for the b*llshit had been diagnosed and undergoing treatment for the above disorders which could affect their thinking and often logic. I am genuinely interested in your opinion on whether you believe these issues could make a difference in the results. I have an interest on how depression affects the mind, for my own personal reasons and is not something I have ever studied academically, its just something that occurred to me and I thought I'd ask. So please be nice!

Liz, I think those are probably important factors. They were not addressed in the study, but methods were used that excluded some study participants who may have fallen into one or another mental health related category. Click on the link in the post to see the actual study, and check the methods sections for each survey. You might find it interesting.

If only you knew:

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions..."

"Sokal reasoned that, if the presumption of editorial laziness was correct, the nonsensical content of his article would be irrelevant to whether the editors would publish it. What would matter would be ideologic obsequiousness, fawning references to deconstructionist writers, and sufficient quantities of the appropriate jargon..."

"The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[3][4] On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense ... structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics..."

" 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity' proposed that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the 'morphogenetic field' could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity (a morphogenetic field is a concept proposed by Rupert Sheldrake that Sokal characterized in the affair's aftermath as 'a bizarre New Age idea').[2] Sokal wrote that the concept of 'an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being' was 'dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook'..."

"My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. . . . There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.[4]"

By cosmicomics (not verified) on 04 Dec 2015 #permalink