On skepticism, pseudo-profundity, Deepak Chopra, and bullshit

Of all the slick woo peddlers out there, one of the most famous (and most annoying) is Deepak Chopra. Indeed, he first attracted a bit of not-so-Respectful Insolence a mere 10 months after this blog started, when Chopra produced the first of many rants against nasty "skeptics" like me that I've deconstructed over the years. Eventually, the nonsensical nature of his pseudo-profound blatherings inspired me to coin a term to describe it: Choprawoo. Unfortunately, far too many people find Deepak Chopra's combination of mystical sounding pseudo-profundity, his invocation of "cosmic consciousness" and rejection of genetic determinism, and his advocacy of "integrating" all manner of quackery into real medicine (a.k.a. "integrative medicine, formerly "complementary and alternative medicine," or CAM) to the point of getting actual legitimate medical school faculty to assist him with an actual clinical trial compelling. He is, alas, one of the most influential woo peddlers out there. Worse, he was once a legitimate MD; now he's a quack. Indeed, as I've described before, of all the quacks and cranks and purveyors of woo whom I’ve encountered over the years, Deepak Chopra is, without a doubt, one of the most arrogantly obstinate, if not the most arrogantly obstinate. Right now he's pushing his latest book, Supergenes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being, which asserts that you can control the activity of your genes.

So it was greatly amusing to me to see Deepak Chopra and his pseudo-profound bullshit (and I use the term because the source I'm about to look at uses the term) featured so prominently in a new study by Pennycook et al entitled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. The study was performed at the Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, and the School of Humanities and Creativity, Sheridan College. Indeed, Deepak Chopra's pseudo-profound bullshit is a key component of the study. I love the way the abstract starts, too:

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.

First, what do the authors mean by pseudo-profound bullshit? I might as well quote their definition in full, even at the risk of a large block of quoted text:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Consider the following 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. The bullshit statement is not merely non- sense, as would also be true of the following, which is not bullshit:

Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract.

The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate something. Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker... [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.” Our focus, however, is somewhat different from what is found in the philosophy of bullshit and related phenomena (e.g., Black, 1983; Buekens & Boudry, 2015; Frankfurt; 2005). Whereas philosophers have been primarily concerned with the goals and intentions of the bullshitter, we are interested in the factors that pre- dispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee. Moreover, this sort of bullshit – which we refer to here as pseudo-profound bullshit – may be one of many different types. We focus on pseudo-profound bullshit because it rep- resents a rather extreme point on what could be considered a spectrum of bullshit. We can say quite confidently that the above example (a) is bullshit, but one might also label an exaggerated story told over drinks to be bullshit. In future studies on bullshit, it will be important to define the type of bullshit under investigation (see Discussion for further comment on this issue).

This is about as fantastic an introduction to a scientific paper as I've ever seen. It also defines a form of BS at whose production Deepak Chopra is expert at. But how does one measure the inherent "BS-ness" of a statement? The way the authors did this was absolutely hilarious. Some of you might be aware of a website, The Wisdom of Chopra, which is a random Deepak Chopra quote generator. As the generator tells us, each "quote" is generated from a list of words that can be found in Deepak Chopra's Twitter stream randomly stuck together in a sentence. This was one source of raw material for the authors. The other was the New Age Bullshit Generator, which was also inspired by Deepak Chopra and works on similar principles, but uses a list of profound-sounding words compiled by its creator, Seb Pearce. Examples include sentences like “Imagination is inside expo- nential space time events” and “We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself.” These sites were used to produce ten meaningless sentences.

Next, Waterloo University undergraduate students were asked to rate the sentences using the following 5-point scale: 1= Not at all profound, 2 = somewhat profound, 3 = fairly profound, 4 = definitely profound, 5 = very profound. Before the study started, the same students answered demographic questions and completed five cognitive tasks intended to assess components of cognitive ability. They also answered questions designed to assess religious beliefs. These students rated the ten meaningless pseudo-profound statements. This first study was to assess the BS potential of the statements and validate the internal consistency of the measures, specifically the new measure, dubbed the "Bullshit Receptivity" (BSR) scale, which had good internal consistency. Basically, the higher the BSR values attributed to these statements, the higher the, well, receptivity to BS demonstrated by the subject. The authors found that BSR was "strongly negatively correlated with each cognitive measure except for numeracy (which was nonetheless significant)" and that "both ontological confusions and religious belief were positively correlated with bullshit receptivity."

The next study looked at some real world examples. Participants were recruited for pay from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. In addition to the ten meaningless statements used in the above study, ten novel items were generated by the two websites, and the authors also obtained 10 items from Deepak Chopra's Twitter feed; e.g.:

Subjects were also assessed by additional instruments, such as the Paranormal Belief Scale and measures of wealth distribution and ideology. In contrast to the first study, participants evaluated the meaningless statements before completing the cognitive tasks, and the items from Chopra's TWitter feed folowed directly after the meaningless statements. This time around, Chopra's Twitter items were rated as slightly more "profound" than the nonsense items, but the mean ratings for the two scales were very correlated. It also turned out that the BSR scale significantly correlated with each variable tested, except for the Need for Cognition. Specifically, BSR was negatively correlated with performance on the heuristics and biases battery and positively correlated with Faith in Intuition. As in the first study, cognitive ability measures were negatively correlated with BSR.

Finally, in the remaining two studies included in this paper, the authors wanted to test whether some people might be particularly sensitive to pseudo-profound BS because they are less capable of detecting conflict during reasoning. Basically, they wanted to try to get some insight into why some people are particularly prone to pseudo-profound BS and others aren particularly resistant to it. To test this, they did more studies in which they created a scale using ten motivational quotations that are conventionally considered to be profound (e.g., “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence”) because they are written in plain language and don't contain the vague buzzwords characteristic of statements in the first two studies. They also included mundane statements that had clear meaning but wouldn't be considered "profound" (e.g., “Most people enjoy some sort of music”). They then compared the correlations they found before.

They found that 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 and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)." The authors also assessed the same correlations using a measure of sensitivity to pseudo-profound BS determined by computing a difference score between profundity ratings for pseudo-profound BS and legitimately meaningful motivational quotations. Thus, people who rated the truly profound statements a lot higher than the pseudo-profound BS will have higher scores in this measure, which the authors propose as an estimate of how sensitive an individuals "bullshit detector" is. They found that BS sensitivity was associated with better performance on mesures of analytic thinking and lower paranormal belief. It was not, however, correlated with increased conspiratorial ideation or acceptance of CAM, which surprised the authors, who noted:

This was not predicted as all three forms of belief are considered “epistemically suspect” (e.g., Pennycook, et al., in press). One possible explanation for this divergence is that supernatural beliefs are a unique subclass because they entail a conflict between some immaterial claim and (presumably universal) intuitive folk concepts (Atran & Norenza- yan, 2004). For example, the belief in ghosts conflicts with folk-mechanics – that is intuitive belief that objects cannot pass through solid objects (Boyer, 1994). Pennycook et al. (2014) found that degree of belief in supernatural religious claims (e.g., angels, demons) is negatively correlated with conflict detection effects in a reasoning paradigm. This result suggests that the particularly robust association be- tween pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity and supernatural beliefs may be because both response bias and conflict detection (sensitivity) support both factors.

The authors make a point about different kinds of open-minded thinking, an uncritical open mind versus a more reflective open mind:

As a secondary point, it is worthwhile to distinguish uncritical or reflexive open-mindedness from thoughtful or reflective open-mindedness. Whereas reflexive open- mindedness results from an intuitive mindset that is very accepting of information without very much processing, re- flective open-mindedness (or active open-mindedness; e.g., Baron, Scott, Fincher & Metz, 2014) results from a mindset that searches for information as a means to facilitate critical analysis and reflection. Thus, the former should cause one to be more receptive of bullshit whereas the latter, much like analytic cognitive style, should guard against it.

Overall, the authors have made a significant contribution by coming up with their Bullshit Receptivity scale and Bullshit Sensitivity scale, but it is not without its limitations. For one thing, the authors focused on very brief statements, generally less than Twitter-length, which limits the statements to 140 characters. It isn't clear whether these results can be generalized to what the authors refer to as more "conversational" BS, which can be quite different than that of pseudo-profound BS. More importantly, this is preliminary work. The scales used contained relatively few items, and there was arguably way too much focus on one person's work or pseudo-profound BS inspired by one person: Deepak Chopra. While it's true that he is fantastically skilled at coming up with such seemingly profound but vacuous statements and is probably the most famous person doing it, Chopra is just one person. Surely there are so many more examples that could have been mined.

Despite these differences, I think this study is an interesting, albeit flawed, first step at elucidating what factors contribute to receptivity and resistance to BS. As the authors put it:

The construction of a reliable index of bullshit receptivity is an important first step toward gaining a better understand- ing of the underlying cognitive and social mechanisms that determine if and when bullshit is detected. Our bullshit re- ceptivity scale was associated with a relatively wide range of important psychological factors. This is a valuable first step toward gaining a better understanding of the psychology of bullshit. The development of interventions and strategies that help individuals guard against bullshit is an important additional goal that requires considerable attention from cognitive and social psychologists. That people vary in their receptivity toward bullshit is perhaps less surprising than the fact that psychological scientists have heretofore neglected this issue. Accordingly, although this manuscript may not be truly profound, it is indeed meaningful.

I tell ya, social scientists are far more tolerant of self-deprecating humor than biomedical scientists are. There's no way a statement like the last sentence would make it into a basic or clinical science paper.

Be that as it may, this study seems to confirm much that is instinctively known (or at least has been assumed): analytic thinking probably decreases susceptibility to BS; paranormal beliefs go hand-in-hand with such susceptibility. It also tells us that susceptibility to nonsense is quite widespread in the population, who tend to be far more easily persuaded by emotional, vague, seemingly "profound" appeals than they are by data, science, and evidence. The question that a study of this type always raises, of course, is whether correlation indicates causation in this case. Can deficiencies in analytic thinking and reasoning be remedied to decrease one's susceptibility to BS, and if so what is the best way to go about this?

These are the sorts of questions skeptics have been asking for a long time. They are questions with real world consequences, because BS is everywhere.

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Another example of psuedo-profound BS is a game invented by philosopher Julian Baggini - Zizuku. It involves taking a mundane and true statement and reversing cause and effect. The example I remember best is "If there were no antisemites, there would be no Jews." At first glance it looks profound, but closer looking reveals it for the nonsense it is.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 01 Dec 2015 #permalink

What do you think of this guy?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRFveea3khg

This video appeared on a non-believers site, the guy was recently featured in Smithsonian magazine. Then about half-way through the video he says his co-author is .... Deepak Chopra???HUH?

I think that any people with limited intellectual capacity tend to confuse form with substance. It is very common in biomedical science where fashionable technics and words become the criteria of judgement. It was also true when doctors spoke in Latin.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 01 Dec 2015 #permalink

Marketing, marketing, marketing. It looks to me like promotion by association. Besides, mind over genes is right up Chopra's alley.

By Lighthorse (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Great paper and the results tally with my personal observations of the woo prone. Most of them run workshops of one kind or another and trying to decipher what they actually teach from the descriptions they provide is like trying to unscramble an egg.

One of the worst offenders in my circle actually posted a link to the Deepak Chopra random quote generator as though it was somehow a good thing that Chopra remixed made about as much sense as original Chopra.

I took a linguistics course many, many years ago. We analyzed speeches for substance. Remarkable how little is actually said in some discourse.

Unfortunately, the study was heavily unbalanced for gender, with far more female (n= 222) compared to male undergraduate students (n=58). Still, it's a great start and bound to lead to further investigations. Between the study and the New Age Bullshit Generator, to say nothing of the Chopra-like statement generator, Christmas has come early. Now, if I can just find John Cleese's address, I'll be bringing it to his attention.

*My post above was meant for Daniel Corcos #3.

By Lighthorse (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Chopra is the, as far as I can tell, simply the greatest bullshitter alive. I suppose that deserves some kind of respect.

Possibly because of ethnicity, I'm afraid, I often think of Dinesh D'Souza (aka "Distort D'Newsa") as Chopra's evil twin.

By palindrom (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Is it possible that mentioning the subject of the article immediately kicks a comment into moderation? Here's a bowdlerized version of one I just submitted, but which waits in the queue:

Chopra is the, as far as I can tell, simply the greatest bee-yessir alive. I suppose that deserves some kind of respect.

Possibly because of ethnicity, I’m afraid, I often think of Dinesh D’Souza (aka “Distort D’Newsa”) as Chopra’s evil twin.

By palindrom (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

@ MikeMa

I took a linguistics course many, many years ago. We analyzed speeches for substance. Remarkable how little is actually said in some discourse.

Isaac Asimov wrote a scene in the first book of the Foundation series where the speech of a diplomat was computer-analyzed by the Foundation's psychohistory scientists. They were a bit sorry to report that his nice speech was free of actual content.

I suspect Asimov would have been positively delighted reading this study on pseudo-profundity. His writings left me the feelings he was a dedicated champion of science over fuzzy thinking.

By Helianthus (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Oh boy! Perhaps I can take it a step further.... let me see..

Production of profound-sounding BS requires particular cognitive abilities which involve verbal skill, abstraction and person perception in order to effectively scam others.

Chopra is apparently gifted in these capacities and in addition, has the advantage of a multi-cultural perspective- the West and Exotic India- which can be used to obfuscate material to those with a purely monocultural outlook ( either culture) with quasi-religious notions from the other system.

In my own travels, I have become very well acquainted with inferior BS which is pseudo-profound as well but on a much lower level based upon the decreased abilities of its perpetrators.

Occasionally, instead of quasi religious notions ( QRN) they will substitute misunderstood scientific concepts- which function as redeeming saviours- or generic floaty notions (GFN) such as spirit, soul, vibrations and gratefulness. Of course I'm referring to Teresa Conrick- who finds the universe in the microbiome and Gary Null ; their audiences most likely mirror their lower abilities. Thus, I'd rate them as one sd lower and 2 lower respectively compared with Chopra.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

@Helianthus,
I remember that story. Might have to reread the trilogy to refresh the Harry Seldon stuff.

As part of the linguistics course, we analyzed some stock speeches from Kennedy, Hitler and others. Hitler was fascinating as the there was no substance whatever, at least for the assigned sections the professor gave us.

As part of the linguistics course, we analyzed some stock speeches from Kennedy, Hitler and others. Hitler was fascinating as the there was no substance whatever, at least for the assigned sections the professor gave us.

Out of curiosity, I once started reading the English translation of his autobiography (not mentioned so as not to trip the filters). I couldn't even get 30 pages in. He was a terrible, disorganised thinker.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Part of the problem with the sciency-sounding woo is of course that a relatively small number of folks understand what the terms being deployed actually mean. RationalWiki has a fine article on one aspect of this, which is about the "Igon Value Problem".

Mathematically-trained readers will already find this hilariously funny; others can read the short article to see what the fuss is about.

By palindrom (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Sorry folks, but I think the study is an embarrassment and it will backfire spectacularly.

As Orac noted, it was far too focused on one target, that being Chopra. The very fact that the target was so damn "easy" makes the conclusions weak ("look what a great marksman I am, I can shoot a rifle and hit the side of a barn at 100 feet!"). It also threw in a gratuitous jab at religious believers in general, via the stereotype that they're basically stupid (try doing that about race and see where it gets us).

That makes it equivalent to a study done by members of one political party about the BS spouted by the other political party: easily dismissed as being nothing more than ideological rhetoric dressed up with numbers. In other words, more pseudo-profound bullshit (PPBS) itself. Self-congratulatory triumphalist PPBS with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

It frankly infuriates me because it could have been done so much better and would have stood up. As it is, a best it's an inside joke, and at worst it will be usable by Chopra to claim he's being singled-out and persecuted. Sheesh!

The real goldmine for PPBS is popular music. Just listen to the way teenagers and 20-somethings quote the lyrics as if they're quoting scripture.

But to be thorough, we should also look at songs from other eras as well, and no doubt there'll be much PPBS there, much of it in the form of subtle "adult" innuendo.

For that matter also look at film and television. Most of us here have a positive view of the Star Trek TV series (plural), and yet they're chock-full of examples.

It would also be interesting to disentangle pure PPBS from its verbal component, which could be done by looking at reactions to purely instrumental music, including classical music that's generally considered "profound," and including paintings (both portraits and landscapes).

Those kinds of studies would provide an objective basis for concluding that PPBS is real and that people who believe it do so earnestly.

That conclusion could be used rhetorically against Deepak and other woomeisters and their followers, and it would be fair game to do so. And, they couldn't claim they were being witch-hunted by mean people with grudges.

But the present study is not that. It's frankly crap.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

I'm just gunna put it thought there that if as the creators of this study, this article, and as the readers of it, if we are stupid enough to think that meaning is only derived in language from the person who speaks we're idiots. Meaning is both in the intention behind the person who speaks, and in the judgements behind the person who hears. Not one or the other. What you could hear as having no "substance" at all, is simply a judgement based on your pre-conceived notions of what that means.

I am by no way saying we should all listen to Chopra, but a study cannot be done on "what has substance?". Who is anybody to say what substance is, and thus what has it and what doesn't. It's not that simple.

By Ian Terry (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Whilst reading this, the long-ago physicist in me thought about the branch of applied mathematics called Information Theory (pioneered by Claude Shannon of Bell Labs in the 1940s). It was designed to look at communication of data over noisy channels, including the entropy of a messsage (where less entropy = more efficient transmission of message with least amount of overhead). B*llsh***, could be viewed as maximum entropy (ie no information conveyed), which is also true in a biological sense in that what the bull eats is of lower entropy then what it excretes. It may be that as computational linguistics accelerates in its ability to parse language, we may be able to run a true information theory analysis on what any expert in a field says. That's my 2 bit's worth.

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Who is anybody to say what substance is, and thus what has it and what doesn’t. It’s not that simple.

Uh, this statement sounds like one that could have been included in the study.

Seriously, though. Words mean things, and, although it's hard to quantify "substance," lack of substance can certainly be identified. It's not as though linguists haven't been doing that for a long time.

I really want to like this study for a couple of reasons, the least of which is that Mr. Delphine is a Waterloo grad. I can't stand Deepak Chopra. That said, I tell ya, social scientists are far more tolerant of self-deprecating humor than biomedical scientists are. There’s no way a statement like the last sentence would make it into a basic or clinical science paper. this pretty much sums up a lot of why I don't, plus it gives off more than a whiff of sneering condescension and smug look-at-me-aren't-we-smart.

Going after Chopra in this manner is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. There's plenty of material, and as Gray Falcon noted, this could have been done a whole lot better.

Funny, I said the same thing, although I still think the study is worthwhile even with its flaws:

Overall, the authors have made a significant contribution by coming up with their Bullshit Receptivity scale and Bullshit Sensitivity scale, but it is not without its limitations. For one thing, the authors focused on very brief statements, generally less than Twitter-length, which limits the statements to 140 characters. It isn’t clear whether these results can be generalized to what the authors refer to as more “conversational” BS, which can be quite different than that of pseudo-profound BS. More importantly, this is preliminary work. The scales used contained relatively few items, and there was arguably way too much focus on one person’s work or pseudo-profound BS inspired by one person: Deepak Chopra. While it’s true that he is fantastically skilled at coming up with such seemingly profound but vacuous statements and is probably the most famous person doing it, Chopra is just one person. Surely there are so many more examples that could have been mined.

:-)

Marianne Williamson @marwilliamson Nov 24
If in a troubled relationship with someone, pray for their happiness 5 minutes a day for 30 days. By then they'll change - or you won't care

So basically what you're saying, Marianne, is that you're an asshole.

Julian Frost: "Out of curiosity, I once started reading the English translation of his autobiography (not mentioned so as not to trip the filters). I couldn’t even get 30 pages in. He was a terrible, disorganised thinker."

One of my high schools had an English translation of Mein Kampf in its library. As a lark I checked it out. During lunch I read out many passages to my friends, and we all laughed at its idiocy and paranoia.

Like you, I could not read much of it at a time. I just flipped through the pages and read a random passage. That was over forty years ago, and I cannot even remember what they said... just the reactions.

Chopra's sort of nonsense will only become more popular as marijuana is gradually legalized.

By Acebojangles (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

One of the things I found interesting about the study was that one of their randomly generated sentences actually was profound, sort of:

The future explains irrational facts.

This could easily be interpreted in the same vein as some well-known aphorisms like "Age begets wisdom".

I wonder if the authors vetted their random statements for accidental meaning. Somewhere, an infinite number of monkeys are typing away.

By Dan Welch (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

The future explains irrational facts.

That is not a given. Irrational facts (although are they really a fact if their irrational?) can proliferate in a future where no one is vetting them. And for whom is it explaining them? Only those who look for the answers is my take.

This statement makes for great navel-gazing discussion at the coffee shop but it's not profound.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Similar to Dan Welch, I thought that the authors fail to account for the ability of people to import meaning into pseudo-profound statements (a sort of verbal Rorschach test, perhaps?) For example, I found one of the genuine Chopra twitters, "Intention and attention are the mechanics of manifestation," to be both true and meaningful, though the meaning I derive from it is probably the exact opposite of what Chopra intended. It sounds like a variation of the popular New Age belief (a la "The Secret") that your thoughts (intention and attention) can cause things to happen in the real world (manifestation.) Usually my response to this sort of thing is something along the lines of "of course your emotions, desires, fears, etc., have an impact on the real world - because they have such a powerful effect on your actions. The problem, of course, is that Chopra et al tend to leave that part out, partly because its difficult, of course, but more importantly, I suspect, because it's boring: there's nothing esoteric or magical about making things happen with plain old hard work.

Actually, I found the most interesting part of this post to be the distinction between "reflexive" vs "reflective" open-mindedness. That seems like a more thoughful and informative response to people who accuse skeptics of being "close-minded" than the old saying about being so open minded your brains fall out.

"Attention & intention are the mechanics of manifestation"

To be fair to Chopra, that's obfuscated, but it's not bullshit in the sense of meaninglessness.

"Attention and intention" - noticing stuff and wanting to do stuff.

"Mechanics of manifestation" - the way you make something happen.

That one's in the "legitimately meaningful inspirational quotation" bin, though it's so anodyne in its actual meaning as to not be very inspiring.

"...although are they really a fact if they are irrational?"

Typing too fast and not paying attention.

Sarah A,

I think the ability of people to impart meaning is one of the ploys the profoundly fuzzy speakers use to sound intellectually profound. If you don't know what they mean by what they say and you create it to match what you believe then aren't you more likely to impart importance to what they say about other things? Rhetorical question only and merely speculative on my part but I have seen great speakers who have a lot of charisma by always being elusive about what they really mean. Politicians mostly but there was a game going around in business circles called "Bullshit Bingo" that we used to play during conference calls and CEO meetings.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

re Deepak's, Marianne's and others' proclivity to utilise 'profoundness' as an aid to obfuscation:

we know that kids' development ( usually) includes a leap from the purely concrete to more abstract concepts/ language as they become adolescents ( i.e. formal operations) so it makes sense that woo-slingers would imitate development by tossing about more abstract terms.

Why be down to earth when you can float around in the atmosphere? Also, material of this nature is more vague and difficult to pin down, subject to multiple interpretations- indeed as mentioned above- it can be a Rorschach.

Unfortunately, I am often witness to such drivel courtesy of prn.fm. Energy, spirit, love and myriad other buzzwords abound whereas Mikey just attributes the *ne plus ultra* to the Creator.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Surely you and the authors of the paper have missed the point. The Chopra generators, although seemingly created as japes, are in reality, and like Chopra himself, the cosmos showing us the deep, meaningful knowledge available to all of human kind. If only we would open ourselves to it, we would find the understanding that the universe itself has for us and would become aware of the transcendent, spiritual gestalt of which we are already a part. Obviously, the subjects who saw the profundity of the statements were not poor at BS detection, but in better touch with the unconscious spirit permeating the universal being. Furthermore, Chopra is . . . uh. My train of thought seems to have gone off the rails.

This stuff. The words. The muddled meanings. Good times, good times. *sigh*

This kind of woo made up way to much of my day, because nothing brings woo to the table like a birth plan. Gods sakes but some really imaginative stuff suddenly comes to the table when a baby is due. I'd like a dollar for each out-there birth plan I've had to wrestle into submission. In full disclosure my background is as an ICU nurse who eventually went into high risk obstetrics. Pregnant women need chest tubes sometimes, too, and all that. The woo didn't really enter the picture there. It was when I covered the "normal" births that it reared its pseudoscientific head. I felt like a large bit of my time was drawing boundaries for well meaning but less than critical thinkers.

No. I can't promise that your baby will be born into a completely silent room so that the universe and cosmic forces can move more freely. Alas.

No, I am not going to catch your baby in a dark room. The attending physicians won't, either. It's better for all involved if I can see things. Like your body. And my own hands. Same for the doctor.

No. No we can't promise that the staff won't use the words 'pain', 'blood', or 'surgery' in the birth room.

....Why? Because if there is bleeding that requires surgical intervention I am going to alert my coworkers to that fact and I'd really rather not do it by means of pantomime and pictionary..

I'm fine with your doula playing the chimes/crystals/bowl from Tibet but not in my ear and not over my sterile field. Never over the sterile field. Ever. Or on your abdomen. Or your nether regions. All of that is spoken for in the birthing process and the uterus makes no allowances for singing bowls when it's expelling a human being or two. Crazy, I know.

And so on and so forth.

I'm not perhaps the very best at seeing the other side of the equation really. My training was based on facts and science and a constant reevaluation of the patient, and the factors influencing outcome and well being. I'm kinda busy when I'm at work and trying to juggle woo is not my favorite pastime even when things are going swimmingly. The advent of woo based pseudoscience has been a pain, and a dangerous one because it transfers focus from real threats and complications and places weight where no discernible threat exists. It puts me at odds with a portion of the patient population and their ideas concerning good patient care. Having a father tell you later that they wished you hadn't rung the alarm and disrupted the sacred birthing space is blink worthy. Hey, sorry sacred space, but baby was not happy and thus, NICU was called, just as it's always going to be called if baby isn't happy. That's my "universal experience of holistic and awareness based reality and manifestation of educated intent" and I'm stickin' to it.

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: Uhhh....not necessarily.

@JGC - Ooh, that reminds me of a story from Terry Pratchet's Thief of Time:

In the Second Scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised, a story is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool, in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly:

“Master, what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?”

Wen considered this for some time, and at last said: “A fish!”

And Clodpool went away, satisfied.

It is very common in biomedical science where fashionable technics and words become the criteria of judgement.

Not just the biomedical sciences, but in just about every human endeavor. I'm sure you've heard of buzzword bingo. There is a reason that game exists. When I write proposals, they have to be suitably buzzword-compliant, and that's only a necessary condition, not sufficient. If a NASA panel calls your proposal "interesting", that's a kiss of death (there's another code word you would rather that they use in your case).

It's been with us for a long time, too. George Orwell wrote a famous essay on the subject, and it's only gotten worse since then.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Off current blog topic, but found this little gem on Not-so-TMR. Thought you might find it fresh blogging fodder.....as if you need any! Check out the first post, 'Preparing to Vaccinate'. Because, you know, it's like arming for battle.
http://journeyboost.com/

Hey, sorry sacred space, but baby was not happy and thus, NICU was called, just as it’s always going to be called if baby isn’t happy.

Silly Lauren - it's not about the baby, it's about the mother having an uplifting, spiritual experience that she can brag about on Mothering.com to prove how enlightened she is. The health and well-being of the baby is a purely secondary consideration.

"I think the ability of people to impart meaning is one of the ploys the profoundly fuzzy speakers use to sound intellectually profound."

Horoscopes.

am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic?

[Mr. Furious tries to balance a hammer on his head]
Mr. Furious: Why am I doing this, again?

The Sphinx: When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack.

Mr. Furious: And why am I wearing the watermelon on my feet?

The Sphinx: [looks at the watermelon on Mr. Furious' feet] I don't remember telling you to do that.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

The values pi and e are irrational facts. I cannot say whether the future will explain them.

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

The values pi and e are irrational facts.
They are also transcendent facts, so the future will embrace them.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Lauren - do you have the machine that goes ping?

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

They are also transcendent facts
I shall attempt to transcend dental medication.

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

Indeed, for the machines that ping are ever so useful, why, do'ya need to lease one?

If not, would you like to get a good deal on some Tibetan singing bowls that will realign your vibrational colors to their most ultra state of wellness?

And Sarah A,

I've sadly felt a bit like that at times. I try and attribute it to cheery ignorance and not willful ignorance on the part of patients. I'm aware that being from a critical care background I'm 'different'. DIC and compartment syndrome are out of the range of the normal and the probable for just about every person on the planet (and that's good). For me they are not weird or something unheard of, let's face it with the icu no one is there for anything fun. I do know with that background I am way way over in left field when discussing risk awareness. Totally willing to admit my ideas are not most people's ideas when it comes to the debating of what ifs and medical worries. I'm trained to be watchful, but it made me a good sentry. I'm not lax, but calmly assessing, always, I swear the monitors are an extension of me, ping and all, in a good way, I think.

However...

As you put it so succinctly, woo seems to alter the vision of what medical care should not only look and feel like, but gear itself around. Of course I want people to have a good experience but my idea of what's good is 'hey nobody is worse for this or trending downward, checking vitals again, in fact we seem to be on a great trajectory, but let's look over the labs and another vitals check, so lemme stay vigilant here, what's the baby looking like, double checking mom again, and steady as she goes'. Someone's ability to blog about it never factored into my training... :/ I dare say I'm boring to write about. "And then she massaged my uterus and saw I wasn't hemorrhaging so we then discussed proper latch on and she took my baby's temp."

Not really a page turner, hm?

Mephistopheles -- PDQ Bach, inspired by the experience of anesthesia while undergoing a tooth extraction, wrote the "Trance and Dental Etudes". He also wrote a piano piece called "Traumarei", and an opera called "The Civilian Barber".

His chronicler Dr. Peter Schickele, of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, explored PDQ Bach's legend and legacy in a University Seminar, entitled "Originality Through Incompetence".

[PDQ is, of course, a creation of Schickele's. Schickele himself has written a lot of fine music, and his compositions attributed to PDQ Bach are, aside from their comic value, actually very good as well.]

By palindrom (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

palindrom - P.D.Q. Bach? You mean the las and least of J. S. Bach's twenty-odd children (as well as the oddest)? The composer of Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice? The man who Franz Schubert had just heard of when he wrote in his magazine, "hats back on, gentlemen, an idiot"? Never heard of him.

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

This is for Helianthus. A favorite Asimov quote:

"There seems to be a rule that the more foolish the assertion, the more ardently people will believe it."

By Steven St. John (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

I appreciate irreverance and entertainment value in a scholarly paper, but as usual 'social science' isn't science, and this study is particularly awful. It would take me more words to detail the failings of this study than the authors used in the journal article, so I'll just note the first thing that struck me:

The author refer to the test statements in the first study as "meaningless" yet offer no theory of "meaning" and make no references to scholarly work on how "meaning" works. The ten test sentences are simply assumed to be "meaningless" because they "have syntactic structure but consist of a series of randomly selected vague buzzwords." However, with the Chopra generator, for example, the relatively small size of the vocabulary base, and the algorithm for valid syntax, will sometimes combine to assemble vague buzzwords into statements that aren't meaningless at all, but rather 'polysemic' or 'open texts' – that is, depending on what readers bring to the table, they can mean several different things. A statement that lacks one precise meaning is hardly empty of meaning.

Take their exemplar sentence: "Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty". My first thought in reading it is that it's bad prose. The use of "unparalleled" sticks out as over-narrowing what is otherwise a broad proposition. So, were I to be told this was written by a human being, I'd assume the author lacked verbal skill, assume meaning was intended, guess that "unparalleled" was just bad usage, assume that "great" was more like what the writer was going for, and attempt to make sense of the sentence with that correction in mind. At that point, the claim is vague, as it doesn't explain what a 'hidden' meaning is, or how beauty is transformed: e.g. is it diminished or enriched?

Since I know some things about abstract art, I immediately think of examples of both such 'tranformations' – abstract works that tend have different aesthetic effects when encountered in 'innocence' than they do if you know the story behind them. Here is an abstract expressionist animated film (silent, 110 seconds long):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-rACt6IX5c

Please take a look, and form an impression based simply on what you see. In a subsequent post I'll suggest a 'hidden meaning' (which may be 'authentic' or one I've made up). The test will be if/how 'transforms' the degree of beauty you find in the work in any direction.

In the study, none of the statements are given any context whatsoever. Several of them strike me as the kind of claims that would actually make sense in some context that has defined the terms being used, and given examples for which the claims are some sort of summary conclusion, though not to be taken literally, but allowing for 'poetic license'.

There are no controls whatsoever applied in the research design. For example, it's one thing if the subjects did actually find the statements meaningful, and another if they rated them as 'profound' without having formed any understanding of what they might be expressing. Look at the 'priming' in the instructions given to the subjects:

We are interested in how people experience the
profound. Below are a series of statements taken from relevant websites. Please read each statement and take a moment to think about what it might mean. Then please rate how “profound” you think it is. Profound means “of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance.

Thus, the subjects are led to believe that the statements were authored by human beings, and appeared on sites relevant to 'experiencing the profound'. They are directed to think about meaning – encouraged to 'read in' if you will. They are asked to rate the level of profundity on a Likert scale – all of which would lead them to assume the researchers have selected the statements for being to some measure profound, and are interested in ranking them. Given the institutional framework, the effect of assumed researcher authority, observation effects, etc., we don't know whether the score any individual subject assigned to a statement reflected whether they personally found the statement profound, or whether it reflected a judgement of 'this is the kind of statement to which profundity is generally attributed by people who are smarter than I am'.

I could go on to many other errors, but the priming alone completely bolluxes the validity of the research design.

If there's a valid experiment in BS detection here, the journal article is the test material, it's readers are the test subjects, and the measure would be what percentage of them recognize the study as a joke dressed up in the lingo of science, vs. the percentage that take the 'findings' as useful and significant because they conform to their conformation biases.

P.D.Q. was not only the last and least of the Bach kiddies, but got worse as he went along, his later efforts failing to match the twisted genius of "Concerto for Horn and Hardart."

I just really liked seeing the word bullsh*t so many times in a scientific paper.

By Katatonic (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

It reminds me of a cultural anthropology paper that was on my reading list at university, that I have probably mentioned here before: "F*cking Tourists: Sexual Relations and Tourism in Jerusalem". I like the double entendre, having seen first hand the ambivalent relationship between tourists and locals in Egypt.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

It seems that profanity in a URL triggers the moderation censor. Good to know.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

MOB & HDB,

Live and learn?

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

JGC @34 and hdb @40, I also enjoyed "Mystery Men". Ben Stiller does comic rage surprisingly well.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

I perfectly agree with Sadmar. We should question ourselves about the fact that a flawed experimental study published in a journal looks more "scientific" to some people than the simple and obvious statement "People with limited intellectual capacity tend to confuse form with substance". There would be some new information if the results had shown the opposite, but actually it does not, and only indicates that the readers convinced that this paper is good science have limited intellectual capacity.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

Chris Hickle @ 17: Ha! I like that information-theoretic approach. Calculate the entropy of the statements. Though, we should be careful when dealing with idiomatic usage because it's actually much more compact and information-dense than the literal connotations of the words would imply.

---

Re. Acebojangles @ 25: Yes, I agree, as pot is legalized, Chopra will become more popular. As a source of humor and jokes.

"Man am I high! Hey check out what's on this website: 'The is-ness of the was-ness is the source of the true energy of being....'"

"Haahaaaheeeheee, oh stop you're killing me!, heeheehaahaa...."

If you want to jump-start the trend, go reserve DeepAck.com, and as a logo, use the classic comic strip picture of Bill the Cat going "Aaack!" Install a "random quote finder" function that pulls sentences from Chopra, Mikey the Health stRanger, Age of Autism, and various homeopaths and suchlike. Have it also pull quotes from popular song lyrics, political speeches, and advertising.

Include a "MadLibs" function that asks people for words and then plugs the into actual quotes: "The is-ness of the _cows_ is the source of all _polka-dotted_ energy of _drinking milkshakes_..."

And then take ads from pot-related businesses in states where it's legal.

You will make a pile of money, and the site will do more to demolish quacks than a new set of FDA regulations or smug papers by social scientists with smug attitudes. "Funny wins over smug every time," and that statement is truly profound;-)

---

Not A Troll @ 30: Please say more about "BS Bingo," I think it would make a fantastic exercise to use against woomeisters and quacks. And of course against self-absorbed manager types, per the original intent. The more we get people into the habit of laughing at BS, the better, especially in election season.

---

Lauren @ 33, try this with difficult patients: "We consulted a Feng Shui master and (s/he) said that the optimum location for your Doula is over _here_ [away from the patient and sterile area] where we have set up a very comfortable chair and a table for her to perform rituals...." (I'm inclined to say that Feng Shui is acceptable as a system of aesthetics for architectural design when the architect is seeking Asian influences, but this isn't that.)

---

Sadmar @ 49: Excellent points, all of them.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 03 Dec 2015 #permalink

Excellent Sadmar. I was on the verge of calling bullshit on the study/paper - too many combinations of big, science-like words - my BS meter was heading towards eleven.

By M Double You (not verified) on 03 Dec 2015 #permalink

Gray Squirrel,

Nice way to revive the thread! It is too bad the research paper although funny, has its own issues. This is a subject I would love to see investigated. It runs rampant in the business world hence the meme of Bullshit Bingo aka Buzzword Bingo.

I really like the Bill the Cat idea. If not for copyrights, I think I would take that and run with it.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 03 Dec 2015 #permalink

For some reason I found the little twit from Chopra to be clever if not profound, "Attention & intention are the mechanics of manifestation" ....A manifestation is something made and mechanics are the tools while attention /intention is another way to say the 99% inspiration/perspiration meme. Perhaps I am reading too much into gibberish but I could believe the intent really was to reword the old metaphor.
I am surprised at myself because I am one of those who has habitually ridiculed Chopra for a very long time and for good reason being most of that he writes is just profound sounding hooey.

By Mike Callahan (not verified) on 04 Dec 2015 #permalink

The word manifestation does have a religious tone as in something virtual and not something real. I gave Chopra the benefit of the doubt that he was using the word to cite something real. I could be mistaken because citing something real is not Chopra's usual MO.

By Mike Callahan (not verified) on 04 Dec 2015 #permalink

Not A Troll @ 59: Thanks!, and Yes you can, here's how:

1) Start the site as something purely non-commercial. This enables you to legitimately claim "fair use" for one picture of Bill the Cat going "Aaaack!"

2) If the URL is already taken, try variations such as .net and .org and .us, and Deep-Ack with the hyphen, etc.

3) Under the cartoon put a note saying "see copyright info below," and in the note, a) credit to original artist, and b) ask original artist to contact you via email so you can ask about licensing that image for commercial use "if" you do anything commercial with the website such as taking advertising. That's a legit "if," because if you can't contact the artist, you still have the option of keeping it ad-free and not making money while demolishing quacks.

4) Don't rely on Google or its offspring for ad placement. Basically they suck, they don't pay nearly as much as individually-placed advertising, and they often run ads that are competitive with or otherwise detrimental to the sites on which they are placed. They also relentlessly spy on everyone who comes to your site, which is something that even legal pot smokers are highly wary of and may drive them away from your site.

5) Put up satire ads for MJ-related products and services, notably including pizza and Chinese food delivery services. That'll help get the ball rolling if you eventually take real ads.

6) Don't just chase Chopra: spread out and chase all of 'em, such as Mikey and the anti-vaxers and Food Babe. Anyone who's become a target of Orac and his scheming minions (ha) is fair game. If you're going to pursue the "pseudo-profound BS" angle, be sure to go after vacuous lyrics in popular music, vacuous lines in film, television, and political speeches.

If you manage to get a site up & running, by all means post the URL in an appropriate place in one of Orac's columns, I'm sure we'll all (and he too most likely) will want to come take a look.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 07 Dec 2015 #permalink

NaT:

Gray Squirrel is right that it's Fair Use, but that's never stopped rights holders from harassing people. But that costs $$, so whether your safe on Fair use or not, they leave you alone unless A) You're really hurting their pocketbook, B) You have deep pockets they can dip into, C) The original creator or heirs still have the rights and take your use as an ad hominem affront (see Michael Jackson / John Oswald).

I think GS is dead wrong about #6, though. The ore generic the frame, and the more multiple the points, the less the more the message sinks into the drone of media noise. The more specific the approach and more singular the message, the better it cuts through. You still could go after other sources of “pseudo-profound BS”, but the way to do that would be to connect them to Chopra: e.g. create parody conversations between Deep-aack and other BSers, or a 'Deep-aack's Diary' where 'he' comments on other public people or things he admires. As for Mike Adams and Food Babe, I don't see that their BS even pretends to profundity... so perhaps Deep-ack could write them 'open letters' of advice on how to dress up their woo in the garb of pseudo-philosophical brilliance.

Also, I'd advise not go Sokal and rip on actual philosophers – just because they're obtuse and discuss things in figurative terms doesn't make them BSers. If there's a community of smart, sensible folks who 'get' the work, if it sounds like BS to you, it's likely a comprehension/paradigm-difference issue. It's the folks whose faux-profundity fools 'the masses' that are truly talking out of their rear ends.

Hi Sadmar;-)

Re. #6: The problems with exclusively going after Chopra are:

1) Doing that gives him ample ground to claim that he's being singled-out, targeted, harassed, etc. That will backfire by making him the sympathetic character and making you the badguy or cyber-bully.

2) The goal isn't to drive Chopra screeching nuts, it's to reach undecideds and give them a skepticism vaccine. If you get painted as the badguy, you lose some of those undecideds.

3) As with the published paper on pseudo-profound BS, the appearance of being on some kind of partisan mission against one target will hurt your credibility.

4) A wider range of targets will reach a wider audience and draw them in. Particularly if the targets include some more well-known examples such as items that are currently in the news (e.g. politicians, advertising campaigns for well-known products, etc.).

5) One more thing that I should have mentioned earlier: never ever post anything on a site like that, that could in any way be interpreted as a call for violence against a target. Yah it's legal, "freedumb of screech" & all that, but it's immoral and it will also definitively paint you as the badguy and your target as the goodguy. Also, avoid "smug" like bubonic plague, because a large majority of people think that smugness is highly obnoxious.

On the other hand, 6) YES I agree, "open letters" advising Mikey and Babe how to dress up their BS so it's pseudo-profound, would be funny as hell. Great idea!, someone needs to do this.

As for other philosophers, most of them are too unknown to most people to be worthwhile as targets. Though frankly I find some of them have their heads quite a bit further up their derrieres than DeepAck himself. I could take about five minutes of reading DeepAck's website before it got like the intellectual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard, but there are others (can't remember names at the moment) who I could take for about two minutes before I had to get the heck out of there.

And speaking of pseudo-profound BS, don't even get me started on the Singularitarians. One of these days I am going to do a detailed and definitive takedown of their nonsense, in a different forum. IMHO their stuff is particularly dangerous because they are professional technologists who use tech to look scientific, and they also manage to circumvent the critical thinking skills of people who really ought to know better. My point with this is, New Age language isn't the only form of pseudo-profound BS: one can do it in plenty of other types of language, and using computer jargon is a very common version.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 07 Dec 2015 #permalink

Ah, what one misses if they don't backtrack on a thread (I don't receive notifications of comments via email.)

Gray Squirrel, you have quite the business plan there. Yet, I 'm not entirely convinced about the copyright thing. I know that some business are advised to sue on copyright merely because if they don't they are considered not to be serious about it.

The URL won't be a problem nor will a server. The automated pull and mad-lib function will take some investigation but I may start out in a different direction. Also, I had exposure to Google Ad-words a couple of jobs ago and you are correct - not the best company to deal with.

You're also correct that the world is filled with plenty of material. Motivational posters, positive psychology, movies (one saying that's always bugged me is "Love means never having to say you're sorry" and the woo-meisters. Of course I'll have to read some more of D. Chopra's work. "Aaack!"

After I am out of my current situation, I'm going to invest some time into this idea. If it ever does get off the ground, all attributions go to you.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 09 Dec 2015 #permalink

Anyone getting their point across to a large and appreciate audience must be doing something right. Even if we don't like the message perhaps there is something we can learn from the delivery of the message. That way we can gain from the experience.

I met Deepak Choprah a few years ago. It was cringeworthy. This guy is so smarmy and glib that I couldn't believe people buy his schtick. I just wanted to get away from him after about a minute and could not believe anyone buys his nonsense. It is so practiced and automated that I don't understand how anyone with a brain can talk to him for even a minute and not see through him.

i have little experience with, and knowledge of the things yall made comment on. yet, i do have enough common sense to realize that you were sincere, patting each others back, and funny. i think there should be this much camaraderie, as opposed to trolling, in more areas of life. now that was uplifting. thanks for a fun read!

By john timothy (not verified) on 18 Jan 2016 #permalink