Bullshit — A Study
December 5, 2015Posted by on
An article with the title On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit¹ begins with a reference to the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt of Princeton University, who previously published On Bullshit² in which he distinguishes bullshit from lying. Frankfurt opined that given the rise of communication technology and the associated increase in the availability of information from a variety of sources, bullshit is becoming increasingly pervasive. Bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth, its use being verbal smoke and mirrors that implies depth and insight where none exists.
The article¹ focuses on pseudo-profound bullshit because it represents a rather extreme point on the spectrum of bullshit, in that pseudo-profound bullshit is not trivial. The article argues that an important element of pseudo-profound bullshit is a vagueness combined with ambiguity exacerbated by the nature of the media it is used in. For example, the Twitter limit of 140 characters per Tweet, may encourage bullshit. Vagueness and ambiguity purposely intends to attribute a deep meaning coincident with the acceptance of the bullshit’s profundity. This concern for profundity reveals an important defining characteristic of bullshit: In that it attempts to impress rather than to inform — to be engaging rather than instructive. For a real-world example of pseudo-profound bullshit and an application of the article’s logic it quotes the following tweet:
“Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”
Deepak Chopra, M.D³.
Despite the lack of direct concern for truth pseudo-profound bullshit relies on being verisimilous, in that it must be believed to be true for the acceptance of any perceived comprehension. Those having a stronger bias toward accepting things as true or meaningful from the outset are susceptible to a belief in bullshit. With respect to pseudo-profound bullshit, its acceptance as being true and profound depends on the individual’s cognitive skills (such as conflict detection): Either retaining a default sense of profundity or invoking deliberative reasoning to assess it. Some individuals approach pseudo-profound bullshit with a stronger initial expectation for profundity, an aspect of their mindset and receptivity to bullshit. This bias towards inflated judgments of profundity makes such individuals susceptible to bullshit regardless of the context.
’All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp’.
The inability to detect bullshit is linked to a failure in conflict monitoring when a syllogism cues conflicting responses between the logicality of a premise and its context. People are capable of detecting these conflicts but their ability to do so is an important bias in their reasoning and decision making. Conflict detection is an important low-level cognitive factor that causes some people to engage in deliberative, analytic reasoning processes. However, with respect to generic bullshit there are many factors leading to its successfully detection; like an innate skepticism depending on the type of bullshit encountered and the bullshit context. For example; the source may be particularly untrustworthy, the bullshit may conflict with common knowledge or specific knowledge or expertise.
‘One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share’.
Pseudo-profound bullshit is missing any obvious external cue leading to skepticism. This is influenced by individual differences in the ability to spontaneously discern or detect pseudo-profound bullshit and to distinguish bullshit from non-bullshit. Bullshit is not only common — it is popular. Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia. Indeed, bullshitting is something that we likely all engage in to some degree. One benefit of gaining a better understanding of how we reject other’s bullshit is that it may teach us to be more cognisant of our own bullshit.
The above is an abridged version of that referenced below¹, making no allusion to being profound nor to being meaningful, as the original concluded. What it may possibly claim of course, is to be complete bullshit. Peter a.k.a. Aasof
¹On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit (pdf) Gordon Pennycook∗ James Allan Cheyne† Nathaniel Barr‡ Derek J. Koehler† Jonathan A. Fugelsang† [The Society For Judgement And Decision Making — Volume 10 Number 6 November 2015]
³Deepak Chopra With over 2.5 million followers on “Twitter” and more than twenty New York Times bestsellers, Chopra is one of the wealthiest holistic-health gurus. This is not to say that everything Deepak Chopra has written is bullshit, nonetheless, some of it seems to meet the definition of pseudo-profound bullshit. The article study simply raises the possibility that Chopra’s tendency to bullshit as claimed by others, may have played an important role in his popularity.