Why bullshit is no laughing matter — according to science
We live in the age of information, which means that we also live in the age of misinformation. Indeed, you have likely come across more bullshit so far this week than a normal person living 1,000 years ago would in their entire lifetime. If we were to add up every word in every scholarly piece of work published prior to the Enlightenment, this number would still pale in comparison with the number of words used to promulgate bullshit on the internet in the 21st century alone.
If you find your head nodding, start shaking it. I’m bullshitting you.
How could I possibly know how much bullshit you have come across this week? What if you’re reading this on a Sunday? Who is a ‘normal’ person living 1,000 years ago? And how could I know how much bullshit they had to deal with?
It was very easy to construct this bullshit. Once I set out to impress rather than inform, a burden was lifted from my shoulders and placed onto yours. My opening statements could very well be true, but we have no way of knowing. Their truth or falsity were irrelevant to me, the bullshitter.
According to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, emeritus professor at Princeton University, bullshit is something that is constructed absent of any concern for the truth. This is quite different from lying, which implies a deep concern for the truth (namely, its subversion). Bullshit is particularly pernicious since the bullshitter adopts an epistemic stance that allows for a great deal of agility. For the bullshitter, it doesn’t really matter if he is right or wrong. What matters is that you’re paying attention.
How might we go about investigating bullshit empirically? Let’s take the famed alternative medicine advocate and spiritualist Deepak Chopra as an example. Here are a couple of his tweets:
Without knowing Chopra’s intentions, it’s somewhat difficult to determine whether these tweets are bullshit. The words that Chopra selected are unnecessarily complex, and the intended meanings are not obviously clear. Perhaps the tweets have been constructed to impress rather than inform. Chopra might have used vagueness as a tool to elicit profundity.
Of course, this is all my opinion. There are certainly people who do find such proclamations profound. Who am I to say that they’re bullshit? Well, I have done empirical research on bullshit, and the results are clear. My collaborators and I recently published a paper investigating what we referred to as pseudo-profound bullshit. To understand how we investigated bullshit empirically, consider the following examples:
The invisible is beyond new timelessness.
As you self-actualise, you will enter into infinite empathy that transcends understanding.
These statements are, definitively, bullshit. I can say this directly because they were generated using two websites: wisdomofchopra.com and the New Age Bullshit Generator. Both select buzzwords at random and use them to form sentences. They have no intended meaning and use vagueness to mask their vacuity. They are bullshit.
Across four studies and with more than 800 participants, we found that people consistently rate blatant bullshit such as this as at least somewhat profound. More importantly, this tendency – which we referred to as bullshit receptivity – was more common among people who performed worse on a variety of cognitive ability- and thinking-style tests, and who held religious and paranormal beliefs. Put differently, more logical, analytical and skeptical people were less likely to rate bullshit as profound, just as you might expect.
Importantly, we also included motivational quotations that were written in plain language and that had clear meaning (eg, ‘A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence’). Surprisingly, more than 20 per cent of our participants rated the sentences that consist of random buzzwords as more profound than the sentences with clear meaning. These people had particularly faulty bullshit detectors. They also scored lower on our thinking-style test, indicating that they tend to be particularly intuitive and non-reflective decision-makers.
So what about Chopra? One of the websites we used (wisdomofchopra.com) actually takes words directly from his Twitter feed. It was a natural progression, then, for us to take Chopra’s actual tweets and present them to people along with the buzzwords, absent of any identification of Chopra. Of course, not everything that Chopra has ever said is bullshit, but these tweets certainly are. You can decide whether or not they’re representative.
Although people typically rated Chopra’s tweets as modestly more profound than the random sentences, profundity ratings for the two types of items were very strongly correlated. On a scale from 0-1, with 0 indicating no correlation and 1 indicating a perfect correlation, they were correlated .88. Moreover, both types of items correlated with the same psychological factors. In other words, Chopra’s tweets were psychologically indistinguishable from bullshit.
This represents the first empirical investigation of bullshit, as far as I know. However, this is only the tip of a very big iceberg. We come across scores of bullshit every day. Advertising, politics, tabloids, television – bullshit seems to pop up everywhere once you start looking for it. Our findings are amusing, but bullshit is no laughing matter. Chopra waxing poetic on Twitter might not be overly problematic, but the lack of regard for truth that characterises bullshit has serious consequences.
Consider the role of bullshit in highly complicated areas such as health. Dr Mehmet Oz, the cardiothoracic surgeon and US television presenter, has used his credentials to push ‘quack treatments… for personal financial gain’. Research in The BMJ found that fewer than half the recommendations on The Dr Oz Show are based on reliable evidence. When confronted about his claims that largely untested remedies are ‘miracle cures’ by a Senate subcommittee in 2014, Oz responded by saying ‘my job, I feel, on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience’. By his own admission, his show contains bullshit. The motivations of his viewership is more important than providing reliable information. Nonetheless, his viewers take him seriously and want to improve their health. When wellbeing is at stake, truth should be the principal concern.
It is now very common for proponents of alternative medicine to emphasise ‘open-mindedness’. Unfortunately, this can entail disregarding empirical evidence. For example, many anti-vaxxers do not appear to care that Andrew Wakefield’s infamous article in the Lancet in 1998 drawing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism has long been discredited and retracted. Indeed, straight-up explanations of this fact do little to dissuade those who have fallen prey to anti-vaxxer bullshit. Diseases such as measles and mumps are making a comeback in the US and, according to at least one website, there have been more than 9,000 preventable deaths due to failures to vaccinate in the US since 2007. Bullshit is indeed no laughing matter.
In his book, On Bullshit (2005), Frankfurt noted that ‘most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it’. However, more than 98 per cent of our participants rated at least one item in our bullshit receptivity scales to be at least somewhat profound. We are not nearly as good at detecting bullshit as we think.
So, how might you – the reader – vaccinate yourself against it? For a non-spiritualist, it might be relatively easy to recognise when Chopra or Oz are concerned less with the truth than selling books or entertaining viewers. But think back to my opening paragraph. Bullshit is much harder to detect when we want to agree with it. The first and most important step is to recognise the limits of our own cognition. We must be humble about our ability to justify our own beliefs. These are the keys to adopting a critical mindset – which is our only hope in a world so full of bullshit.
By Gordon Pennycook
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.