bullshitdetector

To Wander the Story Is to Become One with It

I hope that you did not read the title of this blog and say, “Wow, that’s pretty deep,” or “I’ve often thought the same thing.”

If you did, then you are, to put it bluntly, not too intelligent.

That’s the conclusion of a recent article that appeared in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. Titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” the paper focused on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous (mindless).

Here’s part of the abstract:

The researchers “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”). The 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.”

The researchers concluded that those participants who were 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.

I found it interesting that the authors used two web sites to help come up with the nonsensical phrases. The first, The Wisdom of Chopra, constructs meaningless statements with appropriate syntactic structure by randomly mashing together a list of words used in Deepak Chopra’s tweets (e.g., “Imagination is inside exponential space time events.”) The second, “The New Age Bullshit Generator”, works on the same principle but uses a list of profound-sounding words compiled by its author, Seb Pearce (e.g., “We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself.”) (I used the second site to come up with the title for this blog post.)

At the end of their article, the researchers note the following:

Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before. Profundity ratings for statements containing a random collection of buzzwords were very strongly correlated with a selective collection of actual “Tweets” from Deepak Chopra’s “Twitter” feed. At the time of this writing, Chopra has over 2.5 million followers on “Twitter” and has written more than twenty New York Times bestsellers. Bullshit is not only common; it is popular. Chopra is, of course, just one example among many. Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia. Indeed, as intimated by Frankfurt, bullshitting is something that we likely all engage in to some degree: “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.”

I found the study entertaining, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the authors were trying to pull a quick one on the readers. As they note in their closing, Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia

It appears as if all the authors are in academia (as is the author of this blog post), and it seems like they are guilty of some b.s. themselves.

For example, in their paper, they state the following “those participants who were more receptive to bullshit are … more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation.”

That sounds like a bunch of psycho babble bullshit to me.

And it’s not just psychologists who use such language; us accountants are guilty as well. Here’s how General Electric explained something known as “free cash flow“:

Cash flow from operations less capital expenditures adjusted for management actions to strengthen the balance sheet, such as accrued interest on prepayments of debt and voluntary contributions to employee benefit plans.

What??

And finally, as my more astute readers will recognize, tonight’s blog, just like every other one of my 750 plus blog posts, is another prime example of B.S., used to mask a lack of meaningfulness..

P.S. Be sure to have some fun with The New Age Bullshit Generator.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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