Try see the forest from the tree whose bark is worse than its bite

Scientists Study the Spread of ‘Pseudo-Profound Bullshit’

We must try to see the forest from the trees whose bark is worse than their bite

Bullshit has been around for a long time – ask anyone who works at a large corporation – but these days, thanks to Facebook, it can sometimes seem like we’re swimming in it. Now not only do we get meaningless slogans and inspirational quotes at work, we log on to social media to find our friends sharing them too!

Now, psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada have decided it’s time to put bullshit under the microscope

‘On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit’ is the title of a paper published in the Journal of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making.

“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”.

The article is notable for its use of plain language, and mentions the word ‘bullshit’ 200 times.

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.

Bullshit is worse than mere nonsense, the paper explains, since it appears to make sense syntactically, which “implies that it was constructed to communicate something”.

The article takes particular aim at Deepak Chopra, a writer who is often accused of pseudo-intellectual new-age bullshit. I was going to put quotation marks around that last phrase, but then I saw this actual tweet from Chopra:

It goes on to describe experiments in which volunteers were tested for their receptiveness to various ‘inspirational’ quotes which were, in fact, randomly generated by two bullshit-generator websites: The New Age Bullshit Generator and wisdomofchopra.com – which uses buzzwords found in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter stream, randomly recombined in a sentence.

The article acknowledges that Chopra is not the only offender:

Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia.

The primary purpose of the research was to develop a Bullshit Receptivity (BSR) index. A high Bullshit Receptivity score in one of the experiments was “strongly negatively correlated” with cognitive ability, the paper reports.

The authors propose psychological rationales for humans apparent receptivity to bullshit, and conclude that “bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition”. Unusually for an academic paper, there’s a current of humour throughout – perhaps even a touch of snark!

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.

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