As Marcello Truzzi, a renowned skeptic and professor of sociology in the United States, once said: “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” This notion unfortunately doesn’t stop people the world over from believing things that are demonstrably untrue, and a new study published in the journal of Judgment and Decision Making shows that those who are more receptive to what the authors term as “bullshit” tend to be both less reflective and less intelligent than their peers.
Profound-sounding statements, incredibly vague claims, and scientific-sounding fakery are all considered to be “bullshit” by the authors of the research – who use the pejorative a record-breaking 200 times in a single academic paper. An example of this type of bullshit is as follows: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” This is inherently meaningless, but it appears to communicate something because it appears to have an organized linguistic structure we inherently recognize.
Gordon Pennycook, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, used a website to randomly generate profound-sounding phrases to demonstrate the ease of creating bullshit. “Healing is the growth of hope, and of us. We vibrate, we exist, we are reborn” was the phrase that we were greeted with upon visiting the homepage.
Image credit: “We exist as morphogenetic fields. Wellbeing is a constant” is one of the many bullshit phrases generated by the researchers’ website. Sokolova23/Shutterstock.
Pennycook and a team of researchers recruited 300 test subjects to rate the profundity of these randomly generated bullshit phrases on a relatively arbitrary scale of one to five. On average, the sentences were rated 2.6, suggesting that the quotes were halfway between “somewhat profound” and “fairly profound.”
More pressingly, 27 percent of participants gave an average score of 3.0 or more. This meant that over a quarter of the participants felt that the meaningless phrases were “profound” or “very profound.”
In a second test, these participants were shown real-life examples of bullshit phrases: They were asked to read and rate the profundity of tweets composed by New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra, who famously causes physicists angst by “borrowing” terminology from quantum mechanics and using it in a hugely erroneous way. Biologists are equally unimpressed.
— Deepak Chopra (@DeepakChopra) December 2, 2015
Unsurprisingly, when his tweets were mixed in with the computer-generated bullshit aphorisms, the average ratings were very similar to the first test – suggesting that randomly generated and human-made bullshit are essentially indistinguishable.
A final test asked participants to rate both mundane statements and well-known “profound” statements. As expected, the mundane statements were not rated very highly, whereas the popular inspirational quotes (e.g. “a wet person does not fear the rain") were considered profound.
When the individual results were compared with the person’s measured numeracy skills, verbal intelligence, religious beliefs, and ability to distinguish between a metaphorical and a literal statement, a fairly clear pattern was revealed. Those who were more likely to believe outlandish conspiracy theories, those that think alternative medicine is effective, those with a strong belief in the paranormal, and those that confuse metaphors for factual pieces of information, were found to not be the most analytical or intelligent of people.
The paper concludes with a meaningful – and perhaps slightly profound – statement: “One benefit of gaining a better understanding of how we reject other’s bullshit is that it may teach us to be more [aware] of our own bullshit.” Carl Sagan, who once explained how he picked up on pseudoscientific nonsense using “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” would have likely loved this piece of research.