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The Einstein Effect: You’re More Likely To Believe BS If You Think A Scientist Said It

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Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

clockFeb 14 2022, 12:54 UTC
Scientists

A white coat can go a long way. Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com

Think your bullshit sensor is pretty reliable? Well, you may want to think again, because new research has shown that most of us are susceptible to the "Einstein Effect", whereby we’re more likely to accept complete nonsense as fact if it comes from a credible source like a scientist.

Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the study authors describe how they used a New Age Bullshit Generator to create “obscure, meaningless statements” that sound esoteric and profound. They then asked 10,195 people from 24 different countries to rate the credibility of these “gobbledegook” phrases.

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Despite all statements being complete and utter nonsense, 76 percent of participants rated them at or above the midpoint of the credibility scale when they were attributed to a fictional particle physicist named Edward K. Leal. In contrast, only 55 percent deemed the gibberish to be credible when told that it came from a New Age “spiritual authority” called Saul J. Adrian.

“We generated statements that are nearly impossible to (in)validate and that bear no relation to controversial or politicized scientific topics about which people may have strong previous attitudes (efficacy of vaccinations, climate change, etc.),” write the study authors. “By using ambiguous claims without any specific ideological content, we tried to isolate the worldview effect regarding the source from any worldview effect related to the content of the claims.”

A quick spin on the bullshit algorithm generates such nuggets of life-changing folly as “eons from now, we entities will grow like never before as we are recreated by the quantum soup,” and “the future will be a zero-point deepening of consciousness.” (Anyone else reminded of the AI-generated "inspirational posters"?)

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The tendency to buy such pearls of non-wisdom if they are attributed to a scientist has been dubbed “the Einstein effect”, and may reflect a willingness to accept the claims of trusted experts even if we don’t understand them. For instance, the authors explain that “people simply accept that E = mc2 and that antibiotics can help cure pneumonia because credible authorities such as Einstein and their doctor say so, without actually understanding what these statements truly entail.”

“From an evolutionary perspective, deference to credible authorities such as teachers, doctors and scientists is an adaptive strategy that enables effective cultural learning and knowledge transmission.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers found that even people who claimed to be highly religious were more likely to trust statements made by a scientist than by a spiritual leader. However, this preference for scientists over spiritualists was slightly weaker among such individuals.

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Summing up, the study authors note that “across all 24 countries and all levels of religiosity, gobbledegook from a scientist was considered more credible than the same gobbledegook from a spiritual guru.”

“These findings suggest that irrespective of one’s religious worldview, across cultures science is a powerful and universal heuristic that signals the reliability of information.”


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