Sunday, January 3, 2016

Just what is bullshit? (And how meaningful is "profound"?)

A recent paper with the delightful title On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit  has been receiving some attention in the media recently, in places such as the Huffington Post and Vox. (I just realised that this paper is from the same team as another paper on dual processes I mention in my 2015 round-up). It's understandable that this research is getting attention when, as the authors point out, there has been a lack of empirical psychological research looking at pseudo-profound bullshit (BS from hereon).

The authors indicate that BS is not the same as lying (e.g. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman") which is where one says something one knows to be untrue. Nor is it the same as nonsense, which has no syntactic structure (e.g. "dog cat runs from on at"). Rather, BS is a structured statement made without regard for whether or not it is true, and which appears to convey something meaningful, while not conveying "adequate" meaning (I have added the scare quotes myself; the authors give the example "hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty"). (I think there is some overlap here between the definition of BS and what Dan Dennett calls "deepities" in his book "Intuition Pumps").

I can imagine a lot of people will debate about the correlations found in the paper between BS detection and other traits (e.g. verbal intelligence, religiosity). We can argue about such associations until the abstract explodes in puddles of new heightening, but I'd rather focus on how the authors operationalised BS. They firstly inserted randomly selected buzzwords into sentences with syntactic structure and asked participants to rate their profundity (with profound defined as “of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance.”) They also used some real-world examples of BS by taking some statements from Deepak Chopra that they felt to be particularly good examples of BS (they hastened to add that they did not feel all Chopra's stuff is BS).

Here's my main problem: as the authors mention in their discussion: "the vagueness of the statements may imply that the intended meaning is so important or profound that it cannot be stated plainly (Sperber, 2010)". Although they only mention this briefly, I do think this is a real problem here. I think some of the statements they give could quite easily convey a deep meaning to at least some people. "Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty" is an example given right on the first page. The words are chosen are random. But hang on; might the hidden meaning of a great abstract masterpiece, upon the viewer discovering this hidden meaning, not lead to a transformation of the work's unparalleled abstract beauty? Is that really such a difficult or unusual interpretation to take from such a statement?

Perhaps, after rating the profundity of a statement, it would be good to have participants describe what they think the statement means (or means to them) in more concise/precise terms. As the authors quote “All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp” (Sperber, 2010, p. 583). It may be the case that most people cannot actually offer a meaningful interpretation of a statement, even after saying they think it's profound, but perhaps some can give a clear account of the meaning that they take from the statement?

Further, it may be interesting to probe what type of statement people believe themselves to be looking at-if someone thinks they're reading analytical philosophy they should be setting a higher standard for clarity than if they think they're reading poetry. I would suspect that when people are presented with one of the BS statements used in this research, they are more inclined to believe they are reading something this was always intended to be open to interpretation, and which different people could take different things from.

Imagine that an artist says, "it's not important what I think about my work, what matters is what you think about it". (Plenty have said things like this). Might that not fit with this definition of pseudo-profound BS? And if so, would our culture not be poorer if we all ignored all such work? (Off the top of my head you can kiss Joyce's Ulysses and Nirvana's Nevermind goodbye...)

Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J.A., Barr, N., Koehler, D.J., Fugelsang, J.A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(6), 549-563.

Sperber, D. (2010). The guru effect. Review of Philosophical Psychology, 1, 583–592.

Related posts:
A review of "Intuition Pumps"
Who's studying who? Demand characteristics

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