Why you should care
Because you are not as good at detecting bullshit as you believe.
Where do you go for inspiration? And where do you go to avoid it?
In the good ol’ days before the internet, inspiration — at least in the form of motivational quotes and self-help wisdom — was reassuringly quarantined. Only if you ventured into a Christian bookstore, a college dorm room (with its life-size Albert Einstein poster) or down the corridors of a regional bank branch with its framed posters touting Leadership, Teamwork and Excellence were you really forced to confront the full vacuity of motivational thinking.
Now, of course, inspirational quotes and memes — often paired with fluffy animals or clouds at sunset — are plastered across our social media feeds. Our appetite for bite-size wisdom seems to know no bounds, and the news cycle the past two years has swept us away in an avalanche of “fake news.” Yes, bullshit is back and it’s bigger than ever, and we are not nearly as good at spotting it as we think. According to a 2015 study involving more than 200 students at the University of Waterloo in Ontario:
Nearly everyone found at least one bullshit statement to be somewhat profound.
Bullshit is a real and important phenomenon, says Gordon Pennycook, a psychology professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan who has been researching BS for years. And given the increase in available information and the growth of communications technology in recent years, bullshit is more pervasive than ever. “If we live in the age of information, we also live in the age of misinformation,” argues Pennycook. “People are constantly exposed to numerous forms of bullshit, from the New Age to bullshit in advertising and politics, to just every day barstool bullshitting.”
Bullshit is like beauty or character or a hipster; it’s a bit hard to define, but we all know it when we see it. So what technically counts as bullshit? In his book On Bullshit, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt distinguishes it as statements intended to impress but propounded with no real concern for their truth, as opposed to lying, which requires one to knowingly disregard the truth. As Frankfurt notes, “[p]roducing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
Of course, BS can take many forms. One primary type is what Pennycook and other BS researchers call “pseudo-profound bullshit” — those “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” Pennycook cites a tweet sent by the popular alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra as an example: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” Want a few more gems? Check out the New Age Bullshit Generator here.
In the 2015 study, titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” Pennycook and researchers at the University of Waterloo surveyed 217 students. The aim was to gauge their reactions to such pseudo-profound BS, or their “bullshit receptivity,” by exposing them to Chopra-esque statements made up by the researchers.
Profound or Bullshit?
“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
“Good health imparts reality to subtle creativity.”
“The future explains irrational facts.”
“Consciousness is the growth of coherence, and of us.”
“Today, science tells us that the essence of nature is joy.”
“Imagination is inside exponential space time events.”
Examples from the study.
Among other things, they found that those most receptive to bullshit were less reflective, had lower cognitive ability levels and were more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs and to embrace alternative medicine. Still, almost 99 percent of the study’s participants rated at least one BS statement as profound, suggesting that none of us are truly unreceptive to some level of bullshit.
According to Pennycook, those who were susceptible to accepting pseudo-profound statements were also more likely to be impressed by their bullshit cousins: those poster-ready motivational quotes like “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but because of its persistence.” Of course, not all such quotes are BS or nonsense, but they do invite us to accept their pithy wisdom without skepticism in much the same way. Pennycook and his colleagues have also found that susceptibility to “fake news” is associated with pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.
Needless to say, as the BS piles up around us, there is more work to be done. Pennycook says we need to know more about the potential interventions that can be taken against bullshit as well as more about the act of bullshitting itself. It will not be easy to counter the forces of bullshit aligned against us, but I personally take comfort from an Einstein quote I recently saw superimposed over a lake at sunset: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”