Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Don’t talk bullsh!t to me baby

The other day I saw a couple of interesting phrases. One was: Today, science tells us that the essence of nature is non-locality. Now, does that mean the buy local movement is over? I’m not sure. How about this: By maturing, we live. This life is nothing short of a summoning reintegration of high-frequency intention. By maturing we live seems super obvious. I mean, if we don’t mature we stagnate and when we stagnate, we die. The second part of this is quite undecipherable but we’ll come back to it later.

So what is going on here? A statement might sound deep and meaningful but when we stop and think about it, we quickly see it lacks depth and insight. If something sounds really profound but can mean anything, does it have any actual meaning at all?

And if a profound sounding statement has no truth or meaning, what is it? Could it be bullshit?

If it is bullshit, are we likely to fall for it and even more important, how do we arm ourselves against bullshit?

A 2015 study by a group of Canadian researchers tried to answer these questions (Barr, Nathaniel; Pennycook, Gordon; Cheyne, James Allen; Koehler, Derek J.; and Fugelsang, Jonathan A., "On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-profound Bullshit" (2015). Faculty Publications and Scholarship. Paper 1 http://source.sheridancollege.ca/ ass_huma_publ/1).

Researchers first differentiated bullshit from lying. A liar is someone who knows what is true and intentionally says something else. A bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care what the truth is. He just wants to sound good. They go on to clarify pseudo-profound bullshit as statements that suggest but don’t contain truth or meaning. They imply depth and insight but don’t have any.

Researchers tried to figure out what character traits make us more susceptible to bullshit. To do that, they created a bullshit receptivity measure by first making up profound sounding statements with random buzzwords put into grammatical phrases. Then they asked study respondents how profound the statements are based on a five-point scale, with 1 being not profound at all and 5 being extremely profound.

The study authors used two bullshit generating websites (www.wisdomofchopra and www.sebpearce.com/bullshit).

Let’s go back to our examples. The phrase: This life is nothing short of a summoning reintegration of high-frequency intention might suggest profundity but I made it up by putting together a series of random buzzwords in a syntactical way. So what we really have here is a vague and ambiguous statement that lacks meaning. To put it plainly, this is bullshit.

Let’s make another one: You and I are messengers of the quantum soup. We exist as chaos-driven reactions. The goal of pulses is to plant the seeds of gratitude rather than dogma. Nothing is impossible.

You get the idea. 

So who is likely to fall for bullshit statements? Two factors make people score higher for bullshit receptivity. One is the tendency to accept what they hear as true or meaningful. They take the ‘keep an open mind’ notion so seriously their brains fall out of their heads. 

The other is the tendency to confuse vagueness for profundity. In this case, a person doesn’t understand the statement so instead of questioning its meaning, he or she judges the statement as profound. This is the tendency for a person to think that if they don’t understand a statement, something is wrong with them, not the statement.

People with these tendencies are often more intuitive thinkers; they are less likely to be analytical in their thinking and more likely to base their responses to a statement on an initial impression. One protection against bullshit then is to take the time to think about the meaning of words to understand a statement. That would help identify a statement such as -- The goal of pulses is to plant the seeds of gratitude rather than dogma. Nothing is impossible -- as bullshit.

To defend ourselves against bullshitters and their bullshit, the first and most important step, and probably the more difficult as it involves effort, is to think analytically about the actual meaning of words in a statement, and their associations, just like we did at the beginning of this article. Another defense is to build some skepticism around the source of the statement. Just knowing we are surrounded by bullshitters is a defense against bullshit.

The serious point to all this is that bullshit is all around us so we need to understand it, recognize it and call it out for what it is.

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