On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit | Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr Derek J. Koehler, Jonathan A. Fugelsan | Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015
Anyone who has read “Dianetics”, let alone the material which makes up ‘advanced’ Scientology courses, will have come across many passages that make them ask, “what is that supposed to mean“?
This leads to the question of why people read nonsense and ascribe deep meaning to such passages – even when they cannot actually articulate what that meaning is?
There are several explanations for this. This paper describes an experiment which possibly provides another. It not only demonstrates how some people uncritically ascribe meaning to a nonsense passage which ‘sounds profound’, but also provides a means of identifying individuals who are most vulnerable to this kind of confusion.
A Lot of L Ron Hubbard’s Writings Do Not Make Any Sense at All
Lets begin with an example of Scientology gibberish – L Ron Hubbard’s “Axiom 11”. This is one of 58 numbered statements which are supposedly self-evident truths that can be used as a foundation for further inquiry. Scientology presents this text as utterly profound.
Written by Mr. Hubbard in 1954, the Scientology Axioms are a condensation of all earlier Axioms and Logics. These Axioms are truths which are proven by all of life and which represent the most succinct distillation of wisdom regarding the nature of the human spirit.
“The Axioms” include many such gems as this:
Axiom 11 The considerations resulting in conditions of existence are fourfold:
a. As-isness is the condition of immediate creation without persistence, and is the condition of existence which exists at the moment of creation and the moment of destruction, and is different from other considerations in that it does not contain survival.
b. Alter-isness is the consideration which introduces change, and therefore time and persistence, into an as-isness to obtain persistency.
c. Isness is an apparency of existence brought about by the continuous alteration of an as-iness. This is called, when agreed upon, reality.
d. Not-isness is the effort to handle isness by reducing its condition through the use of force. It is an apparency and cannot entirely vanquish an isness.
There are many obscure passages in Hubbard’s texts. Hubbard seems to have employed this style in order to impress his followers with how deep his thinking is, when his writing is actually meaning-free.
Scientologists will typically not even try to explain passages like this to people who find it meaningless. Apart from the fact that that this is forbidden, they accept it without being able to articulate and defend its supposed meaning.
What is Bullshit, Anyway?
The authors of the paper that we are examining in this post characterise this kind of writing as “pseudo-profound Bullshit”, and describe the difference between nonsense and bullshit. (not something you normally encounter in an academic paper).
Consider these two phrases
- “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty”
- “Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract”
The first is bullshit, because it is “merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure” In other words, it’s nonsense that has been constructed in the same way as a meaningful sentence. The second is evidently completely meaningless – just a random series of words.
According to the authors
This sort of phenomenon [bullshit] is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker…[sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”
This paper suggests that some people will spontaneously accept a meaningless statement as ‘profound’ merely because it sounds as if it ought to be.
They judge superficially – on the basis of style, not meaning. You might expect such people to be particularly vulnerable to Scientology recruiters, and more likely to become ‘true believers’ – that is, individuals who continue to believe in the teeth of contrary evidence.
The Experimental Procedure
In the first phase the experimenters turned to two websites.
The first is entitled, “The enigmatic wisdom of Deepak Chopra” Using a simple program this,
[…] constructs meaningless statements with appropriate syntactic structure by randomly mashing together a list of words used in Deepak Chopra’s tweets
The other was the wonderful New-Age Bullshit Generator which randomly combines buzzwords chosen by its creator to produce pseudo-profound statements.
If you go to this site, and click the ‘Reionize Electrons’ button at the top of the page, it will randomly produce text which is practically indistinguishable from the writings of real ‘gurus’ (see the example in the image on the right).
The authors selected a number of short “pseudo-profound” sentences from this randomly generated, meaning-free material. For example, “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.”
300 Subjects (mostly undergraduate students) were told,
We are interested in how people experience the profound. Below are a series of statements taken from relevant websites. Please read each statement and take a moment to think about what it might mean. Then please rate how “profound” you think it is.Profound means “of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance.”
The participants were then presented to with a mixture of real and randomly generated quotes in four stages.
Subjects undertook a number of psychological tests assessing personality, paranormal beliefs and conspiracy ideation
A new test, created for this occasion was the “Bullshit Receptivity Index”, designed to measure how receptive they were to bullshit statements.
For this test, they were presented with a number of meaningless phrases chosen from text randomly generated by the websites above, and asked to rate them from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound). The average score came to 2.6 falling between “Somewhat profound” and “fairly profound” A quarter of participants produced average ratings higher then 3.
The authors dryly observe, “These results indicate that our participants largely failed to detect that the statements are bullshit.”
Interestingly 45% of the participants know who Deepak Chopra is, and correspondingly marked his statements as less profound.
However, the average scores given by others for “profundity” were as close as makes no difference to those given to the randomly generated sentences – people could not tell the difference between a computer program and Deepak Chopra.
Investigated the proposition that “some people may be particularly insensitive to pseudo-profound bullshit” The experimenters mixed up ‘motivational’ quotes which might be expected to receive a high score (e.g., “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence”) with banal statements (e.g., “Most people enjoy some sort of music”).
The results indicated that those who scored high on tests for analytical thinking rated the meaningful quotes slightly higher than the banal ones, but another group simply made no distinction.
Included 10 bullshit and 10 motivational quotes.
The people who gave the lowest highest scores to the bullshit statements were those who excelled in the analytical thinking tests and scored low in the others. The people who gave the highest scores to the bullshit statements scored low in analytical thinking an high in tests which measured conspiracy ideation and belief in the supernatural and ‘alternative’ medicine.
There is a definite group of people who do not analyse what they read, but judge it (and pronounce it to be “profound”) on the basis of style, rather than content. They are insensitive to bullshit and will accept it uncritically.
Unsurprising, these people also hold views which are emotionally appealing, but unsupported by good evidence – i.e. conspiracy theories and the vague claims of ‘alternative medicine.
There is good evidence in the writings and behaviour of committed Scientologists – the ‘true believers’ that they are also prone to uncritically accept and advocate conspiracy theories and treat themselves with ‘alternative’ medicine – even when suffering from extremely serious diseases.
It’s therefore likely that anyone who:
- Scores high on bullshit receptivity test
- Holds one or more conspiracy theories
- Believes in supernatural phenomenon
- Takes alternative medicine seriously
is also prone to take the nonsense writings of L Ron Hubbard more seriously than those who take a more sceptical, analytical approach to the text, and is consequently more likely to be recruited by the organisation.