On Bull****

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt started a whole new line of academic inquiry a few years ago with his slim volume On Bullshit, which unironically treated bovine excrement seriously. But now we have an academic journal article that breaks new wind on the subject. Appearing in the journal Judgment and Decision Making (yes, it really exists), the article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” (PDF file) ratifies what common sense indicates to every sensible person: there is an empirical link between low intelligence and receptivity to bullshit!

The authors of the study (it took five of them, from Canadian universities) equate bullshit with old-fashioned obscurantism, which is defined as “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”

The study tested several hundred subjects by exposing them to essentially meaningless slogans and new age-y jargon. Some of these were random, but some were genuine, such as:

For a real-world example of pseudo-profound bullshit and an application of our logic, consider the following:

“Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”

Sounds like something from a random phrase generator, no? Alas, it is an actual Tweet from Deepak Chopra, one of the bigger frauds of our time.

The study has one obvious defect: it doesn’t screen susceptibility to bullshit by political ideology. I suspect if they’d screened for this variable, we’d find a close correlation, and given the commutative property of mathematics, it would confirm what we already know to be the case. The kind of pseudo-profound statements that could be tested with this methodology include:

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

“I’ve now been in 57 states—I think one left to go.”

“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal. . .”

And this doesn’t begin to test the endless possibilities of quotations from John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary, and Bernie. I can see a whole new academic department for this.


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