View Full Version : Study: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls*^t

09-23-2016, 01:39 PM
I figure that some folks around here could benefit by reading the following study.


On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bull****

Although bull**** is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bull****, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bull**** statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bull**** statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bull**** and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bull**** receptivity.

1 Introduction

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bull**** requires no such conviction.” – Harry Frankfurt
In On Bull****, the philosopher Frankfurt (2005) defines bull**** as something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth. This distinguishes bull**** from lying, which entails a deliberate manipulation and subversion of truth (as understood by the liar). There is little question that bull**** is a real and consequential phenomenon. Indeed, given the rise of communication technology and the associated increase in the availability of information from a variety of sources, both expert and otherwise, bull**** may be more pervasive than ever before. Despite these seemingly commonplace observations, we know of no psychological research on bull****. Are people able to detect blatant bull****? Who is most likely to fall prey to bull**** and why?

2 Pseudo-profound bull****

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bull**** as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bull****. Consider the following statement:
“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure. The bull**** statement is not merely nonsense, as would also be true of the following, which is not bull****:
“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract”.
The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate something. Thus, bull****, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon 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.” Our focus, however, is somewhat different from what is found in the philosophy of bull**** and related phenomena (e.g., Black, 1983; Buekens & Boudry, 2015; Frankfurt; 2005). Whereas philosophers have been primarily concerned with the goals and intentions of the bull****ter, we are interested in the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming a bull****tee. Moreover, this sort of bull**** – which we refer to here as pseudo-profound bull**** – may be one of many different types. We focus on pseudo-profound bull**** because it represents a rather extreme point on what could be considered a spectrum of bull****. We can say quite confidently that the above example (a) is bull****, but one might also label an exaggerated story told over drinks to be bull****. In future studies on bull****, it will be important to define the type of bull**** under investigation (see Discussion for further comment on this issue).
Importantly, pseudo-profound bull**** is not trivial. For a real-world example of pseudo-profound bull**** and an application of our logic, consider the following:
“Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”
This statement bears a striking resemblance to (a), but is (presumably) not a random collection of words. Rather, it is an actual “tweet” sent by Deepak Chopra, M.D., who has authored numerous books with titles such as Quantum Healing (Chopra, 1989) and The Soul of Leadership (Chopra, 2008) and who has been accused of furthering “woo-woo nonsense” (i.e., pseudo-profound bull****; e.g., Shermer, 2010). The connection between (a) and (c) is not incidental, as (a) was derived using the very buzzwords from Chopra’s “Twitter” feed.1 (http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15923a/jdm15923a.html#note5) The vagueness of (c) indicates that it may have been constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.
Despite the lack of direct concern for truth noted by Frankfurt (2005), pseudo-profound bull**** betrays a concern for verisimilitude or truthiness. We argue that an important adjutant of pseudo-profound bull**** is vagueness which, combined with a generally charitable attitude toward ambiguity, may be exacerbated by the nature of recent media. As a prime example, the necessary succinctness and rapidity of “Twitter” (140 characters per “Tweet”) may be particularly conducive to the promulgation of bull****. Importantly, vagueness and meaning are, by definition, at cross purposes, as the inclusion of vagueness obscures the meaning of the statement and therefore must undermine or mask “deep meaning” (i.e., profundity) that the statement purports to convey. The concern for “profundity” reveals an important defining characteristic of bull**** (in general): that it attempts to impress rather than to inform; to be engaging rather than instructive (continues...)

jack grebe
09-23-2016, 01:42 PM
That's Bullsh!t

David G
09-23-2016, 02:04 PM

Besides... them what needs it won't or can't reads it.

09-23-2016, 07:26 PM
I think it is the more common horses**t.
Bulls are rare these days.

09-23-2016, 09:43 PM
I was born in Brooklyn, and have an inherent finely tuned BS radar. No philosophy required.

" I don't know the meaning, I just feel the feeling" -Linda Lewis

David G
09-23-2016, 09:55 PM
For some reason... this reminds me of someone we haven't seen much of lately.

Old Dryfoot
09-23-2016, 10:23 PM
Dude, you jinxed it.

09-23-2016, 10:24 PM
I think we did this one last year.


Were we thinking of the same phellow?

David G
09-23-2016, 11:29 PM
Dude, you jinxed it.

Apparently so. I am sorrier than words can express for this lapse of judgement.