Remember last November when Canadian scientists published a study using the tweets of Deepak Chopra to demonstrate how some people can interpret utter bullshit as deeply profound observations? It’s now sparked a counter-argument and a sharp rejoinder — two respectable scientists arguing about the meaning (or lack thereof) of bullshit.
The actual title of that 2015 paper in the journal Judgment and Decision Making was “Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit“. You have to give props to the University of Waterloo researchers for telling it like it is. As Gizmodo’s Matt Novak reported last spring, Gordon Pennycook and his Waterloo colleagues took a 2014 Chopra tweet, “and presented it to study participants along with randomly generated statements that employed profound-sounding buzzwords. The statements made sense grammatically, but made absolutely no sense logically.”
Chopra’s tweet was indistinguishable from the randomly generated nonsense. And the less sceptical and analytical the participant, the more likely he or she was to interpret random nonsense as being deeply profound.
Craig Dalton of the University of Newcastle in Australia begged to differ with these conclusions, finding fault with the methodology. He argued that what seems like pointless gibberish to one person might still prove meaningful to another, using Zen koans as an example. “A flower, the random sounds of a waterfall, a willow tree playing in the breeze, or the random scattering of autumn leaves, may lack the intention of profundity but they can all lead to transcendence and open us to beauty — as can a random statement generated by a computer,” Dalton wrote.
Pennycook is having none of it, insisting in his rejoinder (aptly titled “It’s Still Bullshit”) that the definition of what constitutes bullshit is not a matter of subjective interpretation:
That it is possible for someone to find meaning in a statement does not prevent it from being bullshit. Indeed, bullshit that is not found at least somewhat meaningful would be rather impotent. Consider the evangelizing of politicians and so-called spin-doctors, for example. Often, their goal is to say something without saying anything; to appear competent and respectful without concerning themselves with the truth. It is not the understanding of the recipient of bullshit that makes something bullshit, it is the lack of concern (and perhaps even understanding) of the truth or meaning of statements by the one who utters it. Our original study concluded that people who are receptive to statements randomly generated without concern for meaning (i.e., bullshit) are less, not more, analytic and logical as well as more intelligent. Dalton’s commentary does not undermine this conclusion.
We look forward to the next round of this riveting bullshit debate.
Incidentally, Chopra weighed in on the recent discovery of gravitational waves. Writing at the Huffington Post, he dismissed the biggest science story of the year as little more than a “red herring” distracting us all from the true mystery surrounding quantum consciousness and the nature of reality. Whatever, man. Sounds like some highfalutin’ bullshit to me.
Top image: Jason Kempin/Getty Images