The science of bullshitting

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  • Post last modified:March 23, 2022
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Many people try to impress us with what they know and thier ability to provide deep insights into life. Anytime there is a source of value though, there are few people that try to counterfeit that resource, to get the benifit of having it without the trouble of actually acquiring it. There are counterfeit diamonds, counterfeit currency—and counterfeit profundity which we call baloney or simply just bullshit. So what is bullshit? It is communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge. Bullshit is a widely complained about problem, emerging across virtually all human settings. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and many other professionals are often accused of peddling bullshit, not to mention people who offer “alternative” viewpoints. A recent hoax demonstrated that bullshit could be accepted as legitimate in certain academic journals that operate from a social justice perspective. Politicians are seen by many—and especially by those in the opposing camps—as the kings of bullshit. It can have it huge impact on the common mind, one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit, everyone knows this, but we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. So what helps us how to tell if something is bullshit and why do fall for it? What is real knowledge, and how is it separated from bullshit? To take a look at this we must look at the study of bullshit.

The background of the study of bullshit

Gordon Pennycook, James Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang explored this question in a cool paper in the November 2015 issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making. These authors point out that there are lots of different kinds of baloney. They are particularly interested in what they call “pseudo-profound” nonsense. This type consists of sentences that use lots of ambiguous words in a way that seems to say something deep about the human condition, but on further reflection does not seem to carry any substantive meaning at all. For example, the statement “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” has lots of big words and seems to hint at a great truth. But it is not at all obvious what the statement means. In order to detect if a statement is bullshit, people would have to go beyond the veneer of depth and recognize that statement has no clear meaning. Then they have to admit they do not understand the meaning and assume the reason why they don’t understand it reflects on the person made it—and is not because they themselves are incapable of understanding its meaning. In several studies, researchers asked participants to rate the depth of different statements. Some were a collection of pseudo-profound Bullshit sentences. In a few studies, there were also two kinds of control sentences—some that were straightforward true statements, and some that were moderately profound sentences like you might see on a motivational poster—”Your teacher can open the door, but you must enter by yourself,” for example. Across studies participants were asked to rate the depth of different statements. Some of the statements were pseudo-profound BS sentences. In a few studies there were also two kinds of control sentences—some that were straightforward true statements, and some that were moderately profound sentences like you might see on a motivational poster—”Your teacher can open the door, but you must enter by yourself,” for example.The study found when people do not estimate getting away with bullshit to be easy, they appear to be willing to bullshit only when they feel obligated to provide an opinion. As such, relative to the ease of passing bullshit, the obligation to provide an opinion appears to have a more potent influence on bullshitting behavior. 

In the 2nd experiment, researchers found people appear to be especially likely to bullshit when it may be perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to pass — when they are not held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions with like-minded individuals. When receiving a social pass for bullshitting is not expected to be easy — when people are held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions to people who disagree with their attitudes – people appear to refrain from bullshitting. Participants also filled out a variety of other tests. Some measured analytic reasoning ability versus people’s tendency to reason based on heuristics (or rules of thumb). Other tests explored whether people can distinguish between statements that are literally true or metaphorical. Still others examined people’s tendency to believe in paranormal phenomena.  Overall, participants found the pseudo-profound baloney statements to be deeper when they tended to rely on heuristics rather than on analytic reasoning. People also found these statements to be deeper if they tended to have trouble separating metaphor from literal statements and/or if they believed in the paranormal.  In a few studies that included both pseudo-profound nonsense and moderately profound statements, the authors used a measure of BS detection. When people rated the moderately profound statements as “deeper” than the BS statements, that suggested they were able to distinguish between these types of sentences.The size of this difference (that is, the ability to detect BS) was higher for people who relied on analytic reasoning than for those who relied on heuristic reasoning. It also tended to be higher the less people entertained paranormal beliefs.  Pennycook found evidence for bullshit receptivity and bullshit sensitivity. Receptivity refers to an overall inclination to accept statements as profound and true. 

The study concluded understanding bullshitting is not simply an attempt to understand the conditions under which bullshitting is most prevalent,” he wrote but is also an attempt to understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern at all for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity

Why people believe in bullshit

have you ever wonder why people like anti-vaxxers and flats earthers exist? People who believe in conspiracy thories tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure, that is the desire to find an explanation when explanations are lacking and to be unique.  They’re more likely to have a cognitive bias called hypersensitive agency detection or teleologic thinking (whereby events are overattributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives). Trying to agure with them will not work becuase at the conspiracy beliefs are often rooted in lack of trust in institutions. Trying to agure with them will also kick in the backfire effect, the more you try to prove them wrong they think the are right. When you try to prove them wrong, they will only feel attacked. Being proven wrong activates the same area of the brain as pain. When fact contridicts belief they hide behind emtional agurements that can’t be disproven, the backfire effect happens becuase emotions are faster than logical thought, when their beliefs are challanged the brain responses to the precived attack not the new information. 

So what motivates bullshitters?

In order to understand what motivates bullshitters we must first look at Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical analysis. Frankfurt argued that bullshitting is distinct from lying as an activity. He characterized it as follows:

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes up, to suit his purposes.

A liar knows and deliberately violates the truth while a bullshitter does not care, hence some bullshit can actually be the truth. What matters is the bullshitter’s attitude, his or her indifference to truth. Truth in bullshit – when it occurs – is incidental.

No one is free from bullshit

You may luagh at conspirist thoerists but no one is free form bullshit, you fall for bullshit daily through the Barnum Effect, which is how the effect describes how people are often willing to believe personality descriptions as specific to them, when in fact, they are quite generic and can apply to anyone, and the Dunning-Kruger effect, that is overestimating our abilities and the confirmation basis which is the tendancy to see, our emotions can easily be exploiated. And its effecting on how we live alot, the things you choose to buy, your health, who you choose to marry, your career, your emotions, and your finances, its what makes us make poor life choices.  This all happens in the background without you noticing.

So how do they affect our lives?

With the Barnum Effect we can be scammed hard. Marketing uses statements such as

  • Sometimes you give too much effort on projects that don’t work out.”
  • “You prefer change and do not like to feel limited in what you can do.”
  • “Although you do have some weaknesses, you try very hard to overcome them and be a better person.”

which are are true but its not targted specfically at you, its for everyone. This is basically how psychics and magicians stay in business, they are basically monkeys throwing shit at you. Whenever businesses promote personalized items or those “recommended for you” they are attempting to facilitate the same one-to-one connection that the above generic statements aim to.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” 

so how does the kurger effect affect our lives? Often we feel like we know how to do a task well but in reality can’t becuase we lack the sufficent knowledge or skills. The kurger effect occurs when your own incompetence prevents you from seeing your own incompetence, the reason why it happens so often becuase many people think they are above average, it can often lead to overconfidence. Moreover this effect gets larger the more unskilled one happens to be. Not only are the worst performers worse at the task then others, but they’re also worse at understanding they’re bad at the task. For example bad teachers often can’t tell they’re poor at explaining things, because they lack an understanding of how to explain things while people who aren’t funny often don’t know they’re not funny, because they lack an understanding of what is actually humorous. Becuase of the confirmation bias we have a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. It occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like for an certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.  Its effects how you seek infomation. For example when you are alone at home and feel losy you go through social media and look at pictures of people traveling, partying, and getting married, and think: Everyone I know is living a great life … I am such a lonely loser. You sit at home feeling bad, all because you chose to seek information that confirms your crummy feelings. You knew looking at those photos would make you feel worse, but you sought them anyway. It also affects how you interpt infomation in front of you. For example when you fall in love you and see how great your partner is, you don’t see thier flaws until when things get sour, you precive the things they do differently based on how you feel.

How can you fight bullshit?

To be able to stop bullshit and avoid falling for it you first need to be able to detect it

So how can we detect bullshit?

  1. People need to be able to recognize that a statement is confusing. The ability to separate metaphoric statements from literal ones is important here, though analytic reasoning ability probably also plays a role.
     
  2. People need to recognize that when a statement makes no sense, that suggests it may be BS rather than being a deep statement that the hearer just doesn’t understand. The ability to reason analytically, and the tendency to be skeptical of claims in general (such as paranormal claims) is important for this aspect of BS. 

Once you start asking people for evidence behind their claims you can assess people’s genuineness. Those who have no proof will often only provide anecdotal evidence, will be the ones who are more likely to bullshit. Those who have a good amount of knowledge will offer multiple multiple perspectives and evidence which means you must be wary. Improve on your vetting process by taking the time to research what others around you say, specifically when they make big claims. You also have to pay attention to small claims. Water-cooler conversations may seem like nothing of importance, but they can be useful in detecting bullshit. If a small group of you are discussing a topic most people don’t have an informed opinion on, it’s easier for one to get away with bullshitting. After we have paid attention to small claims we have to look for exaggerations, exaggerations will often be present in the stories people tell. In that case it may be difficult to ask for evidence – it’s a story from their personal life, and while they may be telling it to impress you, you still have to be cautious. The less substance you give to personal stories that seem too good to be true, the better you’ll get at spotting bullshit. Once we have looked for exaggerations, we need to observe our own reactions. People who get away with bullshitting have an easier time doing so when consorting with someone who’s gullible. Take the time to observe yourself so you can see if you are blindly taking everyone’s word as the truth. Stay vigilant and go back to seeking evidence. This is the key to neutralizing the effects of the bullshitter. Being able to observe our own reactions will help is will help us how to distguish actual knowledge from bullshit To be able to distinguish actual knowledge from bullshit you must understand how the subjective objective intersubjective triangle works. This triangle integrates two important ideas about the nature of knowledge together. The first idea, as noted by Yuval Harari in his wide-ranging book Sapiens, is that considerations regarding human knowledge can be effectively captured by dividing it into three broad domains: 1) the Subjective (i.e., first-person experience and knowledge of the world); 2) the Objective (i.e., the conception of the world as it exists independent of subjective knowers); and 3) the InterSubjective (i.e., what groups of humans share as knowledge about the world).This is a rather familiar breakdown in philosophy. We can represent these points on a triangle as follows:


You should be able to readily identify these domains. First, there is your subjective view of the world. This is how you see the world and how you make sense of it, both perceptually (i.e., what you perceive in your private, conscious experience of the world) and how you make sense of the world conceptually (i.e., your narrative of the way the world works—the language-based part of your consciousness you can share with others). Second, there is the actual, objective truth of the world; how it really is, regardless of what is believed by you or anyone else. Finally, there are the shared belief systems that social groups develop—what Berger and Luckmann called the social construction of reality. The shared verbal dimension of intersubjective reality is more often referred as “justification systems.”

The second idea that the SO IS Triangle incorporates is the idea that true knowledge is best conceptualized as justified true beliefs. Although there are some (justifiable) criticisms of this framework, it nevertheless is the case that the “justified true belief” approach to truth is one of the oldest and most venerable traditions in the philosophy of knowledge. We can forego technical criticisms, as it suits our purposes well. Justified true beliefs can also be represented on a triangle as follows:

Notice that this directly corresponds to the SO IS triangle. The knower’s belief is the (Subjective) representation about something that is (Objectively) true—because it accurately corresponds to the actual state of affairs—and is justified, which in philosophy means legitimized by logical and empirical factors. To be clear about this last element, it is not considered knowledge if, for example, a child, when asked about the molecular nature of water, says “H 2 0” simply because he is parroting what he has heard. However, a chemist who answers “H 2 0” has knowledge because his representation is meaningfully networked and justified by much prior knowledge and careful deductive work.

These triangles are meant to help you frame your thinking about the nature of knowledge. You can combine the two by asking, “SO IS my knowledge justified? How and by whom?” Doing so orients you to think about knowledge as consisting of the subjective, objective, and intersubjective domains, and it orients you to reflect on the idea that true knowledge is that which is accurate and justified by compelling logic and evidence.

Now let’s come back to the topic of bullshit and connect it to justification. Only instead of thinking about justification as a philosopher does, let’s think about it as an ordinary person does in the real world. First, in the real world, people have much more to worry about than the “epistemological accuracy” of their beliefs, which is the formal concern of philosophers. In the real world, beliefs generally function as tools that are used for pragmatic ends. That is, we generally believe what we do so that we can get along in the world. Although we care some about accuracy (inaccurate beliefs can obviously be problematic), we care even more about our goals and needs like survival, relationships, status, job security, and belonging. This means that what we want to be profoundly shapes the beliefs we have about what is.

So how can you free someone from bullshit?

If you really want to change someone’s mind then repeat your correction over and over again to remind them of their bullshit and provide them with an alternative narrative that is true, replace a bad exclamation with a good one, listen to them with empathy. To stop your own bullshit, you must stop and think to see through your own illusion, have the mindset that you know nothing, being able to accept when you are wrong. From there you can be open to feedback, hearing what others have to say about your abilities. And negative feedback is necessary, the reason why people don’t give you negative feedback is out of respect. But you know what is really. respected? honesty, the only way you can improve is by facing the cold hard truth. Observing the actions of others helps you learn about your own. You must seek the actual truth not just for what supports your beliefs, you must approach life with curiosity not conviction, challenge yourself. Unfortunately, all of this means that separating bullshit from true knowledge is not easy. It means we are swimming in bullshit and have been since the time we were born. And it means we are both predisposed to see it in others we disagree with and are distant from, all while being blind to seeing it in ourselves and the people we align with.in the end we are born shitty, its society that us more shitty and the fucked species we are


Questions

1. What is your favourite quote on bullshit?

2. How gulliable are you? what kind of bullshit do you fall for easily daily?

3. After reading this thread how has the perpective on bullshit changed? do you have a deeper understanding of bullshit now? how shitty would you descibe yourself? 

4. what do you think you are above averge in? how often does reality bite that expection?

5. Are people equally prone to bullshit?

6. what would be a good analogy on the dunning kruger effect?

7. what separates real knowledge from bullshit?