Would you know it if you saw it?
Babble, bafflegab, balderdash, bilge, blabber, blarney, blather, bollocks, bosh, bunkum. These are a few of the synonyms (from just the b’s) for the demotic descriptor BS (as commonly abbreviated). The Oxford English Dictionary equates it with “nonsense.” In his best-selling 2005 book on the subject, Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously distinguished BS from lying: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” BS may or may not be true, but its “truthiness” (in comedian Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism) is meant to impress through obfuscation—that is, by saying something that sounds profound but may be nonsense.
Example: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” This is an actual tweet composed by Deepak Chopra, as quoted by University of Waterloo psychologist Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues in a paper published in the November 2015 issue of Judgment and Decision Making. The scientists set out to determine “the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming” a victim of what they called “pseudo-profound” BS, or language “constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.” I was cited in the paper for describing Chopra’s language as “woo-woo nonsense.” For instance, in a 2010 debate we had at the California Institute of Technology that was televised on ABC’s Nightline, in the audience Q&A, Chopra defines consciousness as “a superposition of possibilities,” to which physicist Leonard Mlodinow replies: “I know what each of those words mean. I still don’t think I know….”
Chopra’s definition of consciousness certainly sounds like pseudo-profundity, but I have since gotten to know him and can assure readers that he doesn’t create such phrases to intentionally obscure meaning. He believes that quantum physics explains consciousness, so invoking terms from that field makes sense in his mind, even though to those not so inclined, much of what he says sounds like, well, BS.
These are examples of what cognitive psychologist Dan Sperber meant when he wrote in “The Guru Effect,” a 2010 article in the Review of Philosophy and Psychology: “All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp.” To find out if some people are more or less inclined to accept BS as legit based on their ability (or lack thereof) to grasp language (or lack thereof), Pennycook et al. began by distinguishing two types of thinking: one, intuitive—rapid and automatic cognition—and, two, reflective—slower and effortful cognition. Type 1 thinking makes us vulnerable to BS because it takes time and effort to think (and say), “I know what each of those words mean. I still don’t think I know….” Pennycook and his team tested the hypothesis that higher intelligence and a superior analytical cognitive style (analyticity) leads to a greater capacity to detect and reject pretentious BS. Employing standard measures of intelligence (for example, the Wordsum test) and analyticity (for example, the Cognitive Reflection Test), the psychologists presented subjects with a number of meaningless statements produced by the New Age Bullshit Generator, such as “We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself” and “Today, science tells us that the essence of nature is joy.”
In four studies on more than 800 subjects, the authors found that the higher the intelligence and analyticity of subjects, the less likely they were to rate such statements as profound. Conversely, and revealingly, they concluded that those most receptive to pseudo-profound BS are also more prone to “conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.” Apropos of one of this column’s skeptical leitmotifs, detecting BS, according to the authors, “is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims.”
Skepticism should never be indiscriminate and should always be discerning of a claim’s verisimilitude based on evidence and logic, regardless of language. But language matters, so it is incumbent on us all to transduce our neuro-phonemic excitatory action potentials into laconic phonological resonances unencumbered by extraneous and obfuscating utterances. And that’s no BS.