Detecting Bullshit

A couple of years back I was at a party and I met a young lady. She was nice enough and we chatted about this and that but I became particularly interested when she revealed that she worked for a publisher of scientific journals. This was very interesting. Apparently she was one of the people who gave the new submissions a quick once over to see if they warranted more scrutiny and, ultimately, publication – a dream job as far as I was concerned. It was a particularly crushing blow, then, when said interesting female revealed that she was a huge fan of Deepak Chopra.

For those who, mercifully, have not heard of Deepak Chopra he is a lunatic of the New Age, anti-science variety. He likes to throw the word quantum randomly into sentences to make himself sound profound. His Twitter feed is legendary for being chock full of his nonsensical musings and missives. Thirty seconds of browsing just now gave me some perfect examples of his special brand of guff, “Rewire your brain for higher consciousness by paying attention to love, compassion and joy,” and, “We are influencing the future evolution of our genome based on the choices we make.” Both utter bullshit but both potentially profound sounding to those who don’t have the knowledge or critical thinking skill set to detect the whiff of cow excrement.

Bullshit, as it happens, is the exact right word in this case. A new, open access paper published last week in the Journal of Judgement and Decision Making used the word bullshit exactly 200 times including in the title itself: On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit. This paper has gotten a lot of coverage in the media not just because of its liberal use of profanity but because it takes a wholly undisguised swipe at Dr Chopra.

The authors wanted to dig down into what kind of people confuse bullshit with profundity, who see meaning where there is only abstract nonsense. They began by using a bullshit generator, there are at least two out there (here and here, have a go, they’re good fun) that take words used by Chopra in his Twitter feed and then mash them randomly together. The only guidelines in the generators are that they must produce syntactically cogent sentences, they don’t have to mean anything, but they must at least be an ordered English sentence. For example, read the following two sentences:

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract.”

They contain the exact same randomly chosen words and both don’t ‘mean’ anything but one clearly makes syntactic sense whilst the other doesn’t. The authors, then, took ten such computer generated, random phrases and asked people to rate them on a 1 to 5 scale of profundity where 1 was ‘not at all profound’ and 5 was ‘very profound’. Of the more than 150 people who rated the statements more than 80% of them rated the statements as ‘somewhat profound’ or higher on average. This would strongly imply that the group, on the whole, failed to detect that the statements were bullshit.

Next, and here’s where it starts to get a bit personal, they ran the same test again but this time with actual tweets from Deepak Chopra’s actual Twitter feed. The genuine Chopra statements performed almost identically to the randomly generated ones, this essentially means that the nonsense that clogs up half the social media feeds in the land is indistinguishable from actual, made up nonsense.

As well as testing statements for profundity the participants were all asked to do a series of cognitive and numeracy tests as well as questionnaires to gauge their attitudes towards religion, conspiracy theories, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and other topics. Those people who rated the statements as most profound were less reflective, lower in cognitive ability, were more prone to ontological confusion and to believe in conspiracies, were more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and were more likely to endorse CAM.

It would be ungallant to accuse the nice, young lady I met at that party of being a gullible idiot but getting to grips with how different people process information is an important area of research. Ultimately, we want more of society to be capable of critically appraising the world around them and making the best possible decisions for themselves. If the majority of people think that there is some merit in the cynical ramblings of woo-woo-peddling charlatans like Deepak Chopra then that will leave them prey to their scams. The difficulty will be in persuading them of the advantages of hard-bitten, unexciting scepticism over the apparently profound pearls of wisdom of a charismatic millionaire.

deepak

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34 thoughts on “Detecting Bullshit

  1. Screw this guy, never heard of him before I read this article… but, be carefull with genome influencing by mood (love, joy, fear, whatever…) someone has performed an experiment on mice (!?).. sprayed particular smell (cherry blossom?) and electrocuted them in the same time. They repeated it over a period of time and of course there was a control group just sprayed with the smell… expectedly, electrocuted ones developed a fear from the smell it self. Now, they bred both groups separately and guess what.. offspring of the main group had the same reaction to cherry blossom smell ass their “parents” had. Needless to say there was no parenting involved and it didn’t happen in the control group. So, avoid electricity while walking in orchards.. unless you already have the kids!
    They compered it to the findings of another research… on the descendents of Holocaust survivors.

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  2. Awesome post. Also, I wonder what will result if one runs the BS detection study on the people who sit atop the academic food chain in our setting. I am sure it would make for some seriously fun reading! But I guess nobody would like to be branded unemployable by doing such a research!

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  3. The random stuff was interesting. “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
    Obvious gibberish but I decided to treat it as meaningful and see what happened. After a few seconds the thought “Rainbows” occurred. Unparalleled abstract beauty transformed by an understanding of how they are created. Could this random sentence be “deep” after all? 🙂
    I don’t actually think that “understanding increases enjoyment” is deep at all, but it’s an interesting experiment to suspend disbelief and assume that some bullshit is meaningful and see where it leads.
    Seems closely related to Zen koans, but that’s only a first impression.

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    1. I’m always in favour of a good thought experiment. I’m also very much in favour of people being calm, de-stressing and seeking beauty wherever they can find it; so long as they don’t fall prey to someone that would take advantage of them it’s all good.

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  4. Dang. I really wanted to jump in feet first with you on this, but straight away I realized you aren’t as informed as you think you are and you’ve overreached. I’m no science master, but your Deepak Chopra examples, in my opinion, point to a lack of breadth in your knowlege. To remedy this, I suggest you:
    1) Read about left hemisphere strokes and the type of conciousness you have from right brain activity. When we talk about making ourselves smarter, these activities are generally for left brain skills. Right brain skills are indeed creative, intuitive etc.
    2) Learn about epigenetic and genetic changes that can occur within a lifetime. Your choices can impact the dna you pass on.

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    1. Hi Lola, thank you for your illuminating examples.
      As to the first there is a lot of serif out there from the Chopra end of the spectrum that suggest there is something to the left-right brain thing. As for actual science, however, there is no evidence at all for different types of consciousness depending upon hemisphere. No one in neuroscience takes the field seriously and there have been enough negative studies now to discourage many others from eating their time on it.
      With regard to your second point, I’m actually a geneticist and have looked extensively at epigenetics. I find it fascinating. However, the current evidence is very patchy, especially in humans. There may be a small number of circumstances where things like smoking can have multi generational effects but we are still some distance from firm conclusions. The evidence for epigenetic alterations affecting an individual in just one generation is even more scant.
      Feel free to jump in feet first in the future.

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  5. Your cynical attitude is sad. If you are a serious rationalist, why not cite reputed academic journals refuting Chopra’s points on gene expression? There is published research for example showing meditation affects brain activity. Clinically, hormonal levels are tied to mood. Before you castigate someone as a pseudo-scientist, use the same scientific approach to your own statements.

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    1. I can’t see why a serious academic would give Chopra’s ramblings the time of day, nevermind actually study them. Meditation affects brain activity? Sure, why not? What doesn’t affect brain activity? What’s your point? I have literally no idea what point you’re trying to make wroth the hormones either. Are we just stating facts now?

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  6. You are a geneticist and you don’t believe epigenetic changes can be caused by environment? You must discount genotoxin teratogens too? Or are the teratogens never something we eat, put on ourselves etc.

    Also, neuroscientists do discuss conciousness and intuition and left/right hemisphere differences. It doesn’t have a lot of funding, like profit driven science, but it exists and it is accepted. I think the diffrrence is that you might think of the term conciousness differently. Think of an child corn with any of the microbrain defects– what exactly is their conciousness. Do we know? Conciousness is a broad term.

    Anyway, quickly, 2 examples of scientists discussing conciousness/intuition here:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/16209332/
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3218761/

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    1. I never said I don’t believe epigenetics. I said that it is in its infancy and that anyone making bold claims about it is overstepping the mark. We simply don’t have enough data yet. I do think it’s unlikely that the effect is strong enough or predictable enough to affect future generations through our choices. That is pure speculation at this point and I would be surprised if it came to fruition. Sadly I would not be surprised if a pseudo science sprung up around it, perhaps that’s already happened.
      Consciousness and intuition are valid research areas. The massively parallel processing abilities of our sub conscious brains should certainly be investigated further. But there aren’t significant differences in consciousness between the different halves of the brain, which I believe was the original point.
      That first link is a decade old and rather dated. The second one I haven’t got time to fully go through yet. The latest review I could find wad this one from 2013.
      http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0071275

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  7. You didn’t speak to genotoxins

    I find it surprising you are a career geneticist and you think epigenetic changes are purely random and will never be predictable. You field, is mostly a field of observers?

    We do acquire genetic changes (acquired/somatic) , some of consequence, and some impacting the germ cells. These changes may turn out to be partially predictable.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1383574210000475

    Do I think ALL changes are predictable? No. Are most due to random changes or uncontrollable environmental inputs (viruses, for example)? probably. But I bet some are from things we haven’t quantified yet. Drugs are a good starter target.

    I think you possibly dislike Deepak because he preponders in these hard to quantify areas with great faith. You prefer rock hard science. But, people need to imagine to create. Creating rock hard science takes a hypothesis. I’ve come to be more and more skeptical of science after we’ve watched much of it fall prey to poor study design (double-blind, inert placebos, sufficient size, properly controlled) and publishing bias.

    And, although this may not apply to you, I just want to add that I really can’t support people who arrogantly parrot results from completely horrible research they didn’t bother to read. (Medical news is full of these dopes!). Medical research is pretty terrible (bias!) and yet some “skeptics” choose to knee-jerk believe it whole-hog over nascient well designed science papers.

    I try to be sure any research I support is actually of good quality. A lot of it isn’t.

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    1. I feel you’re putting words in my mouth again, Lola. I don’t think epigenetics is purely random but that at this point the data is not giving us clear, consistent results. There is an effect but my suspicion is that it won’t be strong enough to use as an effective tool. Even if it did come to fruition, it would only ever be a probability, there would be no definites. For example, you might be able to say something like: if you smoke then there is a 3% increase in the likelihood of your grandchildren having some kind of mental illness (I forget what the actual potential link is).
      It sounds like you are getting a bit confused between traditional misense, nonsense and indel mutations and epigenetic mutations which aren’t actually mutations at all but an alteration of how the DNA is packaged up during methylation so be sure to keep those separate.
      You are right that the list of potential mutagens is constantly growing and something that we need to be aware of, but that isn’t anything new.
      You’re also right that I’m a strict empiricist as far as my abilities allow. I’m very much in favour of people trying to puzzle things out and debating various topics, what I don’t like is when people over step the mark of what is reasonable. If someone is claiming certain things as fact or as more certain than we could possibly know then, yes, I will take strong issue with that; especially if that person is making money out of it. I think that’s misleading and wrong.
      I dispute that ‘much of’ science has been debunked. I see no evidence of that. Of course some is, that’s as it should be.
      I couldn’t agree more that the reporting of science is of a generally low standard. I think they do the public a disservice. And I applaud your looking at the quality of the science you read, more people should do that. Perhaps where we differ is what we would consider high quality?

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  8. I think we, probably, agree very much on most things. I’m actually severe empiricist skeptic, whereas my mother, with two masters degrees and a very high IQ, is really into the “possible”.
    She’s ok living ahead of the bleeding edge of what we know.

    But, I’m really strict about scientists calling bullshit on others when they don’t have anything but their own skepticism to base their arguments on. You just gave me a lot of assumptions in your last comment.

    We empiricists shouldn’t discount the unknown, though we prefer quantifiable things. For a long time they always said research proved a good attitude/faith could be the reason you survived cancer and cynicism would doom you. I thought this was a big bullshit burden on a patient : to have to be satisfied and happy while also facing horrible odds. Later research said skeptics and grumps fight harder and are able to undergo more to survive. So, i was right. But still, we must admit, if you can swing it, satisfied and hopeful is probably a better way to die if death is in your cards. It has value.

    Plenty of smart people might just prefer these airy fairy unproven things and there’s no need to feel superior that the science isn’t there, so far. Especially, if there are few allopathic solutions to their troubles, one can gain something and probably won’t be hurt by believing and trying unproven things.
    Telling myself ” the placebo effect is powerful”, is how I used to accept my mother’s silly-to-me beliefs. Which was really arrogant of me, because Deepak might just turn out to be right. Plenty of what “we know” has changed over time, and things that were only wives tales, have turned out to be real. Human observation over centuries of life can sometimes be scientifically accurate.

    That said- there are facts to be had and people should avail themselves of them. Know what you are choosing to believe. Don’t just drink any old koolaid. Scientists need to speak up and call out bad science and not bullshit their arguments either.

    Oh, and yes, of course I onow what epigenetics are. I’ve read much, but I admit it’s such a huge topic- genes.
    I recently had part of my dna analyzed for medical reasons and was bummed epigenetic changes weren’t in my particular analysis package (cardiac). I had read enough to guess i had a genetic change which only recent research has uncovered.

    But they also do look for epigenetic changes in people with certain issues. Epigenetics are probably more heritable and more important than we know- IMHO.

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  9. “Plenty of smart people might just prefer these airy fairy unproven things and there’s no need to feel superior that the science isn’t there, so far. Especially, if there are few allopathic solutions to their troubles, one can gain something and probably won’t be hurt by believing and trying unproven things.
    Telling myself ” the placebo effect is powerful”, is how I used to accept my mother’s silly-to-me beliefs. Which was really arrogant of me, because Deepak might just turn out to be right. Plenty of what “we know” has changed over time, and things that were only wives tales, have turned out to be real. Human observation over centuries of life can sometimes be scientifically accurate.”

    Well said, Lola. Damn those scientists that insisted the world was round, a few centuries ago. Let’s create a blog post around them and let those round-earthers know what bullshit they’re spewing has no basis in fact. Everyone *ahem* knows the world is flat!!!

    We just don’t know if Deepak Chopra is right or wrong. Or if Amit Goswami is wrong. Or if Nassim Haremein is wrong. Or if Stephen Hawking is wrong… but to call any of their statements flat out Bullshit is not only childish, but ridicule is something that stifles the very thing that pushed science along all these years.. observation, exploration and discovery.

    But then again this blog post illustrates confirmation bias pretty well, so we’ll leave it at that.

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  10. I once bought a book authored by Deepak Chopra and I found it interesting; however, after hearing him a few times on video (TV + Youtube) he sounded to me like a charlatan! Now I just switch off because he also annoys me with his quantum physics reductionalism and other cheesy slogans.

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