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.