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A Load of Bull

by Alanna Mitchell

photography by jeff kirk

Joshua Quinlan and I are at Voodoo Child, a coffee bar on College Street in downtown Toronto, talking about bullshit. And not just regular bullshit. But the pseudo-profound variety.

Quinlan, with his dark beard, wire-frame glasses and black shirt, could pass for a café-au-lait-drinking philosopher on Paris’s Left Bank. But in reality, he is a PhD candidate in social-personality research at York University who hails from Newfoundland and has both a master’s degree in absurdist humour and a fondness for muffins.

He also happens to be an expert in balderdash. 

For a moment, as we chat, I start to wonder whether he’s pulling my leg. Pseudo-profound bullshit? Social-personality research? Absurdist humour? Voodoo Child? What if this conversation is just part of a sophisticated joke? Can bull really be a real topic of scientific research?

In fact, it is. Quinlan quite earnestly explains that a whole field of research has emerged in the past few years tracking people’s susceptibility to statements that purport to be meaningful but are actually nonsense.

It all started in 2015 with psychologist Gordon Pennycook, then a PhD student at the University of Waterloo and now an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina. Pennycook began tracking statements that he could see were specifically designed to impress even though they were total gibberish. Rather than imparting useful information, these sentences were aimed at entertaining or just catching attention.

Pennycook dubbed it pseudo-profound bullshit, saying it’s at the extreme end of the nonsense spectrum, and published a paper on it.

It was the first empirical investigation on the topic, and it won the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize, an eccentric international award doled out by Nobel laureates at Harvard University to celebrate the year’s most improbable, if entertaining, scientific research.

As he was investigating the phenomenon, Pennycook wondered whether the truncated form and broad reach of some social media platforms, particularly Twitter, makes it easier for these meaningless assertions to masquerade as meaningful. In fact, some of the baloney statements he was then examining showed up verbatim on the feed of an influential celebrity.

“With the rise of communication technology, people are much more likely to encounter more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before,” Pennycook writes.

Humans tend to seek meaning in an inherently meaningless universe

But encountering bull is one thing. Taking it as profound is something else altogether. Which led Pennycook to wonder: what predisposes someone to swallow ridiculous and vague statements whole? 

That original 2015 paper, based on four studies Pennycook and his team conducted, linked heightened receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit to lower verbal and numerical intelligence. Those more apt to find meaning where none exists also showed a greater likelihood to buy into conspiracy theories, hold non-traditional religious beliefs and paranormal ideas, and to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

In other words, the willingness to be a critical, analytical and skeptical thinker protects one against being susceptible to pseudo-profound bullshit.

This is where Quinlan, at York University, picks up the trail.

Under the direction of Tim Bainbridge, a PhD candidate in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, he began to wonder what type of personality characteristics make one more receptive to bull and so created a survey combining bullshit research and personality science. Quinlan and Bainbridge ran two studies, analyzing responses from 140 University of Melbourne psychology students and 157 undergrads at York. (Students got a course credit for participating.)

At this point, sitting in Voodoo Child, I’m wondering exactly what pseudo-profound bullshit looks like. I ask Quinlan and he says that the answer lies in the supplementary materials appended to the paper he published with Bainbridge last year in the European Journal of Personality.

Here are a few gems:

The future explains irrational facts.

Your movement transforms universal observations.

Orderliness is mirrored in cosmic possibilities.

And this pearl:

Today, science tells us that the essence of nature is joy.

To be sure, once you’re alerted to the fact that these are nonsense sentences – generated by computers, no less, and fitted into a proper syntactical structure – it’s pretty easy to see through them.

Being too open-minded can lead one to reject factual evidence

But, as Quinlan points out, humans tend to seek meaning in an inherently meaningless universe, which is why such statements tend to fly. We’re wired that way.

That means under normal circumstances, we expect statements to contain meaning. We’re charitable with them, believing that if we have enough faith in a sentence, its meaning will reveal itself. Most of us are not looking to be duped.

“People navigate the world on the assumption that information is both meaningful and truthful,” Quinlan says.

Not only that, but many pseudo-profound statements contain words we’re trained to consider important: “intrinsic,” “universal,” “transform,” “neural,” “science,” “cosmic.”

In their study, Quinlan and Bainbridge tossed in buzzwords like “quantum” and “infinitude” to heighten the appearance of profundity.

Further testing their participants’ credulity, they also mixed bullshit statements with others that truly were profound, as well as some that were true but banal.

Among the profound:

The creative adult is the child who survived.

A wet person does not fear the rain.

The banal:

Some people have poor taste in clothing.

Many things can be done with computers these days.

In addition to ranking the statements’ profundity, or lack of, the York University and Melbourne students answered questions about their own personalities. Their answers enabled the researchers to link personality characteristics to perceptions of profundity.

The findings, explains Quinlan, are that intuitive, reflexive thinkers are more receptive to bull, while reflective thinkers are not. Being receptive to bunk is linked to some types of personality openness, his research shows. Intelligence can serve as an antidote to believing in bullshit. But being too open-minded can lead one to reject factual evidence.

A few decades ago, before the internet connected the world and before algorithms so mercilessly parsed one’s habits, these peddlers had a much tougher time finding an audience, Quinlan adds.

Today, it’s easy to spread hogwash around. And in our baffling age of misinformation, having a strong bullshit detector seems like a mandatory requirement for getting through one’s day.

For Pennycook, the fast-spreading phenomenon of fake news has become a new field of study. The title of a paper he and some co-authors published this year in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition reveals some of his findings: “Belief in Fake News is Associated with Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism, and Reduced Analytic Thinking.”

As Pennycook says: “Bullshit is much harder to detect when we want to agree with it.” 

He knew early on that it would be easy to laugh off the whole idea of pseudo-profound bullshit. But he defends the research. Bull is now rampant, he says, and it’s important to be able to identify it. Others think so too. Today there’s even a course on how to spot bullshit offered by the University of Washington. It uses Pennycook’s 2015 paper, among other materials, as part of the curriculum. The synopsis reads: “Our world is saturated with bullshit. Learn to detect and defuse it.”  

Indeed, our culture is now filled with masses of false information spread with the explicit intent to mislead: advertising, politics, talk shows, tabloid headlines, faith cures, psychic healers, spiritualists, anti-vaxxers. Their claptrap is no joke. 

In the case of anti-vaxxers, for instance, people’s very lives may hang on the ability to separate the meaningful from the meaningless.

“There’s a lot of information in the world and often that information is given in bad faith,” Quinlan says. “You’re given the impression that they have something to offer when they don’t. They’re grifters.”     

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