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Recent progress in bullshit studies

In November last year, Improbable drew readers’ attention to a newly published experimental study by Gordon Pennycook (University of Waterloo, ON, Canada) et alli in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, “Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”. We can now report that the same journal has published a rejoinder, in the form of a commentary by Dr Craig Dalton, [pictured] (who is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at the School of Medicine and Public Health, The University of Newcastle, Australia.)  It’s entitled : Bullshit for you; transcendence for me. A commentary on “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit”

“Seeming ‘nonsense’ and paradox has been at the heart of many wisdom traditions – the famous Zen koan – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’ may seem nonsense but it and other koans have inspired great insight not through ‘making sense’ but through creating a cognitive gap that allows opportunity for transcendence and reflection and potentially new learning.
A flower, the random sounds of a waterfall, a willow tree playing in the breeze, or the random scattering of autumn leaves, may lack the intention of profundity but they can all lead to transcendence and open us to beauty – as can a random statement generated by a computer.”

This new paper, however, has already prompted a re-rejoinder – again from Gordon Pennycook et alli : ‘It’s still bullshit: Reply to Dalton (2016)’

“That it is possible for someone to find meaning in a statement does not prevent it from being bullshit. Indeed, bullshit that is not found at least somewhat meaningful would be rather impotent. Consider the evangelizing of politicians and so-called spin-doctors, for example. Often, their goal is to say something without saying anything; to appear competent and respectful without concerning themselves with the truth. It is not the understanding of the recipient of bullshit that makes something bullshit, it is the lack of concern (and perhaps even understanding) of the truth or meaning of statements by the one who utters it. Our original study concluded that people who are receptive to statements randomly generated without concern for meaning (i.e., bullshit) are less, not more, analytic and logical as well as more intelligent. Dalton’s commentary does not undermine this conclusion.”

Bearing in mind this recent plethora of bullshit studies, Improbable asks, ‘Has the time come for a scholarly journal devoted entirely to the study of bullshit?’ If so, may we suggest a provisional title, as coined by Professor James A. Fredal, of the Department of English at The Ohio State university, “Taurascatics”

Further reading: Brian D. Earp who is a Visiting Scholar at the Hastings Center Bioethics Research Institute in Garrison, New York, writes on ‘The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit’ for Quillette.


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