The Science of Spotting BS

The authors clearly had a lot of fun writing their paper on the reception and detection of BS. They use the term “bullshit” more in the first few paragraphs than most people use their core term in the whole of any paper. That said, why not? It is an interesting topic whether people spot vacuous pseudo-profound nonsense or not.

Starting with a definition they argue that the idea of BS as simple rubbish or nonsense isn’t enough. There must be the desire to be seen as saying something meaningful as part of the goals and intentions of the communicator. They restrict their focus to pseudo-profound bullshit, rather than big fish stories, and worry Twitter especially (with its character limit, then 140) encourages pithy nonsense that authors want readers to take seriously.

They aimed to test what predicted who spotted the pseudo-profound nonsense and ran a series of 4 experiments to that effect. (Including the first where 35% of participants failed a simple attention check — not a great sign of focus although apparently attention didn’t impact the results).

So who was receptive to bullshit? “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.” Pennycook et al. 2015, page 559).

That many people — all of us sometimes I’m sure — accept pseudo-profound nonsense from charlatans is a worry. I’m not sure what exactly we can do about it but at least these authors clearly had a great time digging into it.

Read: Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang (2015) On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563