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1 Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2016, pp. 12 3–125 It’s still bullshit: Reply to Dalton (2016) † ∗ † ‡ Derek J. Koehler Nathaniel Barr James Allan Cheyne Gordon Pennycook † Jonathan A. Fugelsang Abstract In reply to Dalton (2016), we argue that bullshit is defined in terms of how it is produced, not how it is interpreted. We agree as much in the original paper). Nonetheless, we present that it can be interpreted as profound by some readers (and assumed additional evidence against the possibility that more reflective thinkers ar e more inclined to interpret bullshit statements as profound. Keywords: bullshit, intention, meaning. 1 Reply cannot be true without further untenable assumptions. We take Dalton’s claim to actually be conceptual, if not philo- Bullshit has been defined as something that is constructed sophical. Specifically, Dalton’s conceptual point appears to - without concern for the truth (Frankfurt, 2005). By this def be based on a radical reader-response theoretical position in inition, bullshit statements can be true, false, or meaning - which the meaning of a text is solely what the reader makes less. The absence or presence of these factors is irrelevant of it. From such a perspective it is, of course, not possi- to something being bullshit. Nonetheless, although bullsh it ble to say, , that any text is ultimately and always a priori statements can be incidentally true, bullshit is generally false meaningless as some reader will always have the last say. and hence, often problematic. Dalton argues, it is (and will always be) possible for at leas t In our initial investigation of bullshit, we focused on someone, somewhere, to find (or perhaps more aptly “con- statements that consisted of randomly selected buzzwords struct”) meaning, or what they take to be meaning, by suf- (Pennycook et al., 2015). We used 20 different statements ficiently contemplating any statement. We, of course, agree across 4 different studies (excluding items from Deepak as the very premise of our study was that people would re- Chopra’s Twitter feed, which we will not discuss further designed without regard to meaning to be at port sentences in this reply). Examples include “wholeness quiets infi- n least somewhat profound. Bullshit, following the definitio nite phenomena” (wisdomofchopra.com) and “we are in the offered by Frankfurt, however, depends on the intentions (o r s midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectednes lack thereof) of the person uttering or writing the relevant that will give us access to the quantum soup itself” (seb- statements. Bullshit that is viewed as profound is still bul l- pearce.com/bullshit). We labelled these statements “pseu do- shit. profound bullshit” because: 1) they were constructed absen t As a consequence, without endorsing a radical reader- any concern for the truth and, generally, for that reason, 2) response theory, we note that Dalton’s primary point is con- they do not consistently have unambiguous meaning, though sistent with the goal of our study. Namely, we hypothesized they can sometimes interpreted by at least some people to that people would indeed report randomly generated state- have profound meaning. ments as not only meaningful but profound and, moreover, In his commentary, Dalton notes, as do we, that at least that people would vary in this propensity. This expectation some randomly generated statements can be taken as mean- was based on the assumption that people will find, or sup- pose that they have found, meaning in such statements. The ingful by some readers. Dalton takes this claim to have very goal of the study was to investigate this tendency em- methodological implications but we will argue below this ot pirically, not to argue, as Dalton states, that: “if one cann Funding for this study was provided by the Natural Sciences a nd En- immediately discern meaning in something it is automati- gineering Research Council of Canada. cally bullshit.” It is important to recognize that even if we Copyright: © 2016. The authors license this article under th e terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. nt take a radical reader-response position, the only constrai ∗ Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, 200 Unive r- on our original study was in the use of “pseudo-profound” sity Avenue West, Waterloo ON, Canada, N2L 3G1. Email: gpen- as a label for the random sentences. Because they were con- [email protected] † t structed without any concern for the truth, they are bullshi Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo. ‡ (by the Frankfurt definition we followed in our original pa- The School of Humanities and Creativity, Sheridan College. 123

2 Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2016 Bullshit r eceptivity — response to Dalton 124 Pennycook et al.’s (2015) Study 2. Table 1: The 5 most and least profound bullshit statements in New scale Source Item Mean (SD) sebpearce.com/bullshit As you self-actualize, you will en 2.87 (1.17) ter into infinite empathy that More transcends understanding. profound bullshit wisdomofchopra.com Perceptual reality transcends subtle truth. 2.87 (1.16) erence, and of us. sebpearce.com/bullshit Consciousness is the growth of coh 2.82 (1.16) 2.60 (1.03) ed abstract beauty. wisdomofchopra.com Hidden meaning transforms unparallel sebpearce.com/bullshit The infinite is calling to us via sup erpositions of possibilities. 2.57 (1.22) 2.31 (1.20) wisdomofchopra.com Your consciousness gives rise to a jumb le of neural networks. Less profound sence of nature is joy. 2.20 (1.12) sebpearce.com/bullshit Today, science tells us that the es bullshit een interacting with the dreamscape sebpearce.com/bullshit Throughout history, humans have b 2.18 (1.15) via bio-electricity. wisdomofchopra.com The future explains irrational facts. 2.17 (1.11) 2.16 (1.05) wisdomofchopra.com Good health imparts reality to subtle c reativity. reflective, clever, and/or linguis- more that people who are per). Dalton appears to assume that our use of the term bull- tically adept will be more apt to construct meaning in the shit implies some sort of value judgment, as it often is in ambiguous statements. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, everyday use. In contrast, and following Frankfurt’s lead, negatively associated with report- increasing reflectivity was we used bullshit as a technical term. This is the way that we ing greater profundity in bullshit statements. One possibi lity hope it continues to be used in the academic literature. is that more reflective people were indeed more able to find With regard to Dalton’s claim that his argument is meaning where none was intended but are also likely to re- unless one methodological, we note that this cannot be so alize that the meaning was constructed through their own sample assumes that a of random computer-generated state- cognitive efforts rather than by the ostensible author of th e ments have an equal probability of being interpreted as statements. meaningfully profound as human-generated statements in- tended to be meaningful (if not profound). Methodologi- One potential response to this line of reasoning is that it cally, the key word in the forgoing sentence is sample . In may be that only some of the randomly generated statements our study we found and reported that a sample of human- are potentially meaningful to some readers or, perhaps more generated profound quotations (e.g., “A wet person does not precisely, that the statements varied in the ease with which fear the rain”) were rated as more profound than samples they could be assigned some meaning. Dalton notes, for of computer-generated random sentences (see Studies 3 and example that he cannot derive meaning from the following 4). Thus, the equality of meaning assumption was demon- statement: “We are in the midst of a high-frequency blos- strably false for our study. soming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the In reference to the “Wholeness quiets infinite phenom- quantum soup itself”, though we suspect that some people ena” example, Dalton takes a phenomenological stance to at might. This possibility suggests the further hypothesis th meaning: “To engage with a passage like this we need to the association between our variables of interest and profu n- contemplate it for more than a few seconds, perhaps a few f dity ratings for the bullshit items might vary as a function o minutes (or hours, days, or months) and watch what hap- the ease of constructing profound meaning from randomly pens to our mind – this is the appropriate first person sub- generated sentences. To test this, we created two new scales jective experience and more appropriate outcome of inter- using a subset of the items from Study 2. The “more pro- est.” In the research under discussion, however, such an ap- found” scale took the mean from the 5 items that were as- t. proach is not only inappropriate, but altogether irrelevan signed the highest average profundity rating and the “less on Our interest, in this initial study, was not in the first-pers profound” scale consists of the 5 lowest scoring items (see phenomenology of readers’ subjective experience (though i t Table 1). Both scales had acceptable internal consistency might constitute a possible and interesting subsequent lin e = .81 and .75 for the relatively more and (Cronbach’s α of research) but simply in participants’ profundity rating s of less profound items, respectively). As is evident from Tabl e statements designed to be lacking in that very quality (i.e. , 2, the two scales performed very similarly. Indeed, heuris- as a way to index one’s receptivity to bullshit). Dalton’s ar - tics and biases performance was significantly more strongly gument does imply the interesting and plausible hypothesis correlated with the scale that consists of the more profound

3 Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2016 125 Bullshit r eceptivity — response to Dalton truth. It is not the understanding of the recipient of bull- Table 2: Re-analysis of Pennycook et al.’s Study 2. Pear- shit that makes something bullshit, it is the lack of concern son product-moment correlations for 5 most profound and (and perhaps even understanding) of the truth or meaning 5 least profound bullshit items. These data are for the full of statements by the one who utters it. Our original study ∗∗ ∗ ∗∗∗ , 05 p < . , 001 . p < . sample (N = 187). p < . 01 concluded that people who are receptive to statements ran- t) domly generated without concern for meaning (i.e., bullshi More Less are less, not more, analytic and logical as well as more intel - profound profound ligent. Dalton’s commentary does not undermine this con- bullshit bullshit clusion. ∗∗ ∗∗∗ 36 Heuristics and Biases − . 23 . − ∗ . Need for Cognition − . 16 − 11 References ∗∗∗ ∗∗ 25 . 22 . Faith in Intuition ∗ ∗∗ 24 Numeracy − . 18 − . Dalton, C. (2016). Bullshit for you; transcendence for me. ∗∗ ∗∗∗ . − 26 . Verbal Intelligence − 25 A commentary on “On the reception and detection of ∗∗∗ ∗∗∗ pseudo-profound bullshit”. Judgment and Decision Mak- . − − Advanced Progressive Matrices 27 . 28 , 121–122. ing, 11 ∗∗∗ ∗∗∗ 47 . Ontological Confusions . 38 Frankfurt, H. G. (2005) . Cambridge: Cam- On Bullshit ∗∗ ∗∗ . 24 . Religious Belief 24 bridge University Press. ∗∗∗ ∗∗∗ . 27 . 31 Paranormal Belief Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J. & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of Judgment and Decision Mak- pseudo-profound bullshit. items ( r = –.36) than it was with the less profound items ( r , 549–563. , ing 10 = –.23). The correlations were significantly different from one another according to a William’s test, t (187) = 2.08, p = .038, though both coefficients are significantly different p ’s < .01). from zero ( This pattern of results is at variance with what we take to be the implications of Dalton’s argument. Specifically, if t he observation that some participants may find transcendence in our bullshit items constrains our results, bullshit item s that are more likely to be subjectively meaningful for parti c- en ipants should be less strongly negatively correlated (or ev 1 positively correlated) with analytic thinking . Our results indicate that, if anything, relatively more profound bulls hit - is more strongly negatively correlated with analytic think ing; perhaps because it is more difficult to detect that they are, in fact, bullshit. 2 Conclusion That it is possible for someone to find meaning in a state- ment does not prevent it from being bullshit. Indeed, bull- shit that is not found at least somewhat meaningful would be rather impotent. Consider the evangelizing of politicia ns is and so-called spin-doctors, for example. Often, their goal to say something without saying anything; to appear compe- tent and respectful without concerning themselves with the 1 To be clear, Dalton does not propose this analysis or any mecha nism that might explain why more profound bullshit would be differe ntially as- sociated with analytic thinking. Rather, our point is that t his is a necessary condition for Dalton’s observation that some bullshit items a re more (or, perhaps, genuinely) profound to constrain the results of ou r original stud- ies. Put differently, our inclusion of items that are viewed a s relatively more y. profound does not confound or constrain our findings in any wa

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