It’s a technical term


I was reading outside my discipline, which is always good for a surprise. It was a paper titled “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories“, which isn’t that far outside my interests, and was actually rather interesting. Here’s the abstract:

Research on individual-difference factors predicting belief in conspiracy theories has proceeded along several independent lines that converge on a profile of conspiracy believers as individuals who are relatively untrusting, ideologically eccentric, concerned about personal safety, and prone to perceiving agency in actions and profundity in bullshit. The present research represents the first attempt at an integrative approach to testing the independent contributions of these diverse factors to conspiratorial thinking. Two studies (N=1,253) found that schizotypy, dangerous-world beliefs, and bullshit receptivity independently and additively predict endorsement of generic (i.e., nonpartisan) conspiracy beliefs. Results suggest that “hyperactive” agency detection and political orientation (and related variables) might also play a role. The studies found no effects of situational threats (mortality salience or a sense of powerlessness)—though it remains to be seen whether real-world instantiations of situational threats might move some people to seek refuge in conspiratorial ideation.

One phrase leapt off the page at me: “bullshit receptivity”. This is a thing? They have a way to measure it? They do!

Bullshit receptivity. Participants’ receptivity to superficially profound statements was measured using the Bullshit Receptivity Scale (Pennycook et al., 2015). This measure consists of nine seemingly impressive statements that follow rules of syntax and contain fancy words, but do not have any intentional meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”; “Imagination is inside exponential space time events”). Participants rated each of the items’ profoundness on a scale from 1 (Not at all profound) to 5 (Very profound). They were given the following definition of profound for reference: “of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance.”

I love the name. I love that they have to define “profound” for their subjects. I also found their result interesting:

Exploratory regression analyses showed that the association between agency detection and conspiracy belief dropped most markedly when controlling for bullshit receptivity (and to some extent dangerous world beliefs). This suggests that a tendency toward agency detection might contribute to bullshit receptivity, or that they share a common psychological substrate in relation to their association with conspiracy belief.

Spurious belief in agency and conspiracies is associated with an acceptance of pseudo-profundities? I am not surprised. That explains a lot.

Now I want to see the Bullshit Receptivity measured in fans of Deepak Chopra and Jordan Peterson. It’s got to be off the scale.

Comments

  1. 00001000bit says

    May I be the first to suggest that if we get to the point where we can quantify the severity of bullshit, that we measure it in units of “Chopras” or “Petersons” – maybe Chopras for times you’re measuring meaningless bullshit, and Petersons when you need to categorize more harmful, insidious bullshit. (eg. “The speech measured a 3.7 on the Peterson index. It was the worst since last year when a statement by the same politician actually reached a 1.7 Alexjones.”)

  2. coreyhammer says

    OMG. I’ve been disconnected from the literature too long. This is probably the best thing ever in my field. A Bullshit Receptivity Scale…I love it.

  3. says

    Altemeyer’s authoritarianism scale also correlates with unsupported belief, if I recall correctly. It should be no surprise that people who like to follow dominant personalities would also tend to believe them.

    (I am generally skeptical of such scales because they have a general epistemological problem: you are an “authoritarian” we know because you score high on that scale. What is an “authoritarian” though? Oh, someone who scored high on that scale. The scale measures whether or not it measures you.)

  4. says

    Actually IIRC some of the items on the bullshit receptivity scale are actual sayings of Deepak Chopra. So yes, his cultists would score high but that’s tautological.

  5. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    PZ: “Now I want to see the Bullshit Receptivity measured in fans of Deepak Chopra and Jordan Peterson.”

    I believe the phrases in the bullshit session section were drawn directly from Depak’s writings.

  6. unclefrogy says

    I do not know what to say. They seem to have found something but because of my lack of much specific knowledge or training in this level of psychology but to my ears they are getting very close to bullshit themselves.
    the only thing I have ever seen personally in those who suffer from conspiracy theories is a kind of deep ignorance about things and a child like way to think about what they do not understand. which is also similar to some religious believers the big difference between them might be their level of fear and it’s prominence in their thinking and understanding (trust?)
    uncle frogy

  7. ikanreed says

    As a massive fan of “On the perception and detection of pseudoprofound bullshit” paper that created this scale, I would like to follow up your concern by reiterating #4 here.

    The original paper constructed the scale loosely based on Deepak Chopra’s babblings. I don’t believe they have any of his direct quotes in the scale, but they DID do a parallel inventory to statements by Chopra in the original paper.

    Unsurprisingly the correlations between Deepak’s bullshit and the essentially random bullshit that comprises the inventory is very strong. I like to keep tabs on the follow up papers that cite the original because they’re usually pretty great: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=11709674403661511809&as_sdt=5,39&sciodt=0,39&hl=en

  8. says

    When I got my MS I took a statistics course and over the course there were 7 or so written projects where we had to analyze whether a particular study or later any newspaper article had sufficiently supported their conclusions.

    Over the course of the semester, we analyzed each article or study based upon statistical and also logic principles and eventually what I describe as an epiphany occurred. It seemed I could suddenly understand what made a proposition to be more believable versus more likely to be bullshit. That was 40 years ago and I still use those principles.

  9. ikanreed says

    #9 I appreciate that everyone has a moment where they start to see through kind of bad ideas.

    But an epiphany for recognizing believabilitly versus bullshit? I find that kinda suspect. Good critical thinking is hard and has numerous slightly-contradictory but sometimes very counter-intuitive rules, that merely help, not perfect, the task of sorting the true from the false. I can’t imagine boiling that breadth of learning down to a year, much less a moment.

    What was this epiphany, and how did it help you?

  10. bhebing says

    I’d suggest that a Bullshit Receptivity test should be mandatory for voters. Too much “Chopras”? Sorry, no vote for you ;)

  11. bhebing says

    Oh, I know. Bullshit receptivity has probably some correlation to education level, so you would take away the vote for a lot of people who never learned to recognize bullshit to begin with.

    Let me rephrase this a bit by suggesting we should integrate ‘recognizing bullshit’ into the curriculum.

  12. ridana says

    The whole article sounds like it came out of the classic Journal of Irreproducible Results. The word “instantiations” (which I know is used in computer programming), immediately brought to mind the J.I.R. article, “Dysphasia Medicus Multisyllabatorum: A New Iatrogenic Disease.”

    Summary: A new disease, dysphasia medicus multisyllabatorum, has been described. It is characterized by the addition of repetatative and unnecessary syllables to words in spoken and written language. The population at risk appears to be limited to members of the medical profession. At present there is no known treatment, but the course is generally quite benign. It is hoped that this description will generatate further research to elucidadate the mechanisms of this maladady. [sic]
    J.I.R. 1978, pp 21-22

    I think they were being too optimistic, as it has clearly spread well beyond the medical profession since the article was written.

    At any rate, I was so convinced that the article was a parody that I needed to follow the link to see where it had been published. Clearly SSRN, which is affiliated with Elsevier, is intended to be legitimate, but as far as I could see there is apparently no review or editorial oversight on anything they publish, so a spoof article like the one I quoted above seems just as likely to be accepted on their site as any other article. And the Journal of Individual Differences, where the final version of the paper will or does appear, doesn’t really seem to be a very noteworthy journal (IF=0.944).

    As long as it’s not to be taken seriously, it’s a fun article to read, but since it does seem like they intend it to be taken seriously, I’m having trouble indulging in the humor of it, given all the bullshit rampant in popular science reporting and junk journal articles. That is, I’m wondering how acceptance of this article would rate on their bullshit receptivity scale?

  13. zetopan says

    “Now I want to see the Bullshit Receptivity measured in fans of Deepak Chopra and Jordan Peterson.”

    There are far more idiots that just those two promoting bullshit. Alex Jones and dr. Oz should also be included in that scale, and look at “sophisticated” theology (as if theology wasn’t full enough of BS on its own): “God is the ground of being” – Paul Tillich.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2011/12/the-impossible-god-of-paul-tillich/

    I would suggest that instead of the BS scale being in units of Chopra’s, etc. that the BS scale have the relevant perpetual bullshit promoters as levels just like the STP, freezing, and boiling points of water on a Celsius scale thermometer. The scale graduations would need o be pretty fine since there are so many striving to achieve similar levels of bullshit since it often results in fame and fortune.

  14. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I am reminded of Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “On Bullshit,” in which he contends that bullshitting is worse than lying, because lies can be corrected. Bullshit goes on forever. It’s like Pauli said, “This is terrible. It’s so bad, it’s not even wrong.”

  15. jack lecou says

    I would suggest that instead of the BS scale being in units of Chopra’s, etc. that the BS scale have the relevant perpetual bullshit promoters as levels just like the STP, freezing, and boiling points of water on a Celsius scale thermometer.

    Is there some kind of bullshit phase diagram too then? Seems plausible. The ‘pressure’ axis would be the general preponderance of bullshit or something.

    Not sure where that puts us on the chart though. There was definitely a phase boundary we passed back there a ways back labeled “Facebook”… I expect now we’re approaching some kind of bullshit singularity, where we’ll have the pleasure of simultaneously drowning and steaming in supercritical bullshit.

    (‘Course, I’m not sure the analogy is right. Wouldn’t ‘bullshit receptivity’ be more like specific heat – i.e., the readiness of an individual to take up bullshit?)

  16. John Morales says

    Um, Deepak and Peterson are the bullshitters, not the bulshittees.

    (The scale would presumably measure the degree of credulity towards bullshit, not the degree of the bullshit itself or the capacity to produce it)

    </pedant>

  17. raefn says

    For a bit of comic relief, check out the episode of X-files, on Hulu, titled ‘The Lost Art of the Sweaty Forehead’. The whole point of the episode is to make fun of conspiracy theorists, including X-files itself. I had a much needed laugh at all the sci-fi in-jokes.

  18. Sonja says

    I have a good BS detector, figuring out on my own that religion was BS before I was 15, stumbling on Alan Sokol’s paper and thinking, “Wow, this is complete BS,” then learning the details of the story and that an academic journal actually published it. However, I want to point out that there are real conspiracies, and these are playing out in US politics right now. Hillary Clinton famously called it the vast right-wing conspiracy, and it is real and it has been working over the past 40 years to transform America into a total plutocracy. If you haven’t read David Brock’s book, read his recent article on Kavanaugh. This guy has been groomed by the shadowy world of right-wing operatives for the Supreme Court since early in his career. The bullshit pushed by Fox, et al, serves to disguise and play a tactical role in the larger conspiracy, which is to get lower and middle class people to vote directly against their own economic self interest. The reason I call this a conspiracy rather than just politics is that, in order to work, everyone involved has to maintain the pretense that they are really working to protect education, health care, etc., so they can get power and vote for tax cuts for billionaires, deregulation, and destroying the social safety net.

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