Lots of People Think Complete Nonsense Is Profound, Study Finds

Dec 11, 2015

by Shaunacy Ferro

People are incredibly receptive to meaningless buzzwords, according to a new study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. Yes, the vast majority of people are willing to believe complete bullshit, to use the scholarly term. (Title of the study: “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”)

Over the course of four different experiments including hundreds of participants, researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Sheridan College tested how profound people would rate a bunch of buzzwords strung together in a plausible syntactic structure. The psychologists intended to establish a method of testing people’s individual receptivity to bullshit.

Participants rated statements on a scale of profundity from 1 to 5, 5 being “very profound.” As source material, the researchers used Wisdom of Chopra, a site that draws words from the tweets of holistic health guru Deepak Chopra (sample tweet: “experience is made out of awareness”) and turns them into randomly generated sentences; and a website called New Age Bullshit Generator, which comes up with a slew of nonsense phrases based on New Age buzzwords. In a subsequent experiment, they used actual tweets from Chopra deemed to be particularly vague. In another, they compared motivational quotes like “a river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence” to regular statements like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” In the fourth, they also tested people’s tendency to agree with conspiracies. The hundreds of subjects in the final three studies were all recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid for their participation.  

Read more by clicking on the name of the source below.

28 comments on “Lots of People Think Complete Nonsense Is Profound, Study Finds

  • This is not so surprising when we consider how fast the world is shrinking, bringing together a clanging ensemble of clumsy heuristics, each vying for supremacy in the murky waters of a new linguistic evolution… and synergy.

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  • “Whatever relationships you have attracted in your life at this moment, are precisely the ones you need in your life at this moment. There is a hidden meaning behind all events, and this hidden meaning is serving your own evolution.”

    This is a real quote from DP. Aside from length there is not much to distinguish the above from the “Wisdom Of Chopra” generator.

    Would you call the above Chopra quote banal or trivial? Or just bullshit!

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  • When charlatans like Deepshit Crappa are exposed for their spouting of nonsense, bye bye to that nice income from the credulous. Of course the credulous remain, and part of this site’s purpose is to educate them.

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  • What may happen is this. Read an article on quantum mechanics. It sounds like madness. You don’t understand it. You are impressed that anyone could possibly understand this. You get into the habit of thinking that anything incomprehensible must be profound.

    I once did a contract documenting and fine tuning a computer program that solved differential equations of how pollutants move in soils and streams. It dawned on me the math could be explained by a quite simple analogy. The author insisted I take it out. He complained it made the paper too easy to understand. It would not be impressive enough.

    I once went to a historical conference on the early history of gay lib in Vancouver. I was one of the key figures. I could not understand a word of what they were saying though I was about as expert anyone could be on the topic. I strongly suspect the academic jargon is for impressing rather than precision.

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  • Its a self serving resale of wish thinking, signalled by the shameless transposition to “you need in your life” from “that help define your life” and “hidden meaning behind” from “a tale you will invent from”. As Wittgenstein said all metaphysics fails because of the failure to define its signs….

    Phew, that was close….

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  • The problem is most people aren’t taught how to think. They do very little analytical thinking and believe that their visceral opinions count as thinking.

    Philosophy for Children (P4C) should be brought into the school syllabus. There isn’t a hint of Wittgenstein in it, just lots of discussion analysing issues they want to talk about. Lightly guided by the teacher it does no end of good, helping kids to think about problems, understand the varieties of opposing opinions and experiences (and social and religious backgrounds) and lift performance in most other academic subjects.

    The problem isn’t Deepshit. It is everyone else, made vulnerable by a (not so) small educational neglect.

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  • …most people aren’t taught…

    The problem…a (not so) small educational neglect.

    Indeed. All human problems can be traced back to failures (neglect and otherwise) in education.

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  • This article disappointed me; I thought it was about real nonsense. Instead it’s the same old melody. Nonsense can be profound. Read Ionesco or any great humorist or comedian for that matter. Read Twain or Thurber or Gogol. What about all those children’s fables and stories? We as adults tend to gear away from nonsense. A shame. Nonsense is great. Dr. Seuss? A wonderful man. Maybe not profound like Dostoyevsky, but profound in his way.
    This author sounds a little holier-than-thou and judgmental, calling everything “bullshit.” He is neither nonsensical, nor profound.

    “Forgive me my nonsense, as I also forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense.”

    Robert Frost

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  • Did you hear Chopra say that stones have awareness in his debate with Dawkins? Dawkins looked like he was about to hit the ceiling. “No, stones do not have awareness,” he said. But Chopra stood his ground – that charlatan. Awful man.
    Phil, as W himself would say (as he was a pluralist par excellence), there are many forms and many different conceptions and modes of presentation of what you call metaphysics. — But we can (hopefully) address that some other time, once again.
    As far as C’s “metaphysics” is concerned, it is hardly worthy of the name.

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  • Deepshit merely screwed up what Chalmers proposed. He deliberately took a nuanced idea (that in no way said stones had awareness, but that all matter, in the right context, i.e. brains, had the capacity to develop qualia, vivid experience) and rephrased it as woo for the wooish. If Dawkins had known about Chalmers he could have squashed him more effectively.

    The Wittgenstein, I’m afraid, was merely added in to make my comment look wooish to some (its a good quote but irrelevant in context) to illustrate my point that complicated things aren’t nonsense and even Deepshit isn’t all bullshit all the time, but he nearly always is wrong. It would help us to know the difference between wrong and bullshit.

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  • Just look at a Christian TV channel, and listen to all of the unfounded nonsense that is served as truth there. God this and God that Jesus here and Jesus there. It is as if saying the word Jesus over and over again somehow gives meaning to the claims that God has a plan, created everything, and Jesus is watching your every move and coming to save you, but only if you believe that he exists. Talking nonsense in a convincing manner is enough to convince the ignorant that what is being said is true. Never questioning, referring to passages in the Bible only reinforces the mistaken belief that hearsay is admissible as evidence of the existence of the supernatural. Ask any one of them to prove that any single one of their beliefs is true, and they cannot. They work themselves up into a frenzy with shouting, repetition, talking in tongues, the babbling of nonsense alleged to be angel language. Scream out Satan at the right point in the frenzy and they all collapse in terror and call upon Jesus to come and save them. This is not just in church, all of their thoughts all day and every day regurgitate ignorance, imaginations and superstition; guising itself as wisdom and truth. They do not share the same reality and consciousness that rational thinking people do, that live in the real and not the imaginary universe.

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  • Philip
    Dec 12, 2015 at 7:46 am

    Talking nonsense in a convincing manner is enough to convince the ignorant that what is being said is true.

    Honesty, should not be confused with delusional sincerity.

    Unfortunately the ignorant and uneducated usually have no way of telling the difference!

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  • Dan
    Dec 12, 2015 at 12:39 am

    We as adults tend to gear away from nonsense. A shame. Nonsense is great. Dr. Seuss?

    Nonsense can be great and entertaining – providing all those involved recognise that it is nonsense produced for entertainment.
    For children it can, (if used in an educational manner rather than as indoctrination), be used to develop their critical faculties in distinguishing nonsense from documentary information.

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  • 19
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    …and exclusion. “Professional Speech” means “Keep out” as well as “watch and admire”.

    Couldn’t agree more. And the worst irony of this is that it effectively contributes to ignorance in the general population. There’s no better way to short-circuit intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn in people than to make them feel inferior or inadequate.

    Many people instantly lose interest and react by wearing their resulting ignorance as a badge of honor, a way to deal with a cultivated inferiority complex. Such people are also more likely to buy into pseudo-science and conspiracy theories for the same reason: it makes them feel special, like they know something even the experts and scholars don’t. The whole thing is a sort of misguided, wishful dream of poetic justice.

    These “untouchable” scholars carry a part of the blame for this widespread educational Twilight Zone populated by people who are kinda sorta interested but haven’t had the opportunity to learn the basic intellectual discipline required to differentiate the wheat from the chaff.

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  • @OP link – It has been said by some that the thoughts and tweets of Deepak Chopra are indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order, particularly the tweets tagged with “#cosmisconciousness”.

    Ah! The whizzdumb of Chopra!!

    This is sometimes well illustrated when some Chopra fan, – impressed with the profundity of Chopra whizzdumb, turns up on RDFS to impress rational thinkers and scientists with these “profundities”!

    Those trolling with the, “I have copied and pasted these ‘profound thoughts’ (of which I have no understanding), so you should all be impressed” mentality, – flap around pretending others lack the understanding of the “deepity” in the (meaningless) message, trying to pose as having a “superior” intellect and perceptions!

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  • No, not all nonsense is bullshit, my good man (or woman) and not all bullshit is nonsense; these two things are very different in the way they function. I am a strong “believer” in nonsense – particularly in literary art, but also in humor – and in our own lives. —Nonsense can be liberating.

    A short excerpt from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. Clearly this is not BS, although many would consider it to be nonsensical:

    riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe totauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

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  • 23
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Ah! The whizzdumb of Chopra!!

    And in the left corner, the undisputed heavyweight deepity Champion of the World… Deeeeeeeepak Chopraaaaaaa.

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  • Has this generator thing been awarded any PhD’s yet? Or even a chair?

    I do like the stories about BS being submitted, and accepted, for publication in Learned Journals. Deflating windbags is always worthwhile.

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  • Tell this to someone just raped… or someone whose child was murdered. It is ugly, terrible victim blaming and universal apology for all the evil things in the world. This saying is not bullshit, nor banal or trivial, it is pure evil.

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  • OHooligan
    Dec 12, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    Has this generator thing been awarded any PhD’s yet? Or even a chair?

    No degrees as far as I know, but papers from the postmodernist generator were accepted

    Alan Sokal’s brilliant hoax article (i.e., the Social Text Affair)

    and it seems, others like this one have also been accepted.

    Here are two papers we submitted to WMSCI 2005:

    Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy (PS, PDF) Jeremy Stribling, Daniel Aguayo and Maxwell Krohn

    This paper was accepted as a “non-reviewed” paper!

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  • I have found that a lot of people don’t really like to think, and, take mental short cuts without even realizing it. They complain if they HAVE to think, some reporting actual pain caused by the process.

    So, if something seems to have meaning, they assume it does. On the other hand, if they don’t understand the concepts, data is one way to shut down their acceptance instantly.

    I see this when for example a spill occurs at a school, and an engineer is talking to a group of concerned parents…and they want to know if “its safe”, and the engineer replies with statistics and data….and they freak out, demanding a straight answer, and the engineer thought his answer was as accurate and straight as possible…because there’s no way for anything to be safe, there are ranges, etc.

    The more they clamor for a straight answer, the more data he supplies, until they tar and feather him in frustration.

    So, the air in the school has 5 ppm of methylethyl death, and the EPA limit is 6 ppm, and the OSHA limit is 20 ppm…but of course 5 is not REALLY that different in safety from 6, and the attempt to “clarify” the risk merely confuses people who don’t understand any of it anyway.

    So, the long and short of it is that speaking technically, is perceived as technobabble, and if about an issue they are vested in…will be interpreted as either “OK” or “Not OK”.

    Not saying “Its OK”, but also not saying “It’s NOT OK”, is interpreted as not ok but from a dishonest speaker.

    Sometimes it reminds of me of what people think a dog understands…maybe not the words, but the body language and tone of voice. I have seen debaters who say total BS, but conclude with a confident flourish and look of satisfaction and victory…….and are perceived as having won the point.

    When a person is afraid they won’t be respected, they attempt to sound more impressive. This can work if with peers if what is said is impressive, and backfire if they see the emperor has no clothes.

    With the uneducated (on the topic at least), they just see “pompous”, and are not impressed typically….and if you want them to understand evolution, that they are going to be safe, or that the planet is getting warmer…you need to speak in their language.

    Of course, among THEM, those who are afraid someone might think THEY’RE stupid, might pretend to understand, and, agree, so they will be vicariously viewed as smart.

    So, on both sides of the aisle, people who are afraid of being judged and found wanting are the culprits……and they hide behind the babble.

    I had a paper I had saved for years that had some of the most hilarious attempts to “Baffle them with bullshit” I had ever seen. It had so many examples of a guy desperately trying to sound like he knew what he was doing, but didn’t, I was sending it to colleagues for a good laugh. They thought I made it up it was so bad.

    Parts that were the best, involved phrases such as obfuscation of solar radiation due to deciduous photosynthetic surfaces intermediary to the structure (The building was shaded by trees).


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  • I have found that a lot of people don’t really like to think

    Reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by Bertrand Russell.

    “Most people would rather die that think. And most people do.”

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