MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Harry G Frankfurt published his delightful booklet ‘ON BULLSHIT‘ in 2005 (in case you don’t know it, I highly recommend you read it). Since then, the term ‘bullshit’ has become accepted terminology even in polite discourse. But what exactly is bullshit? Frankfurt explains that is something between a lie and a bluff, perhaps more like the latter than the former.

Not least due to Frankfurt’s book, there is today plenty of research on the subject of bullshit. As much of it relates to so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), allow me to present here just 5 of the most recent papers on bullshit.

No 1

Navigating social systems efficiently is critical to our species. Humans appear endowed with a cognitive system that has formed to meet the unique challenges that emerge for highly social species. Bullshitting, communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth, is ubiquitous within human societies. Across two studies (N = 1,017), we assess participants’ ability to produce satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit as an honest signal of their intelligence. We find that bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent. We interpret these results as adding evidence for intelligence being geared towards the navigation of social systems. The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.

No 2

Research into both receptivity to falling for bullshit and the propensity to produce it have recently emerged as active, independent areas of inquiry into the spread of misleading information. However, it remains unclear whether those who frequently produce bullshit are inoculated from its influence. For example, both bullshit receptivity and bullshitting frequency are negatively related to cognitive ability and aspects of analytic thinking style, suggesting that those who frequently engage in bullshitting may be more likely to fall for bullshit. However, separate research suggests that individuals who frequently engage in deception are better at detecting it, thus leading to the possibility that frequent bullshitters may be less likely to fall for bullshit. Here, we present three studies (N = 826) attempting to distinguish between these competing hypotheses, finding that frequency of persuasive bullshitting (i.e., bullshitting intended to impress or persuade others) positively predicts susceptibility to various types of misleading information and that this association is robust to individual differences in cognitive ability and analytic cognitive style.

No 3

Recent psychological research has identified important individual differences associated with receptivity to bullshit, which has greatly enhanced our understanding of the processes behind susceptibility to pseudo-profound or otherwise misleading information. However, the bulk of this research attention has focused on cognitive and dispositional factors related to bullshit (the product), while largely overlooking the influences behind bullshitting (the act). Here, we present results from four studies focusing on the construction and validation of a new, reliable scale measuring the frequency with which individuals engage in two types of bullshitting (persuasive and evasive) in everyday situations. Overall, bullshitting frequency was negatively associated with sincerity, honesty, cognitive ability, open-minded cognition, and self-regard. Additionally, the Bullshitting Frequency Scale was found to reliably measure constructs that are (1) distinct from lying and (2) significantly related to performance on overclaiming and social decision tasks. These results represent an important step forward by demonstrating the utility of the Bullshitting Frequency Scale as well as highlighting certain individual differences that may play important roles in the extent to which individuals engage in everyday bullshitting.

No 4

Although generally viewed as a common and undesirable social behaviour, very little is known about the nature of bullshitting (i.e., communicating with little to no regard for evidence or truth; Raritan Q Rev 6, 1986, 81); its consequences; and its potential communicative utility. Specifically, it is hypothesized that bullshitting may be may be relatively influential under specified conditions. Experiment 1 participants were exposed to a traditional persuasion paradigm, receiving either strong or weak arguments in either an evidence-based or bullshit frame. Experiment 2 also incorporated a manipulation of a peripheral route cue (i.e., source attractiveness). Findings demonstrate that bullshitting can be an effective means of influence when arguments are weak, yet undermine persuasive attempts when arguments are strong. Results also suggest that bullshit frames may cue peripheral route processing of persuasive information relative to evidence-based frames that appear to cue central route processing. Results are discussed in light of social perception and attitude change.

No 5

Objective: Fake news represents a particularly egregious and direct avenue by which inaccurate beliefs have been propagated via social media. We investigate the psychological profile of individuals who fall prey to fake news.

Method: We recruited 1,606 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for three online surveys.

Results: The tendency to ascribe profundity to randomly generated sentences-pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity-correlates positively with perceptions of fake news accuracy, and negatively with the ability to differentiate between fake and real news (media truth discernment). Relatedly, individuals who overclaim their level of knowledge also judge fake news to be more accurate. We also extend previous research indicating that analytic thinking correlates negatively with perceived accuracy by showing that this relationship is not moderated by the presence/absence of the headline’s source (which has no effect on accuracy), or by familiarity with the headlines (which correlates positively with perceived accuracy of fake and real news).

Conclusion: Our results suggest that belief in fake news may be driven, to some extent, by a general tendency to be overly accepting of weak claims. This tendency, which we refer to as reflexive open-mindedness, may be partly responsible for the prevalence of epistemically suspect beliefs writ large.

___________________________________

Yes, bullshit seems to be an active area of research. And rightly so! There is so much of it about. Those who regularly read the comments sections of this blog will probably agree with some of the writing above. The statement that ‘bullshitting can be an effective means of influence when arguments are weak’ rang particularly true, I thought. ‘Communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth’ might perhaps also remind us of a few notorious commentators on this blog.

In any case, I am relieved to know that research into bullshit is buoyant – there clearly is a need to better understand the phenomenon. I for one intend to use this terminology more frequently in the future.

44 Responses to On ,BULLSHIT’

  • Going beyond “bullshit” my group and myself have been working like Tesla to develop a badly needed and what would be a gift to mankind…..The BULLSHITOMETER. WE already have a one that functions at a very intuitive level but trying to develop one to to market to the masses has become a real challenge. Any help in this regard would be more than welcome.

    • oh dear, who writes such a drivel?

      • Me – someone who knows Oprah Winfrey Helped Create Our American Fantasyland – not President Trump, who (flawed though he is) is one of the few obstacles to her (and the SCAM lobby’s) power.

        https://slate.com/health-and-science/2018/01/oprah-winfrey-helped-create-our-irrational-pseudoscientific-american-fantasyland.html

        Your understanding of American politics – especially as it relates to SCAM – is shallow.

        • I never considered myself an expert of US or any other politics.
          but at least I am not a defender of the greatest US disaster of all times: TRUMP!

          • I never said you were, or considered yourself, an “expert of US or any other politics” – I said you were buying US media bullshit (“the greatest US disaster of all times”) and not helping the problem US skeptics actually face.

            And your calling Trump “the greatest US disaster of all times” shows you’re too partisan – and not nuanced enough – to think clearly about anything you say about him. You make a joke of yourself, as an alternative medicine expert, if you’re willing to work with the very people you claim to be fighting.

            https://youtu.be/P42KBTpxle8

          • Your calling Trump “the greatest US disaster of all times” shows you’re too partisan to think straight, much less, to consider how you’re wrong.

            You sound like a lousy professor,

          • thank you
            coming from you, this must be a compliment

    • Thanks for linking to that hilariously stupid example of bullshit. To save others checking it, the author, as far as I can tell, seems upset that Dr Ernst preferred Clinton and Oprah over the previous occupant of the White House. (The latter, incidentally, is a practitioner of ‘Positive Thinking’, the original Christian prayer scam which spawned a great deal of dangerous quackery in the Louise Hay/ Bruce Lipton mold.)

      • Don’t forget that Oprah also pretty much made the career of DR. OZ.

        Trump at least suggested the lab origin theory for covid as plausible.

        Edzard should stay out of politics

        • thanks for the advice …… particularly as I was just about to run for president [no I had not yet decides which country]

          • I think you would be a natural to be the uncontested and lifetime appointed leader of “FREEDONIA” , you could have Groucho , Harpo, and Zeppo as your joint chiefs of staff.

          • All of them…..

          • “I think you would be a natural to be the uncontested and lifetime appointed leader of “FREEDONIA” , you could have Groucho , Harpo, and Zeppo as your joint chiefs of staff”.

            “Remember men, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did….”

        • Oprah did more than that: she promoted John of God – now convicted for raping 4 women. She promoted James Arthur Ray – convicted for killing 3 people. She’s re-written the history of the Central Park Five – formally convicted of rape but now released – but still not innocent. She introduced America to anti-vaccine tropes with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. I could go on and on and on.

          Why no one mentioned any of this when she was campaigning with Obama still leaves me stunned.

        • She made the career of just about every atrocious quack and scammer from the 1990s onwards– Louise Hay, Marlo Morgan, The Secret, etc, and never apologised to her viewers. I’m surprised she never had Trump on to promote his Trump University scam.

          I doubt she would’ve had someone on promoting the idea of injecting bleach as a way of fighting a virus though. She’s not that dumb.

      • Bill Clinton unleashed SCAM on us – and has three (vetted) rape accusers – why would ANYONE want to side with him?

        Oh yeah: because Trump’s dad took him to a “positive thinking” church. That excuses anything the Clintons have done. And the rapes and deaths Oprah’s been behind.

        Everything gets excused – horrible things – as long as you can say “Trump”.

  • The professor needs to take a course on how the American news media “works”:

    Starting in the ’80s, Donald Trump has been – if not a beloved figure – an American icon. A slightly smarmy figure, in the (fight promoter) Don King-waving-a-flag mold, but the kind of guy who could brighten almost any wedding by showing up unannounced. Thousands of Rap songs were written about him, and he hung out with Rap stars, to the disgust of the NY elite. In almost 40 years, there was never even a suggestion he was ever a white supremacist, or sympathized with them, or would sympathize with them.

    But then, this former employee of NBC’s hit TV show “The Apprentice” decided he wanted to be President of the United States. This didn’t sit well with his old boss at the network, Jeff Zucker, so then Jeff (who was already shocked that people actually LIKED Trump’s politics when they heard it from his own mouth) really went to work: he betrayed Trump – and violated network ethics – by releasing the “Grab ‘Em By The Pussy” tape, recorded behind-the-scenes and never meant for release. Then he had his networks promote THAT – ignoring his betrayal as a story – and we were off to the races: the smearing of Donald Trump as a monster had began.

    Notice: it was the left side of the aisle – Jeff Zucker is a liberal and a Democrat – who committed the first unethical act of betrayal. I’m not pointing that out to defend a side – I’m an Independent – but to state a fact: to hate Donald Trump’s current media image is to have taken the bait Jeff Zucker expected you to swallow – and the professor did – hook, line, and sinker (the professor certainly doesn’t write essays, on this blog, about the lowlife ethics of Jeff Zucker, but how awful he thinks Zucker’s victims are. It’s just piling on).

    I almost don’t want to go into the white supremacist shit because, as a black guy, I think it’s so obnoxious and stupid. The notorious “Unite The Right” candlelight march, that the TV networks made sure to broadcast – which featured all the “major” white supremacist groups in this entire country of 340-to-370 million people – had about 100 assholes. Total. But they were broadcast around the world – by Jeff Zucker and others – as the future of America. And, again, people were asked to take the bait – and they did (The professor included, I’m sure). Now Trump’s on his way to being a white supremacist leader. Thousands of foolish “activists” showed up the next day to protest what they saw on TV and – wouldn’t you know it – 3 resulting deaths are then blamed on Donald Trump. And on and on and on. It gets old. A recent march by black activists had 1,500 armed men and only one news network showed up. It wasn’t NBC.

    This bullshit HAS to stop sometime.

    • “The professor needs to take a course on how the American news media “works””
      Oh no I don’t!
      In fact, I couldn’t care less.

      • “In fact, I couldn’t care less.” Why , because it works for you?

        Isn’t that like the story of your cupping athlete swimmer…”Well it works for me”…. a denial of factual evidence and display of lack of energy, interest, or willingness to look at the evidence.

        • “Why , because it works for you?”
          No, because I am not interested.
          I also do not collect stamps and have no interest in bungee jumping.
          Nothing to do with cupping, my dear!

          • Your replies are all fatuous and evidence-free.

            You should be ashamed: we all are here because we like you.

          • you could have fooled me!
            what do you say to people you do not like then?

          • “Nothing to do with cupping, my dear!”

            I don’t think your blog on cupping had much to do with cupping either. There was a more important point you were trying to convey to your readership. Isn’t that true?

          • I am glad you noticed.
            yet I am not sure you got the point.

        • Yes – exactly correct.

          As I said – when it comes to Trump and American politics – the professor is a bullshit artist.

      • You couldn’t care less that you’re being manipulated by the same people promoting SCAM?

      • American news happens by the same means it does in most all major countries of the world….no differently.

        It’s controlled…. by the wealthiest families in the world.

  • “you could have fooled me!
    what do you say to people you do not like then?”

    I let them carry on as fools.

  • You’re not advising me to “Be Humble” are you? I’m an atheist from South Central, Los Angeles – not a Buddhist from Bullshit Island.

    Please make a note of it.

    Damn, when challenged, you act just like the sleazy people you claim to dislike. You don’t care about evidence, you’re immature-as-fuck, and disrespectful – how are you different from, say, anti-vaxxers?

  • The current Vice President used to date a TV psychic (and the current President served under a guy who campaigned with the powerful quack-and mysticism-loving Oprah) but the professor STILL doesn’t understand he was tricked into backing the wrong party – and serving his enemies – in the American election. It’s absolutely stunning.

    https://themachoresponse.blogspot.com/2021/08/sigh-psychics.html

  • When you use intemperate language like that (two posts above), Louis Troy Dixon, you do not strengthen your case – rather the opposite – and you drive persons like me, who try to be polite, away from this Blog.

    • Oh, please don’t start with the we-all-have-to-act-the-same routine:

      I am not a humble person in real life – or online – so you either accept the Seven Dwarfs are different – including “Grumpy” not being happy with you – or you can’t hang, Snow White.

      Accept me for my arguments or f*ck off. Your – immediate – attempts to control others are NOT appreciated.

      • “Accept me for my arguments or f*ck off. ”
        YOU FIRST!

      • It’s your sheer ignorant bad manners I don’t need to accept, and I don’t. Goodbye.

        • So-called skepics, basing a debate on style of speech (if you’re not using gentle language with them, they quit!) is why you guys are so ineffectual against something as silly as the NewAge Movement:

          You’ve completely lost the plot – and maybe your balls, too.

          You might as well be feminists, stupidly declaring “language is violence!”, for all the good you do.

          Goodbye.

          • One thing that New Agers always do after attacking everything apart from the actual criticism directed at them is to say “Whew, I’m outa here. Goodbye” — and then half an hour later they’re back again….

          • their superiority complex does not seem to permit them to be silent.

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