The Fine Old Art of Bullshitting

There’s a sucker born every minute.― P.T. Barnum

“Did you know that there is a benevolent, powerful, unwavering universal energy just waiting to open itself up to you?” This is just one of many profound questions posed by Deepak Chopra, the world’s biggest proponent of mind-body bullshit. To millions of people around the world, the Indian-born American is a spiritual leader, a philosophical prophet and an irreplaceable new age guru. To millions of others, he’s a purveyor of bullshit. Blogger Orac of Respectful Insolence has coined the term choprawoo to refer to Chopra’s special brand of gunk. Here are just a few choice Chopra utterances:

Some concept of a ‘subtle body’ is accepted widely throughout the East, but it hasn’t made major headway in the West for one obvious reason: whatever is invisible has little standing in a materialistic culture where reality is defined by science.

A prayer, a desire to be healed, a wish for peace, hope for reassurance about the dead—each impulse enters the field of consciousness and is responded to, just as every material event enters the quantum field and is responded to, down to the last quark and photon.

Consciousness is still a cottage industry. As such, there is a wild mixture of truth and speculation, projection and verification. Anyone’s experience could be real or imaginary. Anyone’s explanation could be valid or eccentric.

For a new world view to emerge it must be coherent. It cannot be built up from entirely personal experiences, because sometimes these experiences are so intense that we can’t see beyond them.

Unfathomably, Chopra has managed to sell over thirty million books worldwide. Why are so many people drawn to his work?

No matter how often we say we’re dedicated to qualities like critical thinking, rationality and truth, human beings cannot resist the magnetic pull of bullshit. Considering that we now live in a post-truth world replete with alternative facts, it would be strange if bullshit weren’t prevalent. But, before we discuss the art of bullshitting, we must first separate bullshit from nonsense. Nonsense is just random words strung together. Bullshit, on the other hand, has a syntactic structure, which implies inherent meaning. Bullshit also differs from lies. Lies are about circumventing truth—whereas bullshit is not concerned with truth at all: it’s designed to influence, not inform. Bullshitting is a widespread social behavior involving communication with little concern for substantiation and/or empirical knowledge.

Seeing and Believing

In 1958, German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined the term apophenia, which he defined as “unmotivated seeing of connections,” accompanied by a “specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.” An error of perception, apophenia is the tendency to interpret random patterns in a non-random manner. Pareidolia, a type of apophenia involving the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli, explains why some humans, for example, see the face of Jesus in a bowl of oatmeal. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with seeing JC’s face in a bowl of gruel: it’s merely a by-product of our evolved perceptual systems. For our ancestors, being able to differentiate between threatening and non-threatening patterns was a matter of life and death, quite literally. Is that rustling bush merely the work of the wind, or is it a prying predator? Does the color of this berry suggest nourishment or poison?

From a neurological perspective, there is an important reason for the human tendency to see order in chaos, or to derive meaning from bullshit. Our brains, packed with close to 100 billion neurons, specialize in massive parallel processing. In other words, the human brain has the ability to simultaneously process incoming stimuli of differing quality, enabling us to form a mental narrative. Although not ideal, this is an effective way of identifying patterns, making associations and sorting through copious amounts of data.

However, apophenia involves much more than just pattern recognition. As Michael Shermer of Skeptic has argued, the human brain is a belief engine, replete with pattern-recognition software, which creates meaning out of the patterns that we perceive—and out of the ones we think we perceive. Today, this once indispensable ability is also a liability.

All living organisms detect patterns, but human beings excel at assigning symbolic meanings to them. According to Leslie White, the American anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution, this propensity to assign symbolic meaning separates humans from all other species. From team mascots to religious icons, symbols infuse our lives with meaning. However, they also infuse our lives with disquiet and discomfort. An omen, such as a black cat crossing in front of us, can fill us with anxiety and dread. When we connect the dots in a specious and disordered manner, we make ourselves more vulnerable to cognitive errors and the ingestion of bullshit theories.

The Allure of Bullshit

According to a 2018 paper by John V. Petrocelli of Wake University in North Carolina, two major factors contribute to the proliferation of bullshittery. First, if a person is expected or obliged to have an opinion on a topic, even though he may lack the awareness or understanding to produce an informed take, social pressure may prove too great to ignore: feeling compelled to give his opinion, the person simply cannot resist letting the bullshit flow. Second, if the notion of accountability ceases to exist, a person is more likely to engage in this dark art. Facebook and Twitter are particularly conducive to the propagation of bullshit.

Bullshit artists are all too aware of this. The con must know just enough about everything to be able to talk with an air of credibility. The bullshitter knows that a potential client will ask questions that he, the self-appointed salesman, will be expected to answer. A skilled bullshitter doesn’t just demonstrate knowledge of the product or service: a skilled bullshitter demonstrates knowledge of the potential client’s problems, as well as sympathy with the client’s dilemma. The bullshitter aims to enhance his reputation as a purveyor of knowledge and, in the process, persuade the listener. In an effort to ingratiate himself with the client, a skilled bullshitter excels at getting his foot in the door, establishing a foundation of trust in the process.

You may have noticed my use of the masculine pronoun. It was deliberate. According to cultural and religious historian Walter Ong, men excel at the art of bullshitting, using language to establish an illusion of expertise and superiority.

The current proliferation of bullshit has deep roots. Like a coffee stain on a Persian rug, beliefs steeped in bullshit are extremely difficult to remove. An anti-science mindset has contaminated society for quite some time now, resulting in millions of people chasing false cures for everything from autism to cancer. When it comes to providing such cures, few are as skilled as David Wolfe, an American author and product spokesman. A disseminator of bullshit with an enviable platform, Wolfe has over 95,000 followers on Twitter and 12 million followers on Facebook. When the self-confessed flat-earther isn’t too busy discussing the existence of chemtrails, you can find him promoting even more nefarious forms of bullshit. A zealous advocate for raw veganism, a dietary practice which deems cooking unnatural and unhealthy, Wolfe, clearly living up to the effects of nominative determinism, is indeed a wolf, a predator who profits by taking advantage of vulnerable people. In an effort to sell specific treatments, the forty-eight-year-old operates with the conspiratorial conviction of Alex Jones and the superficial charm of Dr Oz. The dangers posed by Wolfe, a man who campaigns against the use of chemotherapy, which he claims to be more deadly than cancer itself (David Wolfe, “Doctor States Patients Die from Chemo, Not Cancer”), cannot be overstated.

The Link between Bullshit Receptivity and Real World Behavior

In 2015, in an attempt to identify a demonstrable link between how receptive people are to bullshit and their actual behavior, researchers in Sweden decided to dive into the murky waters of pseudo-profundity.

The study, led by a team from Linköping University, was a comprehensive one. 1,000 participants from the Swedish population were asked to rate the meaningfulness (or meaninglessness) of fourteen sentences. Half the sentences were genuinely profound; the other half were—you guessed it—bullshit.

Examples included:

  • Your teacher can open the door, but you have to step in. (deep)
  • The unexplainable touches on the inherent experiences of the Universe. (bullshit)

Participants were then asked if they had donated either personal time or money to charity over the past twelve months.

The researchers noticed something interesting—the participants who were most receptive to bullshit were also the least likely to exhibit prosocial behavior, such as donating money and/or time to charity. Basically, according to Prof Erlandsson, one of the researchers involved in the study, “people who are good at distinguishing the profound from the pseudo-profound are more prosocial.”

In a recent piece for Wired, Renee Direstra discusses the proliferation of bullshit on Amazon. For example, in the site’s epidemiology category, several anti-vaccine tomes feature on the bestseller list. According to Diresta, “scrolling through a simple keyword search for ‘vaccine’ in Amazon’s top-level Books section reveals anti-vax literature prominently marked as ‘#1 Best Seller’ in categories ranging from Emergency Pediatrics to History of Medicine to Chemistry.” Worryingly, not one pro-vaccine book features among the top ten bestsellers. Bullshittery appears to have no limit. In the words of Diresta, “over in Amazon’s Oncology category, a Best Seller label suggests juice as an alternative to chemotherapy.” Type in the word cancer in Amazon’s book section, and you are sure to find a mishmash of credible, farcical and downright dangerous pieces of literature.

There was a time when our most treacherous thoughts were relegated to sordid tabloids and online forums. However, bullshit has found a new conduit: curated algorithms now control gigantic platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon. As Diresta points out, “search, trending, and recommendation algorithms can be gamed to make fringe ideas appear mainstream.” This is further compounded by “an asymmetry of passion that leads truther communities to create prolific amounts of content, resulting in a greater amount available for algorithms to serve up … and, it seems, resulting in real-world consequences.” Troublingly, Amazon allows content creators to select their own categories and keywords. For example, a book railing against vaccinations may be accompanied by misleading keywords (truth, science, etc.). This is probably why dangerous bullshit shows up under oncology and epidemiology.

Sociologist Elise Boulding once famously described modern society as suffering from “temporal exhaustion.” If one is mentally fatigued, there is little energy left for analytical thinking. Could this exhaustion explain society’s penchant for bullshit? We are inundated with information, bombarded by messages to buy this or ignore that. Our bullshit detectors are running on empty. To inoculate ourselves against dangerous information, perhaps the best approach is that adopted by Ludwig Wittgenstein. A sick friend once told Wittgenstein that he felt like a dog that had been run over, to which the contrarian responded, “You don’t know what a dog that’s been run over feels like.” The Austrian philosopher was intolerant of anything that smelled of bullshit. Maybe we should all take a leaf out of Wittgenstein’s book.

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6 comments

  1. I agree with the point of the article but I quibble about the term. I prefer ‘bullshit’ for what Donald Trump does all day long. What Chopra does I’d prefer to call quackery or fraud or charlatanism. Just me.

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  2. Certainly no fan of Chopra and anti-vax…shall we include flat-earthers, birthers, and so forth in the mix? Yes. We should set our sights on eliminating all sorts of quackery. I think so. Bullshit is proliferating at an astonishing rate, as much from “temporal fatigue”, I think, as from the fact that humans have an innate tendency towards confirmation bias, i.e: they (we) tend to believe what they/we want to believe, unless we make a habit of applying a grindstone to our preconceptions – a fugitive habit in this day and age.

    I get the vitriol, really understand it, but would suggest a more moderate approach, i.e:

    1) Pattern-recognition is rightly correlated with religious leanings. Computationally, we’re talking about risk assessment based on sparse data sets. Pattern-recognition is also the basis for more robust and testable inferences in everything from the stock market, to mathematics, to poetry and art. Pooh-poohing it, generally, is intellectually dishonest and shallow.

    2) If folks are so “temporally exhausted” in the US and abroad, I suggest more take up the habit of dropping out from the digital ecosystems that dominate our lives and attention. In very particular terms, nap-taking is something Americans in particular are bad about not doing. I would tend to argue that, as a nation, we create our own flurry and fatigue – we are complicit in creating the system of ever-striving to get ahead, enabling our economic abusers by granting them to ready access to our energies. The thing has so much momentum, nothing short of of regular, recurring “nap strikes” would mend it, but that would require a deep and fundamental socio-cultural change.

    How funny would it be if we just, all at once, decided, “Hey, we’re pretty tired. Let’s lunch and knock off for an hour.”?

    We might be a little sharper when on-point, a little happier, generally, and our bosses might not feel so entitled to taking advantage of us if we sent the message, with daily reminders, that we can stop the wheels at any time – that we are willing to stop the wheels to see to our own immediate well-being.

    Oh, yeah – and pretty much everyone making under 30k a year needs to be paid more. Discretionary disposable income correlates with the ability to take advantage of leisure time – another thing we, as Americans, are particularly bad about not doing. People who make 30k+ are often so defensive about their jobs that they are unwilling to take full advantage of paid time off. Literally, everyone needs to make more money and to effing relax.

    All sorts of symptoms, from stress-related illness, to gullibility, might see a sharp decline if just a few more advantages could be broadly established.

  3. This is a very angry column written by a bitter person.

    I’m no friend of Chopra or the New Age movement. But it’s time to realize lots of people are different from yourself, and they respond to different things. If they find meaning in his work, then who is to argue?

    I think what makes a lot of “skeptics” or “athiests” angry is that other people don’t see the world as they do. Fecal imagery and barely concealed seething anger are hallmarks of these screeds.

    Hey, wait a minute, wasn’t the “skeptic/athiest” community exposed a few years back as a bunch of hypocritical misogynists? You can no longer credibly pose as champions of rational thinking and evidence-based approaches.

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