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Study: Can you tell a meaningful quote from ‘pseudo-profound bullsh*t’?
Your answer might depend on whom the quote is attributed to, according to the results of a recent study.
- In recent years, psychologists have been studying how and why people often view meaningless statements as profound.
- A recent study examined how contextual factors (such as adding attribution) affect interpretation of pseudo-profound quotes.
- Check out some of the quotes from the study listed below.
Some people can find deep meaning in thin air. It's a skill that demonstrates the peculiarity of the human brain and its inclination to find patterns in the noise, even when none exist. Albert Einstein put it best when he said:
"As beings of light we are local and non-local, time bound and timeless actuality and possibility."
Actually, Einstein never said that. In fact, those strung-together buzzwords are categorized as "pseudo-profound bullshit" in the psychological literature. Here are a few more examples mixed in with some real quotes. See whether you can tell which is bullshit. (The answers are listed at the bottom of the article.)
- "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
- "Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena." — Bertrand Russell
- "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." — Heraclitus
- "Nature is a self-regulating ecosystem of awareness." — Charles Darwin
- "Matter is the experience in consciousness of a deeper non-material reality." — Sigmund Freud
- "One cannot make a slave of a free person, for a free person is free even in a prison." — Plato
In recent years, psychologists have been studying how and why people react to pseudo-profound bullshit. Most research has focused on the personality traits, political orientation and thinking styles of people who are likely to think quotes like this are profound. For example, studies have shown that openness to pseudo‐profound bullshit is associated with:
- Lower intelligence
- Religious, paranormal, and conspiratorial beliefs
- Lower analytical and higher intuitive thinking styles
- Less prosocial behavior
But until recently, no studies had explored how people's interpretation of pseudo-profound bullshit changes based on the context in which the quotes are presented.
In a recent study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers Vukašin Gligorić and Ana Vilotijević asked participants to rate the profundity of meaningful, bullshit, and mundane quotes. (The mundane quotes were included to make sure people weren't rating every statement to be profound; example: "Newborn babies require constant attention.") Participants were shown these types of quotes in three different contexts: isolated, attributed to a famous author, and as part of a short story.
The results showed people tended to rate bullshit as more profound when the quote was attributed to a famous author or presented as part of a vignette. Why? The researchers suggested that, "after seeing a famous author's name next to the statement, participants might have been primed by the author's name and construed the meaning in the statement."
Another possibility, they added, is that participants viewing a bullshit quote from a famous author might rate it as profound if they're unfamiliar with the subject matter, and therefore consider the author to be an authority. (For example, a person unfamiliar with physics might think that a bullshit quote attributed to Max Planck is legitimate.)
Whatever the underlying mechanism, the researchers called this phenomenon the "labeling effect," where merely attributing a statement to a famous person changes the perception. It's something to watch for, they suggested, especially when it comes to political messaging.
"In conclusion, our results suggest that pseudo‐profound bullshit is susceptible to contextual effects—attributing a statement to a famous person alters its perception. Although it might be only economically exploited (as in the case of New Age leading figures), other kinds of bullshit (for example, political), might be more dangerous. Demonstrating how easily people might evaluate pseudo‐profound statements as more profound just because they were presented with an author's name; we should be aware of potential abuse of this type of effect."
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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