Deepak Chopra is known around the world for spouting pseudo-scientific garbage wrapped up in spiritual feel-goodery. A new paper in the journal Judgment and Decision Making even uses Chopra’s tweets to show how some people have trouble distinguishing profound statements from bullshit.
The paper, titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” doesn’t pull any punches. But it carefully notes that, “None of this is intended to imply that every statement in Chopra’s tweet history is bullshit.” (Emphasis mine.)
Researchers took the Chopra tweet below, published in June of 2014, and presented it to study participants along with randomly generated statements that employed “profound” buzzwords. The statements made sense grammatically, but made absolutely no sense logically.
“Ten novel meaningless statements were derived from two websites and used to create a Bullshit Receptivity (BSR) scale,” the authors explain. The researchers asked people to rate the statements on a scale ranging from profound to complete bullshit. Unsurprisingly, the sample tweet from Chopra’s Twitter feed was largely indistinguishable from bullshit.
As Dr. Emily Willingham explains in a post over at Forbes, the researchers found that there were a variety of reasons that some people found Chopra’s bullshit to be profound. They looked at the participants’ analytical thinking skills and willingness to accept implausible ideas. Those who found Chopra to be profound tended to be less skeptical of the paranormal and scored lower on cognitive and reasoning ability tests.
Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Willingham also points out what effect this kind of garbled nonsense has on the real world, especially as it relates to pseudo-science and bullshit “cures” for some diseases.
These findings could very well be confirmation of what those who market certain products already know, that words that sound truthy, deep, and believable are far more compelling to their target audience than terms like “data” and “evidence.” But more profoundly (sorry), this kind of tendency also feeds into broadly resonating societal effects, such as the susceptibilities that led—and still lead—some people to chase false ‘cures’ for everything from autism to cancer, to follow false prophets who promise them transformation and revelation of hidden beauty while giving them nothing, and to confuse categories of existence and believe that the material is magical. And that is deeply, deeply important to understand.
In the researchers’ conclusion they again carefully note that bullshit is not exclusive to Chopra’s Twitter feed, but that we’re constantly exposed to more and more nonsense in our current media environment.
Chopra is, of course, just one example among many. Using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia.
So just remember kids: Chopra isn’t the only huckster spouting nonsense that’s made to sound profound. He’s just one example of many.
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images