20 July 2021

The science of bullsh!t

The Back Page

As one who trafficks in bullshit, the Back Page is charmed by science on the topic.

The social significance of bullshit has been a legitimate topic of academic interest at least since Harry G Frankfurt’s classic 1985 essay “On Bullshit”, and a quick scan of present world leaders suggests it is a more valuable currency than ever.

It was Frankfurt (whose essay became a book in 2009) who distinguished between the bullshitter and the liar in that the former is not deliberately obscuring or denying the truth, but simply, and more sinisterly, has no regard for it at all.

Now the idea that ability to bullshit may be not only a sign of intelligence, but an effective way to demonstrate your smarts to a potential mate, is behind the delightful paper “Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence” published last month.

It’s a thesis that may give a little comfort to victims of dating scams, at least.

“The ability to produce satisfying bullshit, with its emphasis on impressing others without regard for truth or meaning, may represent an energetically inexpensive strategy for both signaling one’s intelligence, and deceiving others to one’s advantage,” the Canadian authors write. 

They explain that in biology an “honest signal” is one that conveys accurate information about an unobservable trait to another organism, and propose that humans may tell the truth about their own intelligence by the way they say things that aren’t actually true. 

The researchers designed a study resembling a fancy game of Balderdash, in which subjects were presented with 10 concepts, four of them fake, “i.e., subjunctive scaling, declarative fraction, genetic autonomy, neural acceptance”, and asked to rate their knowledge of each. Their ratings on the fake concepts comprised their “bullshit willingness”.

A subset of subjects dubbed “bullshit producers” were then instructed to produce the most convincing and satisfying explanation they could for each of the concepts – being creative with the ones they were unfamiliar with.

The remaining “bullshit raters” then judged the accuracy of each explanation and how satisfying it was, combining into a “Bullshit Ability” score for each Bullshit Producer.

Participants also assessed the profoundness of statements that were either “pseudo-profound bullshit” (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”), motivational (actual attempts at profundity) or mundane (not profound at all), to come up with scores on bullshit receptivity and bullshit sensitivity.

The scientists compared bullshit ability scores with a measure of abstract reasoning and non-verbal fluid intelligence, and found “initial evidence of bullshit ability sharing a modest positive association” with that measure.

Bullshit willingness, by contrast, was negatively associated with cognitive ability but positively associated with bullshit receptivity – and thus, the authors happily note, “contrary to the common expression, it may indeed be possible to ‘bullshit a bullshitter’.”  

… to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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