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Bulls__t is in the eye of the beholder

Posted by CraigDalton on 14 May 2016 at 06:24 GMT

I note the growing interest in the field of pseudo-profound BS (abbreviated to avoid PLoS profanity filter). I would like to respond to this article and expand upon my earlier response to Gord Pennycook’s paper. (1,2) First let me make my political affiliation clear – as political affiliation appears to be a strong mediator of interpretation of, and response to, this article. I would be considered well to the left of the US Democratic Party.
Placement on the political spectrum may be one of the confounders in this analysis. The 7 point liberal-conservative scale used in the analysis is completed by American participants relative to their perception of where they lie in an essentially conservative country. As an Australian who lived in the US for three years it was clear that the Democratic Party would not represent the left of politics in Australia – it would occupy the middle ground. Hence Figure 1 could be considered to display the relationship between pseudo-profound BS across only half of the political spectrum. In my own experience, there is a U shaped curve between acceptance of pseudo-profound BS, and indeed Classical BS, with higher acceptance levels at both extremes of the political spectrum. It is clear that, at least in terms of Classical BS (of which pseudo-profound is just one variant), that those on the far left are more accepting of scientifically baseless fears regarding GMOs whereas the far right are accepting of creationism in opposition to evolution.(3,4) Anti-vaccination views seem to find support at the extremes of both conservative and liberal affiliations. However, I suspect there is political bias in the study of political bias. As an extreme liberal, I suspect that the literature is skewed by the predominance of liberal academics who have focused their attention on attempting to prove the cognitive bias of those more to the right of themselves.
It is worth noting that Deepak Chopra, the creator of one of the sources of pseudo-profound BS statements (with random modification) that conservatives appear to accept, is a Democrat and an ardent critic of the Republican Party.
The authors are right to acknowledge the potential impact of religiosity – the apparent correlation between acceptance of pseudo-profound bulls_t and perception of presidential candidates may more accurately be related to the religiosity of the participant and the presidential candidate. The rankings are closely aligned with popular analyses of candidates religiosity. (5)
None of this is an argument for the veracity of the Bulls__ Receptivity Scale. I continue to question the underlying assumptions of the scales use. It is claimed that because “the original bulls__t statements consist of randomly selected buzzwords, they fulfil the definition of a communicative expression that lacks plausibility and truth from the perspective of natural science”, however, this denies the first person experience of the recipient of the statement. (2) While the technical or operational definition of BS may be defined by the sender or researcher, they cannot know what is received or experienced by the recipient of the statement.
Finally to turn to the authors closing paragraph and their hope that “It may be that this finding and the present research in general has an impact on some conservatives in that they might evaluate statements more critically.” Good luck with that. The evidence is that just injecting more information into polarised debates further polarises political debate. (6) Telling conservatives they are more susceptible to BS is more likely to have them brand your paper as BS rather than change their views. See examples of the responses in the comments section under the paper and on the blogosphere.
1. Pennycook G, Cheyne JA, Barr N, Koehler DJ, Fugelsang JA. On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls__t. Judgm Decis Mak. 2015;10: 549–563.

2. Dalton, C. (2016). Bulls__t for you; transcendence for me. A commentary on “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls__t”. Judgment and Decision Making, 11, 121–122.

3. Tulloch, Andrew. Science-denial in Australian politics: Science is being subordinated to ideology on both sides of the political spectrum [online]. Australian Rationalist, The, No. 95, Summer 2014: 32-33. Availability: ISSN: 1036-8191

4. Hamilton, Lawrence C., "Conservative and Liberal Views of Science, Does Trust Depend on Topic?" (2015). The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars' Repository. Paper 252.

6. Pew Research Center. Faith and the 2016 Campaign - GOP candidates seen as religious – except for Trump.

7. Dan Kahan. Fixing the communications failure Nature 463, 296-297 (21 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/463296a; Published online 20 January 2010

Craig Dalton, University of Newcastle, Australia.

No competing interests declared.