Intelligence, Reason, Rationality, and Bullshit

I was reading an article this morning, from The Toronto Star, describing some research on bullshit and why some people are susceptible to bullshit. The research, entitled On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit comes out of the University of Waterloo, and was conducted by PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook and which, for some reason, focussed on Deepak Chopra (an author I’ve never read).

I haven’t read the research as yet, which has apparently “gone viral” as they say, but judging from the article in the Star entitled “If you smell bull, you’re probably smarter, science says” the research, in its conclusions and premises, is itself  ironically, bullshit.

The problem with the study, the “Bullshit Factor” therein that is a part of the general problem of bullshit itself, is its apparent understanding of intelligence as equivalent with analytical thinking. They are apparently treated as synonyms when, in fact, they are contraries. I quote from the article,

“We’re not trying to say that people’s beliefs are bulls—. We’re saying . . . the reason (some people are) less prone to bulls— is because they’re more intelligent and more analytical types of thinkers,” he [Pennycook] said.

The problem with that kind of conclusion is that analytical thinking and intelligence are precisely contrary in meaning. Analytical has the meaning of “take apart” or “dissolve” or “dissect” and so on, whereas “intelligence” (inter-ligere) means “to connect” or “to join together” or make whole, or “connect the dots”, as we say. Intelligence belongs to the detection of meaningful wholes and patterns, and for this reason alone we are compelled to distinguish between reason and rationality. And instead of speaking of “analytical thinking” or rationality, we should here rather speak of discernment and of discerning reason. When Einstein says that “imagination is more important than knowledge” (or William Blake that Imagination is the true life) this is the equivalent distinction between reason and rationality. The research has apparently confused things that ought not to be confused, and is therefore a failure of discerning reason itself. Discerning intelligence (or reason) and analytical thinking are not equivalent, and this bears on the problem Jean Gebser identified: the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in “deficient” mode. But intelligence and integral are related words.

This is not to say that there are not such deceptive “pseudo-profound” slogans and statements that constitute “bullshit”, but it’s not in the way the study concludes. Here again I invoke what I’ve come to call Khayyam’s Caution that “only a hair separates the false from the true”, or William Blake’s “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of the truth”. Bullshit, as the study understands it, is not so much a “lie” but the nonsensical. But every major change in human perception or revolution in consciousness in history has also started out as such “nonsense”. So, even in the “pseudo-profound” there may well be the presentiment of an emergent truth.

Major changes in the structure of consciousness do not emerge like Athena did, all at once and fully armoured from the head or thigh of Zeus. It slowly grows in the depths, as a kind of stress or pressure, and the human voice stammers and stutters in trying to give it expression. It is not, as yet, fully articulate, and appears first as slogan, chant, and so on an only gradually emerges into articulacy, and the struggle to become actual or real leaves its indelible imprint on language. A lot of Marshall McLuhan’s writings on media and consciousness were also dismissed as “nonsense” and “bullshit” in his time, but many of the things he foresaw, in his own weird way, have pretty much come to pass.

Any change in consciousness very often begins in fumbling and stumbling and stuttering and stammering, and it all looks like nonsense. Very often it is nonsense. But that nonsense (or “bullshit”) may actually signal a profound change attempting to come into being and full consciousness and to achieve realisation. There is a difference between “bullshit” and something true but which is unskillfully or ineptly put. Even the supposed examples of such bullshit stated in the Star article (which are supposedly random, but which are not random or are otherwise taken out of context. They are quite grammatical) are not bullshit at all. They are just ineptly put.

Take one of the examples of “bullshit” used in the study: “We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself.” If someone came up to you on the street and said that, you’ld think he was either a visionary or a madman, or maybe both visionary and madman. But it is not meaningless is it? It could be quite profound, actually. By “blossoming of being” the madman could be referring to a switch from “having” (acquisitive or possessive individualism) to “being”, which is a longstanding issue in philosophy, after all. And the “nexus” could be referring to William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” or the “meeting of man and God” or the conjoining of the infinite with the finite, eternity with time — a new “pivot” to existence in which mind and body, culture and nature, soul and world are no longer held, preserved and maintained in an antithetical relationship. No, the statement is not meaningless nonsense or bullshit at all. It’s just ineptly expressed. But if you know already that the “nexus” means the integral, in which the stress and tension between Having and Being will be resolved, then it’s not exactly bullshit at all, is it?

So, not everything that is claimed to be “bullshit” is bullshit. And some things that claim not to be bullshit are, in fact, bullshit.



12 responses to “Intelligence, Reason, Rationality, and Bullshit”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    Many, if not most, people like to hear “bullshit” if it suits them. Here’s some Fleetwood Mac that loves “little lies.”

    It seems to me that the “Bullshit Factor” begins with the Self first. If one doesn’t fool oneself in the first place, then the bull that’s coming from outside won’t stick either. Here at work, people were critical of “the bullshit” which was going on for a very long time. But when that bullshit began to profit them, they became silent and welcomed that bullshit with open arms.

    Speaking of “research,” coincidentally, I set my laptop to show a documentary about Aaron Schwartz last night while I occupied myself with my regular chores. At one point, I couldn’t resist but write down an excerpt from the program verbatim, talking about entire industries built around producing bullshit. I didn’t bookmark the documentary, but here’s that excerpt that I wrote down from the program:

    “At Stanford, he [Aaron Schwartz] downloaded the entire “Westlaw” legal database. He uncovered troubling connection between funders of legal research and favorable results. He did an amazing analysis of for-profit companies giving money to law professors who then wrote law review articles which were then beneficial to companies like, say Exxon, in an oil spill.”

    In my work environment, the “kiss-ass factor,” which is a subset of the “Bullshit Factor” has been most damaging, by the way.

    • Scott Preston says :

      As far as I’m concerned, the researchers would have more profitably spent their time researching “symbolic belief”, as it was once reported in The Guardian and which I commented upon some time ago.

      In other words, “symbolic belief”, as it is used here, seems to be just another way of speaking about “bullshit”. So, I don’t think the researchers can claim that it hasn’t been done before, as it almost certainly has been.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Oh, yes, that’s a really good article about that, too. Thank you for the reminder. I really had forgotten about that and the “symbolic belief,” which exactly captures what I was saying. Most people are just happy with having a “symbolic belief,” without having the time, energy, or even the will to sift through the inaccuracies that have become the norm in every side’s arguments.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Charles Eisenstein also has a pretty good essay called “the Ubiquitous Matrix of Lies” posted at his website, which I found a few days ago.

          In fact, if you google up “ubiquity of lies” you get quite a few articles on the subject. You could spend the rest of your life studying lying if you wanted to, or deception and self-deception. Some people have.

          Of course, the research we are discussing above makes a distinction between lying and bullshit. Lying, they define as deliberate. Bullshit not so much so. So it seems like “plausible deniability” wouldn’t be classified as bullshit? Advertising, it seems, would be? Seems rather arbitrary in that sense.

          • LittleBigMan says :

            A beautiful article. Thank you for linking to it.

            “As we rebuild from the wreckage that will follow, let us remember the lesson we have learned. The power of word, like all magical powers, will turn against us, wither, and die if not renewed by frequent re-connection to its source.” – Charles Eisenstein

            Yes, the “word” has to connect with reality of things on the ground. This is something you also refer to below in one of your comments as the problem with words “that you can’t translate that into useful knowledge — you can’t claim it as knowledge.” Because words have lost their connection to the source. Indeed! Because the “profit motive” makes it so.

  2. Risto says :

    They also had news coverage about that research here in Finland. I was thinking if I should’ve posted a link to you and asked your opinion, because I had a hunch you would be interested, but you got ahead of me…

    I pretty much came to same conclusions as you. In my opinion the research would’ve been much better, if there had been a comparison between the statements they considered to be bullshit and statements which they held “really” profound.

    In the Finnish newspaper’s article there was apparent schadenfraude that only stupid people believe in the “pseudo-profound bullshit”. Your last sentence in the post puts it perfectly, how I feel about that.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks, Risto. I did get around to reading the study online. It’s about 15 pages of jargon, really. One could just as well hurl the accusation of “pseudo-science” against it. In the first study, they mention that one of the participants was removed because he or she had a large number of “skipped questions”. That’s the guy or gal I want to talk to! The anomaly.

      Here’s the link to the study for anyone who wants to wade through it.

      In the abstract, for example, they give an example of a bullshit statement with “no discernable meaning” — “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”. Now, I admit that statement appears somewhat goofy. But I would say it’s unskillful or inept, but not meaningless. It refers to the primal paradox of the One (Wholeness) and the Many (“infinite phenomena”) also called in China “the 10,000 things” (or what I call Myriad). So, it’s a statement about the One and the Many, and the paradox of the One and the Many. The only issue is whether whoever spoke “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” knew what they were talking about (the identity of the One and the Many) or did not know what they were talking about and were just mouthing the words. Whether it’s profound or not depends on context and agency, ie, who said it and in what circumstance. But it’s not the case that it has “no discernable meaning”.

      So, I suggest that the study is actually itself playing with “bullshit”, and to that extent is pseudo-science.

      There’s a number of other very dubious assumptions and premises in the research report besides this apparent desperate need by some psychologists to appear “scientific” by deploying the methods, jargon, and protocols of natural science where these are quite out of place — the domain of “meaning”.

      So, we can’t determine whether a statement like “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” is nonsensical or “vacuous” or not once it is abstracted out of context like this. Maybe it is nonsense and maybe it’s not. Maybe it is vacuous and maybe it’s not.

      And that’s why the guy or gal who skipped all the questions (or most of them) about whether their sample statements were to be rated as profound or not profound is, for me, the really interesting thing about the study.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I should add to the foregoing, that the chief problem with a statement like “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” (unless it’s a line from a poem) is not that it is meaningless, but that you can’t translate that into useful knowledge — you can’t claim it as knowledge. Because it’s “mystical” (in all the worst senses of that word) it appears as “bullshit” because it doesn’t lend itself in that form to translate into true knowing.

        Same with all the other statements of that kind. It’s not because they are necessarily “vacuous”. It’s because they are useless. You can always respond to an abstract statement like “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” with “Well, maybe it does. But so what?” It doesn’t lead you anywhere. It doesn’t usher you into the presence of knowledge.

        • Steve Lavendusky says :

          Off topic- Just finished the best book on William Blake I have ever read. ‘ William Blake: Prophet of Universal Brotherhood ‘ by Bernard Nesfield-Cookson.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    I like to say the following,
    Wholeness is a quality of infinity.Wholeness can not silence infinity. It makes it speaks, leaving it at that without indulging in degrading and divisive language.
    It is a crisis of language abuse.
    The purpose of healthy dialogue is to increase our understanding. makes us better in self and in community,brings us together and enhance our charitable deeds.
    I was listening to father Richard Rohr on the catholic corner speaking on duality and non-duality and how energy is blocked by fixed meaning, when narrowed perception insists that things must only go one way. When the process of misinterpretations run amok in the world.
    When love your enemy is turned into kill your enemy, that is when the one facing the monster is turned into monster into a bigger monster, the world will go crazy and that is what happened to our sensitive Nietzsche, who left the human and went to the horse, no wonder we see all these pets in our modern homes.
    When we killed god and the human becomes the master, all kinds of diseases are expected and only by making god reenters our hearts and our heads, feeling his presence in our speech,in our hearing and in our seeing, a process that is hard to accomplish in this time where knowledge becomes divorced from wisdom, where the media plays a decisive role in the division and separation, in this process of misusing words, the words that are our air that we inhale and exhale. The danger of inhaling and exhaling polluted words need no exaggeration. The coming corrective measures are divine, the signs of mobilizing the forces of nature ate everywhere.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    I was reading about Sokal hoax and thought it is relevant to mention it under this post to see how easy for scientists to deceive each other, that is why I keep referring to god words as mentioned in the quran that god has completed his words to humanity in two words , truth and justice. Humans are easily deceived that is why leaders in any post must be truthful and just in dealing with others.

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