HOW TO DETECT BULLSHIT IN TECHNICAL WRITING
It’s official! Bullshit is a technical term, but only if you are a psychologist, philosopher or linguist. I’ve just finished reading the most fascinating article written by a group of psychologists on the subject of bullshit.
In November 2015, The Journal of Judgement and Decision Making published a paper entitled On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-profound Bullshit. No, really, that’s the title of the article you can read it here.
The researchers sought to discover what makes certain people more receptive to a particular kind of bullshit, namely, pseudo-profound bullshit. In specific they looked at nonsense motivational-sounding quotes. Interestingly, the funding for the study was provided by The Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada.
Over the course of four studies, the authors sought to explore the relationship between certain types of thinking and the tendency to rate as profound things which are not. They introduce their topic by quoting the philosopher Frankfurt (2005 in Pennycook et al, 2015) who defines bullshit as “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent of direct concern for the truth.” The writers go on to clarify that “bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.” (Pennycook et al. 2015, p549) They tell us that this phenomenon is similar to what others have called obscurantism: “[when] the speaker [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.” (Beukens and Boundry, 2015 in Pennycook et al. p549].
So, what makes one person better at detecting bullshit than another? The authors findings led them to conclude that “increased bullshit sensitivity was associated with better performance measures of analytic thinking.” (Pennycook et al, 2015, p 560) There were other factors too, but they fall outside a technical writing discussion. The key word here is “analytical”.
I frequently find myself writing in the margins of reports, “What does this mean?”, partly because it is my job to critically evaluate the documents that I read, but also because this is what is required if we are to discern truth in what we read.
Bullshit is distinct from lying and nonsense. Lying deliberately seeks to hide the truth, nonsense has no meaning at all, whilst the bullshitter “oft has the intention of implying greater meaning than is literally contained in the message”. (p 560)
So how do you avoid falling for bullshit? My encouragement to you is to read critically. Be open to what the writer has to say, but do not blindly accept that grand words represent truth or are correct. Take the time to reflect on what you read and analyse the words.
Is the writer trying to bamboozle you into thinking that he/she knows what they are talking about by using buzzwords and fancy language? Have they considered the statement in sufficient depth? Have you?
Analytical thought is critical to the way we read and write. Perhaps if we are more analytical when reading the words of others, we will become more critical of our own writing too and thereby reduce the amount of bullshit going around. Now wouldn’t that be a good thing?