Research into Baloney Uses Four Letter Words

March 25, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

I am critical of university studies. However, I spotted one which strikes as the heart of the Silicon Valley approach to life. “Research Shows That People Who BS Are More Likely to Fall for BS” has an interesting subtitle; to wit:

People who frequently mislead others are less able to distinguish fact from fiction, according to University of Waterloo researchers


A very good looking bull spends time reviewing information helpful to him in selling his artificial intelligence system. Unlike the two cows, he does not realize that he is living in a construct of BS. Thanks, MSFT Copilot. How are you doing with those printer woes today? Good enough, I assume.

Consider the headline in the context of promises about technologies which will “change everything.” Examples range from the marvels of artificial intelligence to the crazy assertions about quantum computing. My hunch is that the reason baloney has become one of the most popular mental foods in the datasphere is that people desperately want a silver bullet. Other know that if a silver bullet is described with appropriate language and a bit of sizzle, the thought can be a runway for money.

What’s this mean? We have created a culture in North America that makes “technology” and “glittering generalities” into hyperbole factories.  Why believe me? Let’s look at the “research.”

The write up reports:

People who frequently try to impress or persuade others with misleading exaggerations and distortions are themselves more likely to be fooled by impressive-sounding misinformation… The researchers found that people who frequently engage in “persuasive bullshitting” were actually quite poor at identifying it. Specifically, they had trouble distinguishing intentionally profound or scientifically accurate fact from impressive but meaningless fiction. Importantly, these frequent BSers are also much more likely to fall for fake news headlines.

Let’s think about this assertion. The technology story teller is an influential entity. In the world of AI, for example, some firms which have claimed “quantum supremacy” showcase executives who spin glorious word pictures of smart software reshaping the world. The upsides are magnetic; the downsides dismissed.

What about crypto champions? Telegram, founded by two Russian brothers, are spinning fabulous tales of revenue from advertising in an encrypted messaging system and cheerleading for a more innovative crypto currency. Operating from Dubai, there are true believers. What’s not to like? Maybe these bros have the solution that has long been part of the Harvard winkle confections.

What shocked me about the write up was the use of the word “bullshit.” Here’s an example from the academic article:

“We found that the more frequently someone engages in persuasive bullshitting, the more likely they are to be duped by various types of misleading information regardless of their cognitive ability, engagement in reflective thinking, or metacognitive skills,” Littrell said. “Persuasive BSers seem to mistake superficial profoundness for actual profoundness. So, if something simply sounds profound, truthful, or accurate to them that means it really is. But evasive bullshitters were much better at making this distinction.”

What if the write up is itself BS? What if the journal publishing the article — British Journal of Social Psychology — is BS? On one level, I want to agree that those skilled in the art of baloney manufacturing, distributing, and outputting have a quite specific skill. On the other hand, I admit that I cannot determine at first glance if the information provided is not synthetic, ripped off, shaped, or weaponized. I would assert that most people are not able to identify what is “verifiable”, “an accurate accepted fact”, or “true.”

We live in a post-reality era. When the presidents of outfits like Harvard and Stanford face challenges to their research accuracy, what can I do when confronted with a media release about BS. Upon reflection, I think the generalization that people cannot figure out what’s on point or not is true. When drug store cashiers cannot make change, I think that’s strong anecdotal evidence that other parts of their mental toolkit have broken or missing parts.

But the statement that those who output BS cannot themselves identify BS may be part of a broader educational failure. Lazy people, those who take short cuts, people who know how to do the PT Barnum thing, and sales professionals trying to close a deal reflect a societal issue. In a world of baloney, everything is baloney.

Stephen E Arnold, March 25, 2024


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