On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

This 2015 paper ought to provoke provoke an interesting discussion:

On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit


Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

War in the womb

I’ve never met an IDer or creationist who could explain this, and it should give pause to theistic evolutionists as well.

An article in Aeon:

War in the womb

A ferocious biological struggle between mother and baby belies any sentimental ideas we might have about pregnancy

Suzanne Sadedin is an evolutionary biologist who has worked at Monash University, University of Tennessee, Harvard University, and KU Leuven.

Sam Harris on objective morality

Since objective morality is The Topic That Won’t Die here at TSZ, I think we need Yet Another Thread to Discuss It.

A Sam Harris quote to get things rolling (h/t walto):

There are two mistakes I see moral subjectivists making. The first mistake is believing in the fact-value dichotomy. The second mistake is conflating moral philosophy and psychology, suggesting that our psychology ought to be the sole determinant of our beliefs.

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Does TSZ suffer from ‘a fundamentally anti-intellectual bias’?

Commenter Kantian Naturalist leveled the following charge against TSZ earlier today:

Folks here would rather persist in their confusion over basic issues than risk the realization that they don’t really understand what they assume they understand.

If you haven’t figured out that there’s a fundamentally anti-intellectual bias to TSZ and there’s really nothing you can do to change it, you’re going to have nothing but frustration in your interactions here.

That is an absurdly sweeping statement. Do some people here persist in their confusions, ignoring opposing arguments? Sure. Do some people express anti-intellectual opinions here? Sure, including KN himself on occasion, amusingly enough. Does this mean that TSZ suffers from “a fundamentally anti-intellectual bias” and that those seeking intelligent discussions are doomed to experience “nothing but frustration” here?

No. KN’s charge is ridiculous and way overblown.

A critique of Plantinga’s ‘Free Will Defense’

The ‘problem of evil’ is a perpetual thorn in the side of the omnitheist — that is, someone who believes in an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. For if God is perfectly good and all-powerful, why does he allow so much evil in the world? He’s powerful enough to eradicate it; and if he’s perfectly good, he should want to eradicate it. So why doesn’t he?

One response, known as the ‘Free Will Defense’, comes from Alvin Plantinga:

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The purpose of theistic evolution

Dr. Joshua Swamidass, a theistic evolutionist, joined us recently at TSZ. I think the following comment of his will lead to some interesting and contentious discussion and is worthy of its own thread:

Third, if we drop “Darwinian” to just refer to the current modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, you are right that the scientific account does not find any evidence of direction or planning. I agree with you here and do not dispute this.
So the question becomes, really, is it possible that God could have created a process (like evolution) with a purposeful intent that science could not detect? I think the answer here is obvious. Of course He could. In fact, I would say, unless He wanted us to discern His purpose, we could not.
In my view, then, evolution has a purpose in creating us. Science itself cannot uncover its purpose. I find that out by other means.

Cartesian skepticism and the Sentinel Islander thought experiment

Cartesian skepticism has been a hot topic lately at TSZ. I’ve been defending a version of it that I’ve summarized as follows:

Any knowledge claim based on the veridicality of our senses is illegitimate, because we can’t know that our senses are veridical.

This means that even things that seem obvious — that there is a computer monitor in front of me as I write this, for instance — aren’t certain. Besides not being certain, we can’t even claim to know them, and that remains true even when we use a standard of knowledge that allows for some uncertainty. (There’s more — a lot more — on this in earlier threads.)

In explaining to Kantian Naturalist why I am a Cartesian skeptic, I introduced the analogy of the Sentinel Islander:

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Another take on the Conspira-Sea Cruise

Remember the Conspire-Sea Cruise, attended and reported on by TSZ commenter ‘Colin’, aka ‘Learned Hand’?

Popular Mechanics sent a reporter, Bronwen Dickey, on the same cruise, and here is her dispatch:


I Went on a Weeklong Cruise For Conspiracy Theorists. It Ended Poorly.

What do you get when you stick some of the conspiracy world’s biggest celebrities and their die-hard fans on a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a week? Some fascinating insight into our strange times. And one near fistfight.

The psychology of (not) admitting mistakes

To err is human. Mistakes are as inevitable as death and taxes, so why do many people find it so hard to admit them? Why will they go to great lengths to avoid doing so? What predisposes them to what I’ll call “mistake denial”?

An obvious first guess is that it relates to social status. We humans are a social species, and our standing in the eyes of others depends largely on our perceived competence. Mistakes whittle away at that perceived competence, and so a person who successfully avoids admitting a mistake has avoided a real social cost. There is a flip side, however. While successful mistake denial benefits the denier, unsuccessful denial exacts an even heavier social cost than admitting the mistake in the first place. The denier is seen not only as having made the mistake, but also of dishonestly and childishly trying to cover it up. Under this social cost model, then, we would expect people to deny their mistakes only when there was a reasonable likelihood of “getting away with it” — of successfully deceiving the audience.

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Does original intentionality exist?

“Intentionality” is a philosophical term for “aboutness”. A movie review is about a movie, and the sentence “Trump is a narcissist” is about Trump. Your thoughts concerning today’s breakfast are about today’s breakfast. Each of these is about something else, so each exhibits intentionality.

How do these things acquire their aboutness? “Trump is a narcissist” isn’t inherently about the man who bears the name “Donald Trump”.  Had Trump’s family retained their Germanic surname, Drumpf, then “Trump is a narcissist” would no longer be about the man we call “the Donald”. The intentionality of the sentence is derivative; that is, it derives from the pre-existing convention of referring to a particular man as “Donald Trump”.

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Money and happiness

Can money buy happiness?  These people, waiting for hours to buy lottery tickets, seem to think so, or at least are willing to test the hypothesis (turn off your sound — the commentary is annoying):

What does science say?  The short answer is that money can buy happiness, at least up to a point.  The long answer is quite complicated.

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A selection-vs-drift version of Weasel

In his endless pursuit of that wascally Weasel, Mung made the following silly claim:

GAs are often used to demonstrate “the power of cumulative selection.” Given small population sizes drift ought to dominate yet in GAs drift does not dominate.

That is clearly false, but for the benefit of Mung (and his cousin Elmer) I have modified my Weasel program to incorporate both drift and selection.  They can now see for themselves that small population sizes are insufficient to guarantee that drift dominates selection.

The code is here. Compile it under Linux using “gcc -std=gnu99 -lm weasel.c -o weasel”.

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Questions for Christians and other theists, part 7: Original Sin and the Fall

Among Christianity’s many odd doctrines is the notion of original sin. The details vary from denomination to denomination, but a common view is that all humans are born into a state of sin because Adam succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden, and that this state of sin makes us worthy of God’s eternal condemnation.  Only Christ’s sacrifice can redeem us.

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KF tackles the transfinite

Veteran TSZers may recall an entertaining thread in which a bunch of us tried to explain the cardinality of infinite sets to Joe G:

A lesson in cardinality for Joe G

At UD, commenters daveS and kairosfocus are now engaged in a long discussion of the transfinite, spanning three threads:

An infinite past can’t save Darwin?
An infinite past?
Durston and Craig on an infinite temporal past…

The sticking point, which keeps arising in different forms, is that KF cannot wrap his head around this simple fact: There are infinitely many integers, but each of them is finite.

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George Ellis on top-down causation

In a recent OP at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley (vjtorley) defends a version of libertarian free will based on the notion of top-down causation. The dominant view among physicists (which I share) is that top-down causation does not exist, so Torley cites an essay by cosmologist George Ellis in defense of the concept.

Vincent is commenting here at TSZ, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to engage him in a discussion of top-down causation, with Ellis’s essay as a starting point. Here’s a key quote from Ellis’s essay to stimulate discussion:

However hardware is only causally effective because of the software which animates it: by itself hardware can do nothing. Both hardware and software are hierarchically structured, with the higher level logic driving the lower level events.

I think that’s wrong, but I’ll save my argument for the comment thread.

What is Islamophobia, and are the New Atheists guilty of it?

On the ‘Problem of Evil revisited’ thread, Kantian Naturalist says:

And I’ve become increasingly disgusted by the Islamophobia of “the New Atheists” — especially the odious Bill Maher, who has become their spokesperson in the US media. I think that people who rightly reject the fascist tendencies of contemporary Abrahamic religiosity (whether in the guise of Marco Rubio, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) are rarely aware of how fascistic their own atheism sounds.

Patrick responds:

I don’t watch Maher regularly, but I often enjoy him when I do. What has he said that demonstrates Islamophobia? (And what does Islamophobia mean? Being phobic of the jihadists seems sensible to me.)


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Moderation at TSZ, part 2

The first post in this series can be found here:

Moderation at TSZ, part 1

In part 2, I had planned to discuss why I think the rules aren’t having the desired effects. I still plan to do that. However, in gathering my thoughts, it occurred to me that no one (to my knowledge) has ever made explicit the rationale behind the Guanoing of comments. I think the topic is worthy of an OP of its own.

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Doubt comes for the Archbishop

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, raised eyebrows several days ago by admitting that the Paris attacks had caused him to doubt God’s presence:


Do you ever doubt?


Oh, gosh, yes. Yes!


Does something like this happening ever put a chink in your armour?


Saturday morning I was out, and as I was walking I was praying and saying “God, why is this happening? Where are you in all this?” and then engaging and talking to God. Yes, I doubt.

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