It’s so easy to create a professional website these days, one that looks trustworthy and reliable. Of course, that does not mean that the information contained within it is also reliable. You would think that would be obvious, we would all like to think that we’ve impervious to bullshit. Alas, that is not the case. We get tricked, mislead, and manipulated, and very often we’re totally unaware of it. We talked briefly about the fluency illusion in chapter 13, we are susceptible to judging something as truthful if we find it easy to process.
Intuition can take us down the wrong path just as easily as it can the right one, and our only recourse is to slow down and start the effortful process of thinking. This makes well-designed websites with well-written prose a perfect breeding ground for misinformation. In a Ted talk, neuroscientist Molly Crockett discusses what she calls neuro-bunk, neuro-bollocks, or neuro-flapdoodle. 17 Crockett points to one of her studies in which participants were given a foul-tasting lemon-flavored drink designed to reduce the amino acid tryptophan, which is necessary for the brain to produce serotonin.
What she and her colleagues found was that people are less likely to take revenge when they’re treated unfairly if their tryptophan levels are high. 18 Following this research, articles started to come claiming that cheese and chocolate can make us better decision makers. Why? Because tryptophan is found in reasonable doses in cheese and chocolate. That’s not a lie, it’s not entirely bullshit, but as Crockett notes, it is oversimplified. Not long after this she had marketers calling her up asking her to provide scientific endorsements of their products.
Exaggerating scientific results shouldn’t come as much of a surprise within the markets that stand to gain something from it. Websites want eyes, they want to attract your attention, which they accomplish with outrageous titles. Marketers want your money, any science that might help the appeal of their products are quickly seized upon. Crockett mentions an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled ‘You Love Your iPhone. Literally. ’ The article comes to this conclusion through a study that had 16 people shown a ringing cellphone while their brain activity was measured.
The results showed activation of a brain region called the insula. 9 The insula has been linked to love and compassion, so there’s the link. However, the insula has, in studies that were not mentioned, been linked to plenty of other processes, including disgust, anger and pain—in fact, the insula shows up in about one-third of all brain imaging studies. 20 Crockett also points out that the hormone oxytocin has been called the ‘love’ hormone given that high amounts of it has shown to increase trust, empathy and cooperation among people; but other studies have also found that it can increase envy, gloating, and can bias people to favor members of there in-group at the expense of outsiders.
A study by McCabe and Castel found that by simply including an image of a brain somewhere on an article relating to neuroscience, people are likely to judge that article as more reliable. 21 If you take a look through your nearest supermarket you’ll probably find many items spouting scientific claims, such as boosting focus or memory. Many of these have very little research to back up those claims. Even topics such as gluten, fat, sugar and artificial sweeteners, lactose, and organic foods suffer from a wealth of misinformation and pseudoscience.
Power Balance LLC designed a sports wristband that was alleged to optimize energy, flexibility, and balance, and that “optimal health and peak performance occur when your body maintains ionic balance and free flowing energy pathways at the optimal frequency. ” The wristband won Sports Product of the Year in 2010 by CNBC, it was endorsed by Shaq and David Beckham, over 2. 5 million of them were sold. Yet, when the Australian government asked them to provide evidence for what the wristbands were claimed to do, the company could provide none, and subsequently offered full refunds.
Professional looking websites, pseudoscience, celebrity endorsements and many other factors lead us down the garden path. This is not only a modern problem. We’ve been susceptible to bullshit for a very long time. Snake oil salesman and medical quacks have been around a while. Unfortunately, it isn’t all that difficult to convince people of something that lacks any evidence. To recite a phrase used by Douglas Hofstadter, “…reasoning and problem-solving have (at least I dearly hope! ) been at long last recognized as lying far indeed from the core of human thought. ” 22
What makes us more or less susceptible to bullshit? There could be a number of issues here. One is the confirmation bias, which we discussed back in chapter 17. If we only look for information that supports our beliefs, hunches, and the things that we simply want to be true, then we’ll be hopelessly hooked on any little thing that supports these ideals and ignorant of anything that opposes them. Another relevant issue is laziness. We consume more information today than ever before, so it is virtually impossible to parse through the research and to evaluate claims whenever we encounter them.
It’s easier to go with the flow, but in some cases it can also be very harmful—if you’d like to know how, I suggest the website whatstheharm. net, which has documented many of the ill effects of false beliefs. Authority figures can also sway our judgment. Celebrity endorsements are common for a reason—in psychology the halo effect defines how people that excel in one area—such as in sport or film—are subsequently viewed as excelling in other areas. They become role models that we look to for guidance. Famous rockstars are suddenly intelligent political advisors while supermodels are queried on methods for resolving world crises.
Gordon Pennycook explored the way people are manipulated using what he called pseudo-profound language—that is, language which is “constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth. ” 23 Sentences that are made to sound erudite and insightful through fancy words as opposed to making sense or having accuracy. Dan Sperber wrote in his 2010 article ‘The Guru Effect,’ that, “All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp. 24
Pennycook made his point using material from Deepak Chopra, such as his tweet “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation,” and his interview on ABC’s Nightline, in which Chopra defined consciousness as “a superposition of possibilities. ” A great example of some pseudo-profound language can be artificially generated using the New Age Bullshit Generator, found at sebpearce. com/bullshit—I was illuminated upon receiving this—“This life is nothing short of a condensing spark of quantum joy. ” Indeed. Many beliefs and opinions may be harmless, but in the domain of education they are devastating.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if it was not based on any type of critical thinking or consideration of evidence for and against, then it is a weak and poor opinion that needs to be removed from any situation in which it might influence someone else. As a learner, whether you are self-directed or making your way through a school system, critical thinking is a must. You don’t have to believe everything that comes from the mouth of some authority figure, in the same way you should be weary of what you find in an interesting article or on the back of a sports drink.
If you want to get to the truth, you must put in the effort, you must be critical, analytical, in some cases skeptical. Pennycook and his colleagues found that one of the biggest reasons people succumb to bullshit is a reliance on intuitive thinking—System 1 thinking. It’s quick and easy to go with your gut, and if the language and impression formed from the material don’t raise any immediate alarm bells, we’ll often happily go along for the ride. System 2 thinking is necessary if we’re to logically and rationally stand a chance at identifying hidden errors or deception.
Be ready to work. There are many ways we can break down and evaluate claims, ideas, or beliefs, and it is an essential activity in any educational setting to seek out an objective truth. Try to find the studies, look at the numbers, break things down into their parts and also try to see them as a whole, to generalize them. Actively look for counter-evidence and arguments against the prevailing line of thought, find out where the loose strings are, and where possible, conduct your own experiments.