This paper has gotten a good amount of attention lately, as one might expect. It’s a social-science study, designed to try to understand the traits of people who are (more) susceptible to impressive-sounding empty phrases, but it wouldn’t have gotten as much notice if it hadn’t been titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”. (I have no problem with the title – the marketplace of ideas is noisy and crowded, and you do have to cry your wares). Of particular note are the test sentences the authors chose – one batch was Markov-chain-like strings of buzzwords, grammatically sound but guaranteed devoid of any deliberate sense, and the other was a collection from Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed. Perhaps a followup study can test the null hypothesis as to whether anyone can tell which of those is which – in this one, at any rate, the two tracked each other with alarming fidelity. (I am not going to link to Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed; if you want that fountain of wisdom to splash on you, you’re going to have to seek it out yourself).
The paper is open access, and here’s a piece by Emily Willingham at Forbes on it. The authors find that the set of people who are more receptive to this sort of thing do differ from those who aren’t. As you might expect, they tend to score lower on tests of verbal intelligence and fluency, and they are more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena and in conspiracy theories, among other things. The latter tendencies, as the authors note, are well-recognized signs of a BS detector whose batteries need changing. I should note that they controlled for both fluency in English and for familiarity with Deepak Chopra – a study of his biggest fans, though, would be instructive, although I (for one) would have to be paid generously to spend the necessary time in their company.
The topic is an interesting one, and has some bearing on the scientific literature in general. It’s fair to say that to someone without any training or background, a paragraph from the Journal of the American Chemical Society might well sound even less sensible than a paragraph of Chopra’s Delphic doo-dah. So how is one to know that the JACS paper is potentially useful, while the Chopra article can only attain utility by being printed on something that composts well? One possible answer is that a person can study in a direction that will progressively allow the chemistry paper to become more and more meaningful – anyone who’s picked up a new field of knowledge (or a new language) will be familiar with the sensation of going back over material as it begins to make sense. My own examples are seeing tables of integrals in my father’s old CRC Handbook as a child, and seeing them again after learning calculus and, in a different but equally arresting way, seeing footage of a Hitler speech in a documentary after speaking some degree of German for a year. Seeing a Deepak Chopra speech after learning English does not, in all likelihood, have that effect. Hitler talked rot, but it was direct and vigorous rot for the most part: after hearing him, you were not left in much doubt about what he was trying to convey.
Chopra’s customers would object to that JACS analogy by saying that his work, too, repays study with further understanding. But here we get down to the real difference: technical vocabulary. A scientific paper is written with compressed meaning, because it has to be. Concepts are referenced that require study of their own (the most highly distilled form of this sort of thing is mathematical notation). If I write, or if you read, that “the NMR indicated the presence of aromatic protons”, that is a perfectly intelligible statement if you’re an organic chemist. But to unpack those eight words in detail for an intelligent lay reader would take a while, especially if I were to really go into detail on nuclear magnetic resonance and the idea of aromaticity. The vernacular meaning of “aromatic”, just to pick one thing, would do nothing but confuse anyone who’s never studied any chemistry.
Now, philosophy has the same problem, compounded by the way that it can appear to be written with fairly normal-sounding words. No one who comes unprepared to the phrase “a proton-promoted two-step polyolefin cyclization to first furnish tricyclic hapalindoles” (that’s from a current JACS paper) will be under any illusion of understanding it. But you can read a sentence from many a philosopher and think that you’ve grasped its meaning (or been equally sure that there’s no such meaning to grasp), but be wrong on either count because you didn’t realize that words such as “statement” or “value” have actually been given specific technical meanings, just like “aromatic” in the sentence given above.
That has unfortunately confused a lot of readers over the years. The situation is made still worse by suspicions that even once unpacked, not all philosophy contains useful amounts of meaning. Heidegger and Sartre are notorious examples, as witness this from Being and Nothingness:
The Cogito never delivers anything except what we ask it to deliver. Descartes never interrogated it concerning its functional aspect: “I doubt, I think,” and by having wanted to proceed without a guiding thread from this functional aspect to its existential dialectic, he fell into the substantialist error. Husserl, instructed by this error, remained fearfully on the place of functional description. By that fact, he never superseded the pure description of appearance as such; he remained on the Cogito; he merits being called, despite his denials, a phenomenist rather than a phenomenologue; and his phenomenism borders at all times on Kantian idealism. Heidegger, wanting to avoid the phenomenism of description that leads to the megatic and antidialectic isolation of essence, directly tackles the existential analytic without passing through the Cogito….
It’s just as opaque in the original French; there is no human language in which this is not a rough ride. I can (just) see how this might be unfolded into coherent meaning, although when you have to do that word by word it can get exhausting. But I do wonder if the distinction between a phenomenist and a phenomenologue, or the border between the former and Kantian idealism, are concepts as graspable as they would need to be for this to work. If I asked ten philosophers for guidance, or ten philosophy students, how similar would their answers be? If I ask ten organic chemists what an aromatic proton is, though, they’ll converge pretty well. Some very intelligent people love Sartre – well, his writings, because the man himself was not lovable in the least – but some other very intelligent people (Clive James, for one) find his philosophy almost totally fraudulent. (As for Heidegger, James says that “Hegel was trying to get something awkward out into the open. Heidegger was straining every nerve of the German language to do exactly the opposite.”)
So just because something appears difficult or unclear does not mean that it is meaningless, but it doesn’t mean that it’s profound, either. The sciences have the advantage of being able to coin their own technical vocabulary, and mathematics has been able to go even further and produce its own language of symbols for the purpose, but if you’re working with a more normal human idiom, you will find that there are ideas that are extremely hard to express. Some of them, in fact, may turn out to be inexpressible, in which case Wittgenstein advised shutting up about them. Although he did not actually use the phrase “halt die Klappe“, that was the message he was trying to get across to some of his philosophical colleagues.
The direct overlap of these fields occurs when philosophers start talking about science, and when that happens, sometimes the house lights come up and you can see the rickety stage sets and the cheap makeup. The place to go for this is Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense, which is full of truly nonsensical appropriations of scientific language and concepts by various modern literary theorists and philosophers. The implication has to be that if their usages in this area are so much hot air, then the rest of their output might well be more of the same. That’s the same Sokal who famously hoaxed a journal of literary and social theory into printing a mass of superficially passable word salad, just to see if they would. They did.
This situation, then, gives plenty of working room for the Deepak Chopras of the world. He can make a fortune talking about quantum this and transformative that, and tweet things like “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation“. (That’s authentic Chopra, I believe, but if you told me that I’d misquoted it, and that it was really “Manifestation and intention are the mechanics of attention“, how the hell would I know?) We scientists have to make sure that we don’t fall into the same swamp. We have to say what we believe to be the case, in as clear a way as we can, and when we’re talking to lay people who are totally outside our fields, we must, at all cost, make sure that we don’t end up sounding to them like Deepak Chopra.