Today, in a world where anyone can spread conspiracy theories, lies and unreliable information in an instant, many people, including professionals often struggle to distinguish false sources from valid ones. There is a growing collection of poor quality research that is contributing to scientifically questionable myths and the development of ineffective interventions. In the sports world, for example, a significant number of Olympians were found at the behest of their coaches, to have recently integrated pseudoscientific medical therapies into training routines. These were such things as cupping and intravenous hydration sessions, that cannot provide proven clinical benefits and have caused harm. It has been found that myths and unsubstantiated theories can “impede effective delivery and hinder effective leadership at all levels”
Vulnerability to bullshit
Bullshit is information that has been constructed with a lack of concern for the veracity of the evidence. Pseudoscience is often made up and used as a tool to impress others, persuade people in mistaken beliefs and sometimes maliciously mislead others.
The tendency to believe bullshit and pseudoscience is indicated by a individual’s level of receptivity and lack of critical thinking.
The Bullshit Receptivity Scale (BSR)
In 2015 a group of researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada developed The Bullshit Receptivity Scale (BSR) where people are presented with computer-generated fake quotes that they have to classify as either truth or bullshit. People who view them as meaningful are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories, scientific misinformation and fake news. A higher receptivity to pseudoscience (known as hyperactive agency detection) appears to explain the growing spread of impressive-sounding pseudoscientific theories and ideas. Recent studies have highlighted concerns that this phenomenon doesn’t affect individuals believing conspiracy theories. A not insignificant number of pseudoscientific theories are accepted and used in organisations and have been the basis of organisational designs, training, management practices and the like. Examples include:
- Learning styles
- The learning pyramid
- The myth that 70% of change projects fail
- MBTI or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
- NLP – Neuro-linguistic programming
- Wind turbine syndrome
Why some professionals use pseudoscience
High level, professional work tends to be very competitive. Consultants and professionals are constantly looking for the next ‘best thing’ or solutions that will create a competitive advantage. Whilst this environment can be cutthroat at times, innovative solutions still need to be based on evidence-based principles.
Unfortunately, many professionals get sucked into power dynamics that value new and promised outcomes over more evidence-based approaches. Having the latest thing is often associated with being ‘in the know’, social status and impression management, rather than having an evidence-based approach. Often there is a form of peer pressure in organisations to engage with and not critically think about theories and ideas so as to remain accepted in the community. Professionals who express scepticism when peers or supervisors recommend unsound theories are likely to lose access to a larger social network and the associated resources. Dominant narratives within an industry or organisation carry significant weight and pressure to conform. Questioning such narratives that others are invested in, especially leaders and managers, can cause ostracisation.
Previous research looking at the presence of pseudoscience in organisations and coaching has found that:
- 50% of coaches surveyed have based coaching practices on pseudoscience and myths.
- Treatments for health issues in organisations, such as lower back pain and fatigue, are often not supported by scientific evidence.
- People with higher pseudoscience receptivity believe and spread misinformation online more often whilst engaging in persuasive bullshitting (strategically engaging in and transmitting bullshit to persuade or impress other people).
- Organisations are often “prestige-awarding”, basing a lot of career advancement opportunities on social status and being ‘up-to-date’ or knowing the latest ideas and fads. This makes people significantly more vulnerable to accepting and spreading pseudoscience.
- Some people, such as consultants, etc, have been found to be significantly more likely to participate in distributing and using pseudoscience when they believe it can provide them with social, financial or professional advantage.
- People who can distinguish between reliable news sources and fake sources are less receptive to pseudoscience and less likely to attribute meaning to profound statements that are false.
A new study
A new study by researchers from the University of Central Lancashire, Grey Matters Performance Limited and the University of Edinburgh in the UK, along with Columbia University in the U.S., has looked at the widespread presence of bullshit and pseudoscience.
The study found that, despite most professionals’ graduate level educations, a large number of people struggle to separate science from pseudoscience.
- Professionals with higher levels of higher education (masters and doctorates) are significantly less likely to accept pseudoscience and tend to have the ability more readily to distinguish between true science and pseudoscience.
- Organisations with more professionals with higher education levels:
- have significantly lower levels of pseudoscience being used and spread across the organisation
- have increased levels of challenge of theories and ideas
- show greater respect for the truth and scientific methods in their work culture
- see fewer managers and leaders engaging in spreading pseudoscience
- are significantly less likely to accept the use of pseudoscientific language without challenge and clarification
- Counterintuitively, professionals with higher bullshit receptivity, who are more likely to believe pseudoscience, tend to report observing higher levels of pseudoscience in their organisations. Those who perceive the presence of greater amounts of bullshit and pseudoscience tend to be less able to distinguish pseudoscience from real science.
- The level of bullshit or pseudoscience that is perceived in organisations tends to be underreported, which indicates that this is a more serious problem than previously thought.
Belief in and distribution of pseudoscience was found often to be motivated by reputation maintenance and efforts to increase or maintain social status, instead of darker Machiavellian strategies such as manipulation, which is linked to issues around perceptions of psychological safety.
Be impressively well informed
Get the very latest research intelligence briefings, video research briefings, infographics and more sent direct to you as they are published
Be the most impressively well-informed and up-to-date person around...