You can fool most of the people most of the time.

I’ve mentioned before the estimable Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column from the Guardian. In fact, his blog is in the list of links on the left; it is well worth following regularly. But this week’s column touches of something of more direct interest to philosophers than usual. Here’s an excerpt

In 1973 a group of academics noticed that student ratings of teachers often seemed to depend more on personality than educational content. They wanted to find out how far this effect could be stretched: what if you had an impressive, charismatic and witty lecturer, who knew nothing at all about the subject on which they were lecturing? Could plausibility alone make an audience feel satisfied that they had learned something, even if the information delivered was deliberately inconsistent, irrelevant, and even meaningless?

They hired a large, affable gentleman who “looked distinguished and sounded authoritative”. They called him “Dr Myron L Fox” and he was given a long, impressive, and fictitious CV. Dr Fox was an authority on the application of mathematics to human behaviour.

They slipped Dr Fox on to the programme at an academic conference on medical education. His audience was made up of doctors, healthcare workers, and academics. The title of his lecture was Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education. Dr Fox filled his lecture and his question and answer session with double talk, jargon, dubious neologisms, non sequiturs, and mutually contradictory statements. This was interspersed with elaborate diversions into parenthetical humour and “meaningless references to unrelated topics”. It’s the kind of education you pay good money for in the UK.

The lecture went down well. At the end, a questionnaire was distributed and every person in the audience gave significantly more favourable than unfavourable feedback. The comments were gushing, and yet thoughtful: “excellent presentation, enjoyed listening”, “good flow, seems enthusiastic”, and “too intellectual a presentation, my orientation is more pragmatic”.

The researchers repeated the performance. Time and again they got the same result: the third group consisted of 33 people on a graduate-level university educational philosophy course. Twenty-one had postgraduate qualifications. They loved it: “extremely articulate”, “good analysis of subject that has been personally studied before”, “articulate”, and “knowledgable”, they said.

Nobody can check everything, we’re all interdependent for information, and sometimes you might find yourself in a soulful, detached state, wondering whether everything you think you know is grounded in nothing more than a string of half-remembered assertions from people like Dr Fox.

If you want to read the research report, here it is. It is notable, as the original researchers say, that their sophisticated audiences (including those educational philosophers) failed badly as “competent crap detectors”.

Which makes you wonder. Philosophers of an analytic stripe like to think that they are rather good at detecting intellectual rubbish. But how competent are we really? Still, perhaps one moral to be drawn is that the extended, vigorous, no-respecter-of-persons, test-to-destruction, highly sceptical, all-in-intellectual-wrestling, with which visiting speakers get mauled at least at some UK philosophy departments (Moral Sciences Club, anyone?) does serve an essential intellectual function. It makes it less easy to get away with the crap.

2 thoughts on “You can fool most of the people most of the time.”

  1. Great study with lots of implications.
    We should “know” that most people can be easily fooled.
    So how about a discussion/analysis and further studies of those who DID/CAN detect the “crap”/fraud? What can we learn from them?

  2. An interesting article – it’s true in business too. Of course, most people would choose an entertaining, uninsightful presenter rather than a boring, uninsightful presenter. And, sadly, there are very few insightful presenters in business.

    It’s getting on for twenty years since I studied philosophy; however I can still remember the law of excluded middle being taught by reference to the laws of cricket. Now that’s quality teaching!

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