John Petrocelli

Detecting Malarkey

Air Date: May 16, 2022

Wake Forest University psychologist John Petrocelli discusses the importance of fact- and nonsense-checking.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, John Petrocelli. He’s the author of “The Life Changing Science of Detecting Bull____” and a professor and social psychologist at Wake Forest University. Thanks so much for joining me today, John.


PETROCELLI: Thank you, Alexander. It’s great to be here.


HEFFNER: John, we’ve now had, since the beginning of the pandemic, in early 2020, over two years to assess what is real, you know, what is authentic, what is fact-based and what is wrong? What is bull____ about the pandemic? Do you think that after some months and years of struggle on that question, we’ve come to some consensus or some coherence around what are, you know, truthful, legitimate sources of information and what are illegitimate or, you know bull____, either intentional you know, manipulative or just haphazard and casual BS?


PETROCELLI: Well, quite frankly, Alexander, I don’t believe we have improved much, because things haven’t changed even at the earlier levels of our education system. We no longer teach critical thinking skills in our, you know, AP English literature or composition courses or, you know, digital media or in psychology. It’s, it’s just something that has, has left the curriculum that needs to come back (laugh), quite frankly. And I think one of the important distinctions of what you’re talking about, sort of the misinformation or disinformation that is intentional, that people know not to be true, those are lies, right? Those are categorically false. And I make an important distinction between lies and BS. So, BS is something that is communicated with no regard or little concern for evidence, truth, or established knowledge. And this is very different from intentional lies. So when someone lies to us, they, the liar doesn’t actually believe what it is that they say, right? And they actually need to know what the truth is to tell a good lie, right? But when someone is BS-ing us, they really don’t have any concern or interests or attention to truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge. And what the, what the liar says is actually categorically false, but not so with the BS-er. Just by chance or by accident BS-ers can say something that’s actually correct. But even they wouldn’t know it because they’re not paying any attention to truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge. And this is a really big problem because people cannot make optimal decisions and form clear judgements without seeing things clearly. And, one of the greatest threats to clarity is BS. And I don’t think that it has changed. If anything, I think the amount of BS is on the rise. There’s just so many ways to voice your opinion. And there’s really not much of a, sort of a social accountability, I think, in place as a social norm, to hold people accountable to something better, to something that is tied to genuine evidence or established knowledge.


HEFFNER: We will be cognizant we are on the public airwaves. We did, as I mentioned to you earlier, host another author on this same subject at the University of Washington. And it’s something we’ve explored before. But I want you to be cognizant of that. And whether you’re intending to use that framework of BS, or lie, come up with another term for BS, which is maybe malarkey. That’s a term that our president likes to use. And it’s one of the closest associations with BS. I say that because I want to ask you really about your research on the extent to which people are calling other people, you know, liars versus malarkey artists, for lack of a better word, right, BS artists, But, you know, based on the research in your book and what you’ve done to date to follow up on the book, in the public sphere and, you know, just as a gauge of Americans in general, are people more likely to accuse other people of lying or BS, and as a follow up on that, if you’re not using the term BS, what do you use yourself? Malarkey, crap, something else?


PETROCELLI: Yeah, I think of it as nonsense. So something that isn’t connected to truth or genuine evidence, established knowledge to me is complete nonsense. And I think one of the reasons why we have so much nonsense is that it’s just not a social norm to call people on their nonsense, right? It’s not modeled. And it’s very rare in the event that it occurs. Now, I could tell you also that one of the places that we do see some nonsense is when, when people, writers, offer what appears to be data or information, some sort of evidence, right. But that’s extremely rare, Alexander, that people actually use data and information. I mean, if people actually used data, I wouldn’t have, I mean, if the world was data driven, I probably wouldn’t have written my book. Right. I mean, when is the last time you heard anyone say, gee, Alexander, this BS artist that I’ve been communicating with, sure uses a lot of arguments and data in, in their stance, right? It just, it doesn’t happen. We’re not a data-driven world and that’s part of the problem. There is better information out there. And better information doesn’t always lead to better judgment and decision making. But better judgment, decision making almost always requires better information. And until we require that from people that we communicate with from, you know, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, politicians, journalists, through the whole gamut, we’re going to continue to expose ourselves to these unwanted effects of nonsense.


HEFFNER: But what about that first question of whether more Americans accuse each other of being liars or nonsense artists and, and let’s stick with the nonsense, if you will. You know, do you have any data on that?


PETROCELLI Yeah. I want to give you an example of what it is that I’m ultimately trying to reduce.  I don’t have data on it, and I’m not aware of any data other than the nudge research that suggests that if you ask people simply, well, is that accurate, Alexander, what you just, you know, what you just presented or what you, just, the information that you just put out there is that accurate? People are more likely to sort of take a step back and think about it. And they’re ultimately less likely to share the information, or at least to intend… We know they’re less likely to intend to share the information. We don’t know if they’re actual less likely or more likely to actually share the information. So there really is a great need for better understanding when somebody is going to feel comfortable, you know, calling nonsense, or calling BS, and whether or not there’s any positive effect on ultimately reducing it.


HEFFNER: I’ll tell you why I keep zeroing in on that question. Evidently, and you would be the expert, and authority on it, there really isn’t data on it. But it’s because in this society and in the media landscape, we increasingly are obliged to make the distinction between disinformation and misinformation. And so, as you summarized, the definitions respectively, and how you distinguish between the nonsense and the lies, or untruths or mistruths, you know, it is often that dis versus mis, you know, dis being deliberate, you know, from either a would-be news source that’s attempting to manipulate you or an elected official or a government service that is not giving you the real deal, giving you raw answers to questions. And misinformation, which is honest, you know, earnest mistakes in the course of reporting a news story, or for that matter, in the classroom, as a professor, just being erroneous because you didn’t have the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, or, you know, because you forgot, you know, some connection, or you just misstated something, right? And that’s why I keep at asking that question about, you know, whether we’ve entered a society now with all of the cynicism around the pandemic, its continuity and the continued breakthrough infections over these past months and years, you know, there seems to be a more grounded distinction between intentional and unintentional.




HEFFNER: nonsense.


PETROCELLI: Well, yeah, the very best way to distinguish that, when you hear a claim, like when you receive a claim is to ask questions. People are not very well practiced at asking these very basic questions. I mean, you first have to ask, well, what exactly is the claim? So, if your boss tells you, you know, Alexander, in the restructuring, no jobs will be lost. You know, if that’s the claim, we have to discover, well, how does he or she know that, right? And you know what evidence is there that they’re paying attention to determine that’s the case. So if they’re lying to us, they obviously they know that that not true, that there will be some jobs lost. So we have to ask, well, how do you know that? How do you know that to be true? People rarely ask that question. And then if they can, if we can get past that question, we can get some answers to that, what we need to be asking people is, well, what all other alternatives have you considered? And more importantly, how might your claim be wrong? And the reason we have to ask that question is because there’s a number of sources of disconfirming evidence that might prove the claim wrong, right? People do not typically consider disconfirming evidence for claims, especially things that they believe in. So you have to ask for this. People will not provide it for it, provide it to you. They may not even very, they may not even have thought through it. But once you get the answers to these types of questions, you could make a pretty good assessment as to the motives of the communicator. You can make an assessment as to, well what was their actual interest in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge. And you can come to the determination they really haven’t, then they’re probably BS-ing you.


HEFFNER: Right. And you say that we are, you know, unfortunately uncritical thinkers, more than critical thinkers today, as a result of education in this country and norms that have been practiced more recently than earlier decades, maybe, or centuries of American life, where we undertook more nuance in our evaluation of things and were more careful and considerate and concerned. And I agree with you. I think that’s probably true. My question to you is at the same time, aren’t Americans more interested in exposing hypocrisy or duplicity?


PETROCELLI: Well, you would hope so, but I’m not so sure it’s the case. I mean, years ago, conspiracy theory, beliefs were actually tied to things that, that kind of made a little bit of sense, right. I mean, they tended to be with things that, well, we really didn’t know. There was a lot of lack of clarity. You know, who shot who, when, and how, you know. But today some of the conspiracy theory beliefs today have really no connection to reality. And I’m beginning to that when people say that they have a belief in a claim or an idea, they may not actually believe it. You know, there may be advantages and benefits to imagining that the belief, that the claim is true, pretending that the belief is true. But I’m not so sure that that there’s always this kind of belief that we know, that okay, like that we believe that two plus two is four. You know, it’s, the conspiracy theory beliefs of today are, seem to be very, very different from the old school conspiracy theory beliefs. And so I’m not, I’m not sold on the, on the idea that, that people are, are convinced that we need to, you know, to find truth. Part of the problem is that people underestimate the negative effects that nonsense actually has on our beliefs. I mean, it affects what we believe to be true. What we believe to be true is foundational to judgment and decision making. So it’s very underrated. People, people tend to treat lies with much more disdain than they do nonsense. And that shows you right there, Alexander, that the fear or the concern with nonsense is just not as severe as it is with, with lies.


HEFFNER: Should it be?


PETROCELLI: Absolutely. That’s an argument that I make that, that under some conditions nonsense can be more it, it can have more negative effects, more unwanted effects than lies. I mean, if you know that someone is lying to you, you can tag that information as categorically false. But if someone is BS-ing you, then it’s not necessarily false. It could still be true. And my research so far shows that in comparison to lies, BS information, the very same information, if I tell you, you know Sydney is the capital city of Australia and weapons of mass destruction are produced in Fredonia and Styrofoam was invented in Norway. Now, if you don’t know that all three of those are false and they sound kind of reasonable, you might, and you might think well, and I’m not lying to you. You know, they may true. Now, you’re more likely in the future when you hear those three statements, you’re more likely to believe that they actually are true, if they came in the form of nonsense as opposed to lies. And so this has a very negative effect on learning and memory, but it also has a major effect on attitudes and beliefs. We know that once someone is BS-ing us some, once someone is giving us complete nonsense, we tend to kind of shut down mentally. And we tend not to even recognize the difference between strong and weak arguments. If someone is giving us evidence-based reasoning, in evidence-based communication, we do tend to focus on the strength of arguments and that’s what sways attitudes and opinions. But when someone is BS-ing us, it actually can have more influence, even weak arguments can have the same amount of influence as strong arguments, all of the information being the same. So we know, even with attitude, in addition to learning and memory, with attitudes and memory and opinions, it’s just, it’s all bad, it’s all bad, relative to lies and relative to evidence-based information, but it’s greatly underestimated.


HEFFNER: Right. And what about men or woman on the street BS? The kind of casual BS…




HEFFNER: That you might hear from a clerk in a store, or from your neighbor or child or friend even, how good a friend, I’m not sure, versus the kind of machinery of disinformation. Again, lies, disinformation lies, but there’s also, and can be a machinery of BS. And I wonder to your point, if one is stronger than the other, and again, some people would mistake the kind of Orwellian understanding of illogic, up is down, peace is war or war is peace. The, some people would confuse that as BS when, when it really is in the category of disinformation or lie.


PETROCELLI: Yeah. Well, there are, I argue there are at least three levels of sort of danger or harm with nonsense and BS. And, one is I believe is harmless. You know, if somebody tells you that in 1982, I could throw a football over a mountain, you know, it’s probably harmless. Or, you know, in the summer months coming up, we often tell children, you know, Alexander, they put a compound in that swimming pool water to, so as to detect the presence of urine. And if anything, I mean, if this prevents children from peeing in the pool, then I think it is if anything, maybe it’s beneficial. All children find out that that’s not actually true. But you then have like a second level that I think that I’ve, labeled bad, bad nonsense and BS. And that is, it might sound a little bit like this. “Did you see her face? Who would out for a face like that?” Now that’s just bad nonsense. Not only does it devalue women, demean women, but it suggests that women can’t be good leaders unless they’re attractive. Now that’s bad, but I do think there’s even more harm. So if I tell you Alexander, you know what? I can text while driving. You know what, everybody does it, and it doesn’t affect my performance in driving at all. I don’t see the problem. Okay. That is extremely dangerous nonsense, BS, because not only has and shown that people’s performance and driving is greatly affected by distractions, like texting, not everyone actually does it. A lot of people do. But not everyone does it. But it’s dangerous to then take that information and then believe that, okay, well, I can do this and every, and it’s okay, because everybody does it.


HEFFNER: The second and third example are examples where you can have an infrastructure, a kind of machinery perpetuating that BS. I mean, I would also say that the second example is maybe more uncivil or indecent than even what we would conceive as BS or nonsense. I would think of that as just plain indecency. But, to my question, you know, the first example is one where that kind of thing, you might hear a single person saying on television or in a movie, or, but it’s not something that’s amplified to the point of degrading civil society or fact-based discourse. The latter two are. And so when you take examples of multiplied nonsense, you know, what are the most virulent or harmful examples right now in the culture of that kind of multiplication of nonsense in the public sphere?


PETROCELLI: It’s very simple. I mean, you only have to hear a claim one time, and I mean, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Sometimes it works even better if you can’t remember where it comes from. We call this a sleeper effect and we, also call this an illusory truth effect. I used to think, Alexander, that you had to hear a claim like, you know, 16 times before you would start to believe a false claim, to believe that it’s actually true. But that’s not actually the case. You only need to hear it one time. And when the second time you hear it, it’s going to feel more familiar. And we know that this familiarity is often confused for truth. So it could happen in the form of mainstream media…


HEFFNER:  mm-hmmm


PETROCELLI: or social media, or,


HEFFNER: But I really mean, and sorry to interrupt, but we’re running out of time, unfortunately, but the monopolization of the nonsense and specifically the corporatization of the nonsense, when I refer to that machinery, you’re about to talk about, you know, the mainstream media versus the social media platforms. They’re all culpable and they all have been for a while. But when you talk about the life affirming positive result of being able to detect the BS or nonsense, like our capacity seems so greatly limited in our ability to help others detect it in those mediums, whether you’re talking about cable news or Twitter, Facebook, et cetera?


PETROCELLI: Well, that’s why I’ve argued, Alexander, it’s not just you or me that are, is going to change our communicative culture and make, you know, calling nonsense and BS a part of our communicative culture. It’s going to have to be a collective effort and, you know. But I do think that the more that we model it and quite frankly journalists and interviewers in mainstream media can start to model this, because they have a larger voice, and they have a larger followership. And I think if it’s modeled, people can start to see it maybe for the very first time, like, oh, Alexander, he called BS on that person. And maybe people see it for the very first time. They think about it for the very first time. And they start to think about, well, maybe I can do that. And if they’ve got a model in, in mind, it’s a lot easier to do it the next time they think they may have heard it. And so that’s the way I see this kind of occurring sort of through a contagion mechanism where we just start to, people start to socially model it for others, and it becomes commonplace. But it’s not yet commonplace. Most people look at you like you’re from Mars when you start to question any kinds of claims. But, you know, people are interested, people are, who are interested are interesting. And the more that we can just show interest and ask questions directly. So, you know, I’m really interested in that idea, and play confused. You know, that’s always works well to say, you know, I never heard that. That’s really interesting. Tell me more about that. And you can kind of get into the amount of clarity or lack thereof, sort of that’s behind the claim. And again, you can then make a better decision as to whether or not, you know, it’s likely to be true or false.


HEFFNER: And in these seconds we have left, really just seconds, is your contention, are you contending that we need to be able to BS- check as much as fact check because there are segments on the news, and there are anchors, and there are people who expose the truth that way. They say we have to fact check. And are you saying to folks in my profession and academia, your profession too, in general, we need to do both kinds of checking, fact checking and BS checking?


PEROCELLI: Absolutely. And we need to feel more comfortable with it and demand, demand, something more demand something that that is, is not going to fly with without being unchecked.


HEFFNER: Thank you for your patience today. Detecting BS, malarkey, whatever you want to call it, nonsense, does take a lot of patience. John Petrocelli, author of the really important book “The Life Changing Science of Detecting Bull____.” Thank you for your time, sir.


PETROCELLI: Thank you, Alexander.


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