Why People Believe Things That Aren't True

Everyone needs a BS detector.

Posted Apr 02, 2020

As a kid I viewed the Old Man of the Mountain, in the New Hampshire White Mountains. I also visited the Cardiff Giant, near the Baseball Hall of Fame. That 10-foot tall petrified man had been uncovered in 1869 and went on tour to become a major attraction. A few scientists immediately declared it a hoax, while others vouched for its authenticity, making some religious people happy, as it was proof of biblical claim that giants once roamed the earth. When P.T. Barnum’s offer to buy the giant was rejected, he created his own plaster model, passing it off as the original. People came to see his petrified man, too. One of the owners of the original said of those who paid to see Barnum’s fake, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Barnum’s giant was a fake of a fake. George Hull had concocted the scheme, swore a sculptor to secrecy and buried the piece on his cousin’s farm. Hull eventually sold his $2,600 investment for ten times that amount.

The Old Man of the Mountain, however, was no hoax, but neither was it a man. Great Stone Face, as it was also called, was a natural formation of several ledges that jutted out from the hillside overlooking Franconia Notch. At a certain angle, it looked like the profile of a human face. It became a popular tourist attraction. It collapsed several years ago, but there are those who to this day bring flowers to the site in remembrance of the man who once stared granite-faced into the distance.

There is a human tendency to see things that aren’t there or believe things that are patently false. Who hasn’t taken pleasure in finding figures in scudding clouds? Look at that bird! It’s a map of South America! Such fanciful observations are fun. But some people get suckered into something harmful or sinister. They buy snake oil to cure cancer or believe that coded messages in emails linked human trafficking with Democrats and a Washington pizzeria.

A study by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that those who see meaningful patterns where none exist are more likely to accept statements that are hollow, defined by Alexander Walker, the lead researcher, as “bullshit,” following the term used philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his book, On Bullshit. The term is defined as a claim that is disinterested in truth or validation.

“While many people may believe that they can reliably detect and resist bullshit, empirical findings suggest otherwise. The proliferation of online media has enabled information to spread exponentially, exposing more people to more false or dubious information than ever before,” the researchers write.

The study finds a correlation between seeing patterns where none exist and endorsing statements that sound profound but are in fact bullshit. The study concludes that bullshit seems to work “when people are too uncritical in connecting random, fancy-sounding tidbits to events in their own lives, perhaps not unlike how horoscopes work.”

A roadside historical marker says the Cardiff Giant was “one of the greatest public deceptions in American history,” arguably an exaggeration, as was the banner displayed at the original exhibition that claimed 50 million people had paid to see him, that Barnum had offered $150,000 for the giant, and that “it was the most valuable single exhibit in the world today.”

“There’s a sucker born every minute” is an accurate observation. Hucksters and demagogues take advantage of this human weakness. We need to resist the temptation to make sense when there is nothing more than nonsense. As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman says in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, “We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world, in which regularities appear not by accident but as a result of mechanical causality or of someone’s intention.” Kahneman continues, “We are far too willing to reject the belief that much of what we see in life is random.”

Seeing coherent pictures in cloud formations should remind us to be cautious in drawing conclusions based on thin evidence. As the Waterloo researchers suggest, we all need to be more critical before we connect dots to make a picture that isn’t there. Knowing that everyone is prone to finding patterns in randomness helps to serve as a bullshit detector. Remember, the Cardiff Giant wasn’t a petrified person and there was no man in the mountain.