A discursion on bullshit, and two tributes
As an educative counter-point to the above commentary about quotes, we might recognize and acknowledge one man, in recent times, as a popular source of vacuous and fatuous inanities: the man? Kahlil Gibran. The theme here is detecting bullshit, and that connects to two anecdotes about recently deceased professors I have worked with.
If you are among those who have already learned to distinguish inanities, like those of Gibran, from the useful quotes in the above commentary, then you have achieved something valuable and will have gained immunity from what follows. For fear of causing mental confusion in my readers I will only inflict a small sample of Gibran on you (Note: the following text may be infectious and it may be mentally harmful to read it more than once):
‘Happiness is a state of activity’
‘Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror, but you are eternity and you are the mirror’,
‘To belittle, you have to be little’.
I now advise 5 minutes of intense and different mental activity to prevent the above taking root and spreading in your head.
I had to place each one on a separate line, or there would be confusion as to whether it was one continuous piece of drivel, or discreet ‘drivelettes’: then again, can it possibly matter? Does meaninglessness juxtaposed to meaninglessness become unmeaningless, or is less and meaning more meaning, because less is more and less than less, more-or-less. (see, it is easy to be pseudo-profound, anyone can do it).
I had previously only known enough of Gibran to quickly dismiss him (words heard in a wedding-ceremony reading). I started looking for further quotations to add to my earlier compilation, which is how I encountered more of his output. I checked, briefly — one learns not to waste much time on such people. His book, the prophet, is up there with the big sellers of all-time***. I soon found this assessment & bio in the ‘New Yorker’, which sign-posts what the general opinion was:
I greatly admire the intellect and knowledge of Christopher Hitchens, his early death was a great loss to intelligent analysis and debate, so I was not surprised that I soon found his curt dismissal of Gibran: ‘the bogus refulgences of Kahlil Gibran and the sickly tautologies of The Prophet’ — Hitchens knew how not to waste time on people of insignificant intellect. Indeed, reading Gibran for more than a few lines is sickly, like being condemned to drink nothing but Spanish sauternes for the rest of your life (that is something I could have nightmares about!).
*** If you consult lists of all-time best-sellers it is interesting how many of them are similar nonsense.
Why am I commenting on this? Well, separating the intellectual wheat & chaff is an important skill that those aspiring to become educated have struggled with for hundreds of years, and now we have even more information, and the internet, it is an even more essential skill***: indeed, many never acquire a sufficient degree of that skill. Acquaint yourself with the ‘Dr Fox effect’ and if you do not already know about the work of Naftulin (1), Youtube has some footage of the actual ‘lecture’
In brief, what this and other similar work (2) demonstrated was that lectures composed of utter nonsense, delivered by an authority figure who spoke convincingly, made post-graduates think that they had been listening to something profound, useful and meaningful.
Look also at Sokal’s paper ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity’ (3), a little gem of the genre, with subsequent expansion here (4).
*** As Robert Wilensky said: ‘We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.’
Allow me to provide a reminder of the influence and popularity of various pseudo-intellectual ideas and publications of the last century or two, which have been regarded as valid and meaningful by many university-types, ‘professionals’, doctors and literati. My own brief illustrative sample: phrenology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (book: the phenomenon of man), Immanuel Velikovsky (book: worlds in collision), Freud, Gibran (book: the prophet, sold 10 million+ copies), ‘cold fusion’, Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra (e.g. ‘Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation’), and a little lower down the (intellectual) scale, Dan Brown and his mega-selling Da Vinci code nonsense (don’t laugh — people I knew who were medically qualified thought it was ‘true’).
The Nobel prize-winning scientist and essayist Sir Peter Medawar demolished Chardin and his book The Phenomenon of Man. Here is a taster of Chardin’s Jesuitical brand of pseudo-profundity, ‘Everything does not happen continuously at any one moment in the universe. Neither does everything happen everywhere in it.’ Do read Medawar’s essay here in which he asked how people came to be taken in? To which he answered:
“We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. …”.
I learned, early in my career, that a significant proportion of doctors cannot exercise an adequate degree of ‘critical analytical thought’ commensurate with being a scientist. I witnessed some classic pseudo-profundity in my training at Guy’s in London (enough to make me seriously consider abandoning my medical training). Our prof of psychiatry, James Watson, enjoyed giving pseudo-profound responses to questions. There is not a little irony in the fact Jim’s forte was education in psychiatry (see Fox effect above). Perhaps it was to enhance his professorial image, take the mickey, or just see what he could make others think or question. I called him a proponent of ‘intellectual obfuscation’. He often responded to considered thoughts or opinions offered by others at meetings by saying, after a puff on his pipe, ‘quite so’. That disconcerted people (as he intended) since they were not sure whether that constituted ‘professorial approbation’ of their contribution. I devised the response, puffing my pipe (yes, we smoked in hospital meetings in those days) and saying ‘indeed …’ (imagine a certain deeply-quizzical rhetorical inflection there). Such badinage was all very well (maybe the recipients sometimes deserved it), but like many of a psychological orientation, he could be ‘less-than-decisive’ clinically, and in situations where a serious clinical decision was required his special approach was usefully complimented by an ‘off-sider’ able to act autonomously. There can be a bit of a grey area between tolerating uncertainty and being indecisive or impractical.
I still recall patients who were in the clinic for weeks while deliberations about their symptoms ground on at interminable ward rounds (and ‘group-therapy’ sessions). It was obvious some were seriously ill and in need of anti-psychotics, some killed themselves whilst these profound deliberations dragged on.
This brings me back to Gibran’s meaningless ‘Happiness is a state of activity.’ I challenge anyone to substitute a word for ‘activity’ that would render that sentence even more meaningless.
Indeed, one could be excused for suspecting schizophrenic thought dis-integration.
And, as you see, that is a thread in this discursive comment. Some of these poor patients in the clinic clearly had schizophrenic thought-disorder, but some of these pseudo-profound intellects were bending over backwards, indeed disappearing up their own fundaments, to imbue these disintegrated thoughts with meaning (I wonder if some commonality of thinking-style evoked recognition and empathy). One young man I remember had just been offered a philosophy scholarship at Oxford, where he had been interviewed by none other than the Prof of philosophy. I admitted him from the casualty department late one evening, and even after my few beers in the doctors’ mess, it was obvious he was psychotic. Some weeks later, still on no treatment, and with no formal diagnosis, he committed suicide. So much for the intellectual exercise of understanding.
Anyone who has gained the impression that I was not overly-impressed by my training at a so-called top London teaching hospital, has, as they say, ‘got it in one’.
Incidentally, some readers may like to know that such lack of inspiration with the scientific content of my postgraduate training caused me to action my long-nascent plan to set up my own wine trading company in London. I almost gave up medicine and entered the wine trade full-time. I have no explanation for the observation that so many doctors are involved in the wine trade, but I so-nearly became one of them. On that note, I shall return to auditing my wine cellar database and selecting wines for dinner.
As I am looking through the wines I will add another anecdote. I was teaching the students in the casualty department one day when things were unusually quiet. It occurred to me it would be interesting to let them see how a professor like Jim dealt with things at the sharp end. I caught him in an idle moment over in the academic department and suggested he join us, where he performed for the students with an interview of the patient. I recall few details other than that I was not disabused of my presumption that having professors in casualty was, how can I phrase it, ‘not always a very productive exercise’. Nevertheless, when he had finished his interview and the students had asked a few questions, which evoked enigmatic responses, one of them asked what he supposed would provoke a definite answer: what was Jim’s diagnosis? He replied, after another enigmatic pause, and probably a puff on the pipe, ‘He is experiencing a location disorder’ upon which he turned and made his exit.
As you might suppose, the students had little idea what was going on, or what he meant — which was, he is in the wrong place, send him to the acute admission ward. That exemplified his sometimes-special style of teaching.
I liked aspects of Jim and his style and enjoyed my time in the department and his recognition of the importance of making the working environment positive and pleasant. Working with him also illustrated the vagaries of having a professor such as he involved in acute admissions (which he did not normally do, of course). A while ago I searched to see what he had done since then and was interested to see his impact on the literature, I suspect it was more in areas less easily accessed by the usual kind of searches. I looked again when writing this commentary, only to discover that he died towards the end of 2016. Both the obituaries that I found of him seemed anodyne.
I shall therefore add a light-hearted anecdote, which should not be allowed to fade un-noted into history. It is about Jim’s sex therapy clinic in which I had the pleasure and fun of being a co-therapist with his wife, Christine. As a newly appointed Prof my recollection is that Jim had been invited to give an address to some august body, the Royal Society, or something. He decided to address them on sex therapy and one of his splendid pieces of intellectual obfuscation from this address was submitted to ‘Private Eye’ (not by me, honestly) where it received pride of place in their column called ‘Pseuds corner’. It read as follows: ‘Premature ejaculation and vaginismus should not be regarded as properties pertaining to individuals, but more as phenomena manifesting themselves in two-person situations.’
Professor James Gibbons
James was the Prof in whose department I worked before I left the UK. He also died recently at a grand old age, having had what I imagine was delightful retirement in a cottage in Saxmundham in East Anglia. He was reserved and erudite, of wide-ranging education and intellect, and a gentleman. My presence in Australia is the result to his consideration and tact. When I decided to come to Australia from Southampton (I had always had a yen to live in ‘the Tropics’) I wanted the insurance policy of having a job to go back to. I applied for sabbatical leave. That is usually granted only when one has institution to attend and a course of study or research activity to undertake (no such thing existed where I wanted to go, which was Mackay). I did not think the UK National Health Service had done that much for me, and very much took the view that ‘all is fair in love and war’, as the old adage has it. I forged the necessary documentation to convince the committee, that sits to consider sabbatical leave applications, that my cause was commendable.
The theme of bullshit, and how academics may fail to detect it, is recurrent!
I did a passable job with my forgeries and story such that the dear white-haired moustachioed old chairman embarked on a eulogy about how fine it was to see young chaps using their initiative to go to distant places (he might even have used the word ‘colony’, if he did not, that was the tenor of it). Readers may appreciate that this caused me some difficulty in keeping a straight face. He then turned to my Prof (James), who had thus far not contributed, to ask if he had any questions. The poker-faced reply was short and negative. I was granted sabbatical leave and soon after, I left.
On a visit from Australia to the UK some few years later I shared a special thank-you-bottle with James in his cottage. It was a botrytis-affected chardonnay from Jean Thévenet, Domaine de la Bongran, which, to my delight, he had never had before. He was a sophisticated connoisseur, so finding sometime new for him was a special pleasure. It was the first time I had seen him since I left, and I was pretty sure he had known the score all along: his response to my enquiry about my ruse was met with a smile, a raising of the glass and one word in reply. I shall never forget his kindness for saying nothing: one word from him could have changed the course of my life. He was a fine colleague and ‘un gentilhomme’. James, as a fellow wine-lover, I have raised a suitable glass of fine wine to respect your memory.
As Brillat-Savarin said: ‘The pleasures of the table belong to all men and to all ages, and of all pleasures remain the last, to console us for the passing of the rest.’
I trust such pleasures provided you with as much as you desired.
1. Naftulin, DH, Ware Jr, JE, and Donnelly, FA, The Doctor Fox Lecture: a paradigm of educational seduction. Acad. Med., 1973. 48(7): p. 630-5.
2. Pennycook, G, Cheyne, JA, Barr, N, Koehler, DJ, et al., On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 2015. 10(6): p. 549-563.
3. Sokal, AD, Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Social text, 1996(46/47): p. 217-252.
4. Sokal, AD, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford University press., 2008.