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The Blatant Nonsense Effect

There are cases when a person reads some argument, which is obviously wrong, yet accepts the argument and the conclusion. In many cases there is a reason for it: the person already believes in the conclusion, or wants the conclusion to be true, or maybe they are simply not interested enough to bother to think about it. However, in some cases there is no apparent reason for this acceptance, and the blatant nonsense effect explains some of these cases.

For the Blatant nonsense effect, the reader{1} must have some respect towards the writer. This may be based on the credentials of the writer, the context of the text (e.g. a respected journal), or simply on the (reasonable) belief that anybody that can write fluently about a complex phenomenon is a reasonably good thinker.

When the reader reads an argument that is obviously wrong, they have a problem: If they are going to trust their judgment that the argument is obviously wrong, they will have to believe that the writer wrote complete nonsense. However, they have some respect to the writer, so that belief is difficult. A workaround to this contradiction is simply to accept the writer's argument and conclusion.

Most of the readers would still need to justify to themselves and others why they accept the argument, and there are several typical ways of doing this:

[12Aug2001] One reason that it is difficult for people to accept the existence of the Blatant Nonsense Effect is that in most of the cases it requires that the reader perform some mental operation(s) (e.g. decide that they don't understand enough) without being aware of it. Many people believe that they, and people in general, are aware of any mental operation that they perform. These people are most vulnerable to the Blatant Nonsense Effect, because they cannot perceive its mechanism. Most of the comments that I got about this page were from people that seem to be in this state. In fact, some of them seem not even to perceive that I think that people can perform mental operations without being aware of it.

The strength of the effect depends positively on:

  1. The credentials of the writer.
  2. How obviously wrong the argument is. To be really effective, the wrongness of the argument has to be very clear, and that is what the term blatant nonsense means.
  3. The lack of self-confidence in the reader.
  4. The lack of expertise in the subject by the reader.

A good example is given in the first page of Crick's book [1.1]. In this example, the writer has extremely high credentials, and the wrongness of the argument is obvious to any idiot, which makes the effect very strong. There are many examples in psycholinguistics, with Chomsky leading the way. In Evolutionary psychology there are good examples as well ([4.4] is the most blatant).

An interesting question is whether the writer is actually aware of the mechanism of the effect (if the reader is aware of the effect, they are unlikely to accept the argument, so we can assume readers are generally unaware of the effect). In general, the most probable reason for the writer to use the argument is that it proved convincing (at least with some readers) in previous occasions. The first occasion that the argument was used was probably generated by searching for arguments that will convince opponents. When some of these arguments work (for whatever reason), the writer repeatedly uses them, while discarding the arguments that did not convince other people. Thus there is no reason to assume that the writer actually understands how the argument succeeds in convincing anybody.


The implications for readers are fairly obvious: If you read an argument that seems nonsense, you have to consider the possibility that it is indeed a blatant nonsense. What seems not to be obvious for most of readers is that blatant nonsense is a very common tool, in particular in the fields of psycholinguistics, evolutionary psychology, and to less extent in other cognitive sciences.

The Embarrassment Effect

One effect that makes it difficult for readers to get over the blatant nonsense effect can be called the Embarrassment Effect. Once a reader read and accepted a blatant nonsense, admitting it is a blatant nonsense will entail admitting that the reader themselves accepted a blatant nonsense as a reasonable argument. This is embarrassing, so readers will try to avoid it, by various maneuvers. Some of these involve avoiding admitting that it is a blatant nonsense, others avoiding admitting that the reader accepted the argument in the first place. In the former case, the embarrassment effect strengthens the blatant nonsense effect. In the latter case, the embarrassment effect serves to hide the blatant nonsense effect.

{1} I use the terms 'writer' and 'reader' in the text, but the discussion is also applicable to speaker and listener.

Yehouda Harpaz