The Incomprehensibility Bluff

I. Outlining the Bluff

If you are in a conversation with another person, and you cannot understand what they are saying, various possibilities present themselves; two of which are as follows:

  1. They are much more intelligent or knowledgeable than you. So much more intelligent or knowledgeable than you, in fact, that you are unable to understand them.

  2. They are talking nonsense.

In any given case, it may be highly unobvious which of these possibilities pertains. Everyone who is even the least bit self-reflective knows that – as a statistical matter—there must be a great many people far more intelligent than them[1]. Moreover, everyone knows that there are even more people with knowledge of specialist fields, about which they know little.

To resolve this problem, people look to social cues. These may include their interlocuter’s education, class, qualifications, and social position. This also extends to their behaviour: their confidence, the rapidity and ease of their responses to questions, and so on. Where arguments are textual, still other factors apply: the sophistication of their language and complexity of their arguments often ranking chief amongst them.

This presents an extraordinary opportunity for incomprehensibility bluffing: being deliberately unintelligible, to convince your audience of the intellectual superiority of you or your arguments.

The perversity of this phenomenon is startling. It is already a truism that confidence and social capital make people more convincing. It is far less remarked upon – if at all—that such factors’ efficacy may increase, as the sense that their possessor is making declines.

II. Characterising the Bluff

And there are still more fascinating characteristics of the incomprehensibility bluff to remark upon:

  1. Of least interest, but potentially greatest relevance, is its ease. There are a great many more nonsensical than sensical statements in the possibility space of ideas[2], so it is much easier for people to confidently reel off the former, than laboriously construct the latter. This puts the incomprehensibility bluff within the reach of most , lowering the bar to its rhetorical deployment.

  2. Another characteristic is the unfalsifiability of incomprehensibility bluff arguments and positions. A theory with a clearly logical structure and conclusions can be directly analysed, argued against, and (if flawed) refuted. It is a great deal harder to grapple with a theory that deliberately evades understanding! And if a theory invites miscontrual, arguments against it will tend to target misconstructions, giving its author an easy way to dismiss objections, and frustrating attempts at good faith engagement.

  3. Further, the incomprehensibility bluff leverages audience insecurity to induce agreement. If you are talking to a highly knowledgeable and intelligent individual, saying “I don’t understand what you’re saying” only admits your comparative ignorance/​mental incapacity. This is something people are not keen to do. Moreover, as people are risk averse, they may fail to highlight incomprehensibility even if they think it probable that a speaker is incomprehensible. But if everyone makes this calculation, no one will call-out the speaker’s incomprehensibility. And if no one calls out a speaker’s incomprehensibility, this acts as a powerful social cue that the speaker is not in fact incomprehensible: no-one else seems to think they are, so the problem must lie with you.[3]

  4. Finally, and most elegantly, is the reflexivity of the incomprehensibility bluff: the capacity of the bluffer to bluff themselves. Put differently, if you cannot understand what you yourself are saying, two possible explanations are as follows:

    1. You are more intelligent and insightful than even you can fully grasp.

    2. You are talking nonsense.

One of these conclusions is substantially more flattering than the other. And given peoples’ susceptibility to flattery of all kinds, it would be little wonder if many ostensibly deceptive incomprehensibility bluffers, were in fact in genuine awe of their own genius.

My sense is that the incomprehensibility bluff is widespread and effective. I have personally experienced it (the reality, the temptation, and the fight against it) during my study of academic philosophy. I detect it in theology[4], and modern artistic theory and criticism[5]. I worry that it increasingly characterises certain segments of social activism. To the extent that the bluff enables worse arguments[6], and helps worse motivated/​meritorious individuals to gain prominence, it is a profoundly suboptimal influence on public discourse.

The question then presents itself: if incomprehensibility bluffing is an effective and socially damaging rhetorical strategy, how do we identify and counter it?

III. Identifying the Bluff

As regards identification, there are several prominent tells:

  1. First, complexity for its own sake. This includes using special terminology and vocabulary to express concepts that could be as easily explained with normal language.

  2. Second, an unwillingness to explain or (attempt to) simplify. Part of the difficulty of diagnosing the incomprehensibility bluff is that the world is an extremely complex place, many aspects of which require detailed explanation to understand. However, there are many ways to explain even complex theories – including via analogy, overview, or decomposition into simpler parts. In a good faith dialogue, people should be willing to try and make themselves sensible. If they deliberately resist doing so, one must question why this is the case. Sometimes it may be for legitimate reasons (if two doctors are arguing over the merits of a complex medical procedure, a layperson’s demands for explanation may be distracting and unhelpful). Oftentimes it will be because simplifying their positions would reveal their vapidity – or because their positions are so convoluted that meaningful simplification is impossible. In either case, the incomprehensibility bluff may well be at play.

  3. Third, and interrelated to the above, is a dynamic of stigmatising “ignorance”[7]. Remember that part of the power of the bluff derives from the audience’s fear that, if they speak up, they will be perceived as ignorant or unintelligent. If a speaker responds to questions about his position by attacking the questioner, this may then be an attempt to stigmatise expressions of incomprehension; and empower the social dynamics behind the bluff.

  4. Fourth, is whether there are any independent and reliable indicators of your interlocuters knowledge and intelligence. A physicist who has been practicing for twenty years will likely sound incomprehensible to the layman – but if they’re working for CERN, there’s almost certainly a reasonable explanation[8].

  5. Finally, the confidence with which a theory is expressed can be an important cue, especially where the theory relates to generally low-confidence fields of knowledge (philosophy, psychology, economics and the social sciences being chief amongst them). A theory which is measured, qualified, and expressed with uncertainty invites questions, and forthright expressions of disagreement or lack of understanding. But such statements undermine the social dynamics buttressing the incomprehensibility bluff. Contrastively, a confident statement of views is a cue that the author knows precisely what they are talking about.

IV. Calling the Bluff

Once an incomprehensibility bluff is identified, the best way to address it is probably to call it. First, by asking for a clear (and if necessary, simplified) explanation of the suspect theory. Then, if such an explanation is not forthcoming, by outright stating that you believe the theory does not make sense.

Asking questions gives the suspected bluffer the opportunity to demonstrate that they are not bluffing; and gives you more evidence as to whether they are (cf tells 2 and 3 above). This is in line with principles of charity and good faith, which we should all seek to cultivate.

Outright calling the bluff serves several functions. Firstly, and most crucially, it gives other people an important social cue that it is OK to question the comprehensibility of the theory; potentially triggering a cascade of opinion unfalsification[9]. Secondly, it sanctions the incomprehensibility bluffer and his incomprehensible theory. By contesting the latter, you blunt its persuasive force. By contesting the former, you dissuade him (or any would be imitators) from employing this tactic in future.

V. In Conclusion

I wish now that this piece were less comprehensible, in the hope that it would be more convincing.

[1] Indeed, even if one is an uncharacteristically intelligent individual, one is likely to socially sort oneself into environments with other uncharacteristically intelligent individuals.

[2] I concede that, of the set of nonsensical statements, a great many are so nonsensical as to be immediately recognisable as such. But one needs only cast a superficial glance over history to see that humans have believed many things that we would today dismiss out of hand (from the utility of ritual sacrifice, to the flatness of the Earth), but which clearly made sense to them. And they would of course say the same about us.

[3] Related to this is the way that the incomprehensibility bluff leverages audience politeness. It is one thing to say that you disagree with someone; that at least dignifies your interlocuter’s position as a serious theoretical construct, to be engaged with on its own terms. It is quite another, more serious and insulting thing, to allege that their theory literally does not make sense. Therefore, people will tend to have a strong aversion to expressing such opinions in polite conversation and correspondence. Perversely, this is especially true in the case of good faith actors, who possess a special desire not to “poison the well” with what could be construed as insults.

[4] Cf Catholic theories of transubstantiation and trinitarianism.

[5] N.B. that I in fact deeply appreciate modern art – both aesthetically and conceptually. I do not intend this remark as a criticism – confronting the incomprehensible can be a pleasant and thought-provoking experience, and if there is any place for it in society, that place is surely in the aesthetic realm.

[6] Incomprehensible theories are bad theories because they are unfalsifiable (as expressed earlier in section II 2.). Unfalsifiable theories are bad because, if a theory cannot be proven false, we have no way of knowing whether it is true (as, if the theory were wrong, there would be no way we could find evidence to this effect).

[7] Note that whilst refusing to explain something may amount to/​be accompanied with an effort to stigmatise that demand, the two are conceptually distinct. One can say “I’m sorry but I don’t have time to explain x right now” without also saying “what, you want me to explain x? But it’s so obvious!”

[8] It is certainly possible for institutional indicators to be skewed, and for entire organisations to be captured by incomprehensibility bluffs. However, whether this is the case can itself be assessed using tells set out above.

[9] Following your example, some people may feel comfortable coming forwards and expressing their belief that the theory is incomprehensible. This in turn may cause other people to come forwards and agree with them; and so on. This type of dynamic is historically common (notably in relation to support for repressive/​authoritarian regimes) and intuitive (cf Hans Christian Andersen’s best folktale: “The Emperor’s New Clothes”).