One of the major open challenges in structural biology is to achieve effective descriptions of disordered states of proteins. This problem is difficult because these states are conformationally highly heterogeneous and cannot be represented as single structures, and therefore it is necessary to characterize their conformational properties in terms of probability distributions. Here we show that it is possible to obtain highly quantitative information about particularly important types of probability distributions, the populations of secondary structure elements (α-helix, β-strand, random coil, and polyproline II), by using the information provided by backbone chemical shifts. The application of this approach to mammalian prions indicates that for these proteins a key role in molecular recognition is played by disordered regions characterized by highly conserved polyproline II populations. We also determine the secondary structure populations of a range of other disordered proteins that are medically relevant, including p53, α-synuclein, and the Aβ peptide, as well as an oligomeric form of αB-crystallin. Because chemical shifts are the nuclear magnetic resonance parameters that can be measured under the widest variety of conditions, our approach can be used to obtain detailed information about secondary structure populations for a vast range of different protein states.