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In a world awash with bullshit, teaching the skills to call it out

Course at the University of Washington in Seattle seeks to arm students with their own bullshit detection skills – critical thinking about data and models that constitute evidence in the sciences

Photo by Richard Asinof

Image from the homepage of the website for the new course being offered at the University of Washington, "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data."

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/27/17
A college course literally titled “Calling bullshit in the age of big data” seeks to provide students with the analytical skills to detect and call out bullshit in the social and natural sciences. Judging from the viral response, it has struck a resonant chord, at a time when the validity of scientific evidence and research appears threatened by the Trump administration.
Which Rhode Island college or university will be the first to offer a similar course of study, using the syllabus offered by Bergstrom and West? How will the effort coalesce with plans for the March for Science on April 22? Will the syllabus also be adapted to be taught at the high-school level in Rhode Island? Is this the kind of eye-opening course that should be taught as part of The Providence Journal’s one-day university?
In answering the question from ConvergenceRI about what she had learned from the UHIP debacle, Gov. Gina Raimondo said: “We didn’t have enough high-quality IT state staff to hold Deloitte accountable. We were overly reliant on them.”
That is a big admission by Raimondo; it represents a major departure from what ConvergenceRI labeled in 2015 “the new geometry of governing,” through which a wave of corporate consultants became the hallmark of the way that Rhode Island makes policy decisions and governs, in a classic co-dependent relationship.
Up until last week, Raimondo had been a big-time believer, investor and promoter in the meritocracy of corporate consultants becoming the de facto government.
Corporate consultants – whether it be Deloitte, Hewlett Packard or the Brookings Institution – are invested in promoting their own agendas. Their recommendations for reinvented policy designs and technological solutions often lack any evidence-based metrics. And, with that comes the question, what if they fail?

PROVIDENCE – Two professors at the University of Washington in Seattle, evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom and data scientist Jevin West, are teaching a seminar on information literacy, enabling students to learn the skills of how to sift through misleading and incomplete information. The course is entitled: “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.”

In the description of the course, Bergstrom and West wrote: “The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit – and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.”

The course description continues: “We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.”

Bergstrom and West then provide more insight into the rationale of the course, in a world where not everything is illuminated.

They wrote: What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

Not political bullshit
Bergstrom and West drawn a distinction between political bullshit and bullshit that comes with they describe as the trappings of scholarly discourse.

They write: “While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse.”

Traditionally, they continued, “Such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms – and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullshit are those that we will be addressing in the present course.”

Bergstrom and West also discussed the kind analytical skills the course will teach to students.

“Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullshit – and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup's big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?

Their aim: “To teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.

Thinking critically, acting locally
The morning after posting the syllabus for the class online, everything went viral, according to Bergstrom. “We woke up the next morning to chaos. We had 20,000 vistors, our mailboxes were full, we were getting book offers,” Bergstrom told STAT, in a Feb. 17 article.

The two scientists told STAT that they have fielded requests from many other institutions that want to create their own courses using the materials. In the name of scientific literacy, West told STAT, they were more than happy to share. “No copyright. No trademark. Use it. Take it. Run with it,” West said.

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