A colleague of mine shared information about a new course offered by two professors at the University of Washington, titled, ‘Calling bullshit’.
The preamble is worth reading:
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.
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.
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 performative utterance, 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.
In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.
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, 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.
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?
Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.
Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West
Seattle, WA. [Link]
The professors have done well to put up a FAQ (worth reading) and their entire syllabus along with reading materials for anyone to download and read. Commendable.
One good piece (if depressing) from the course material that I read is this.
The article in ‘The Guardian’ about the course makes two very good points:
(1) ultimate paradox of the information age: more and more knowledge is making us less and less reasonable.
(2) Teachers have a more urgent and pressing duty than conveying and transmitting wisdom – it is to debunk non-sense (or, what is not wisdom)
I have two observations about and for the course:
(a) One observation is that ‘fake news’ is not the sole prerogative of social media. That is ‘bullshit’ too. It is a competitive tactic adopted by the old media, faced with competition from other sources that are now more boldly calling out their fake news that was going unchallenged.
The one classic example is that of the award-winning journalist in Germany’s reputed magazine, ‘Der Spiegel’ who faked news for a long time before beng detected. See here and here.
(b) The course, apart from helping wth ‘bull-shit detection, awareness and understanding’ must also go into where it (bullshit) is arising from and why.
That is,why more and more knowledge is making us less and less reasonable. If it is making us less and less reasonable, then simply it is not knowledge but merely hypotheses. What is causing it?
One of the (and not the only one) is the sense of certitude and absolutism that our knowledge is giving us. This has become a human failing and pervasively so. As humans conquer many hitherto unconquerable frontiers through technology, humans have become overconfident about what we know and what we can overcome. This has made us overconfident and absolutists making assertions without verification giving rise to bullshit. This is as true of modern central bankers, economists, commentators and journalists as it is true of those who spread bullshit through WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and much else.
In other words, the hypothesis here is that hubris is a principal source of bullshit.
Foundation level courses on the immensity of what we do not know vs. the miniscule proportion of what we know are necessary to avoid falling into the trap of generating bullshit in the pretense of generating and spreading knowledge. In other words, teaching children to say, ‘I don’t know’ is necessary to stop the generation of bullshit at source; then, the teaching of detection of bullshit will, one day, become superfluous.