Course on bullshit detection

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.

The credit rating agencies of higher education

In dealing with the philosophical aspects of conflation of ‘means’ and ‘ends’ by humans, I had also dealt with the same malady in higher education, in my column in MINT last week. With individuals, the most obvious example is that of money. Money is initially seen as the means to happiness or comfortable lives but it becomes an end in itself.

In higher education, ranking, accreditation are all signals of quality education which is the ultimate goal and ought to be the eternal goal. But, ranking and accreditation become ends in themselves. This is what I wrote:

An institution accredited by a reputed accreditation body signals a certain quality and standard of education to students and their parents. Over time, accreditation becomes an end in itself. Institutions figure out how to “game” or do well in the game of accreditation while its main purpose—signalling quality—becomes more and more divorced from the process. Accreditation agencies too have become prescriptive in practice. More on that later.

The emphasis of research over teaching and PhD-qualified faculty over practitioner-faculty are also cases of means supplanting ends. The purpose of any educational institution is to educate. In primary and secondary schools, education is about teaching. In higher education institutions, it is not about imparting knowledge but about showing a path to knowledge. It is about giving students the tools—skills and attitudes—that will help them learn.

There is clearly a case for “research for its own sake” in institutions of science, medicine, etc. Pure research leads to discoveries and outcomes that eventually benefit humankind. Until the outcomes are achieved, they may appear esoteric but the society has to indulge them for the sake of serendipitous outcomes. But, in business or management schools, the aim is to prepare students to become effective managers and leaders of social or commercial institutions or even of nations. Research has to be seen as an instrument for aiding the process of preparing or producing such managers or leaders. But, in reality, research takes on a life of its own.

Some obscure question with only peripheral utility, if at all, for the society or for businesses, is pursued and if it is published in so-called prestigious journals (another instance of conflation of “means” and “ends”), then the prestige of the individual and that of the institution is enhanced. But, to what end? The question of for whom the institution exists is lost in the process. Is it just an arrangement of, by and for academics with students and social purposes of higher education peripheral to it?

In the words of a thoughtful academic, “(accreditation agencies) propagate a model of business school that unmistakably values research over teaching, theory over practice, esoteric journal papers over pedagogical innovations, lectures over cases, PhD-qualified faculty over practitioner-faculty, among other puritanical biases. This is essentially a caste-system, in which an elite community of research scholars, taking turns as accreditors, remake business schools in their own image.” [Link]

On the related topic of accrediation, I was happy to note that my friend and professor at IIM, Kozhikode, Rudra Sen Sarma had written about the bane of Indian Institutes of Management now seeking accreditation from foreign agencies. His piece can be found here. It is over a year old. He makes some valid arguments.

The accreditation agencies have made it difficult to talk about yourself positively unless you have been accredited. Rudra makes a very good point about ‘surrendering’ autonomy to foreign accreditation agencies when they fight for autonomy from the Government.

It is exactly how central banks curse the financial wrath on the governments for eroding their autonomy but willingly surrender theirs to financial markets!

He is right that IIMs should have evolved their own standards for accreditation and set a benchmark for emerging economies.
Pity, yet again and frustrating yet again. 

So many opportunities to show that we are self-confident, self-assured and that we can set the standards yet we capitulate!

Questions for the weekend

(1) In Universities, how can Economics Departments premising their theories on human rationality co-exist with Consumer Marketing theories, textbooks and courses?

(2) How do the ‘Universalists’ and ‘Citizens of the world’ explain their own and others’ tribal loyalties to football clubs (around the world) and cricket clubs (think IPL in India)?

I have my own answers but I would lik to hear yours.

Need for luck and learning: constant and continuous

Last week was rich pickings for insightful stories, for me. I still remain captivated by the story, ‘The case against Google’. I blogged on it here.

The next story that I liked immensely was the story in Wall Street Journal on GE under Jeff Immelt.

I like such stories not for the reason that they vindicate my priors (I remind myself not to hold too many of them!) but because they make me think.

This one short paragraph summed up the story rather well:

But Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said. [Link]

Jena McGregor in Washington Post has a good follow-on article on this story. She writes,

The article puts GE well out of its usual role as management exemplar. And it shines a light on a problem endemic to corporate America, leadership experts say. People naturally avoid conflict and fear delivering bad news. But in professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard.

There was an added complication for Jeff Immelt. He was a celebrity CEO. No matter how hard he tried, people would hesitate to share bad news.

From Jane McGregor’s article:

Being led by a celebrity CEO who succeeded a man once named “manager of the century” probably doesn’t help either. Immelt, who rose through GE’s sales and marketing ranks before leading its plastics and health care divisions, became CEO after a high-profile horse race to succeed Jack Welch that catapulted him into the spotlight. One of the most recognized faces of corporate America for the 16 years he held the job (he stepped down last year) Immelt led President Obama’s jobs council and was considered as a veteran corporate hand to replace Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Leadership experts say such prestige can create a “social distance” between the CEO and direct reports, even if they make efforts to improve personal relationships. (Immelt, for instance, was known to host dinners with one of the top 185 officers of the company each month at his home and reconvene for a few hours the next morning to talk about their careers and their performance.)

“People tend to not want to tell them the bad stuff,” said Tim Pollock, a professor of business at Penn State University who has studied celebrity CEOs. “They become starstruck; they’re less likely to want to speak up and say negative things.”

As with most things in life, this too could go wrong. You could create an organisation culture where everyone only brings up bad news and uses them as an excuse not to perform or deliver. There is a fine line and no one knows where it is drawn.

It requires repeated experimentation, trial and error, learning by trying and, above all, good luck, to figure out the right balance between fostering a culture of frankness, honesty and of positivism; right balance between awareness of limitations and of strengths too.

In general, today’s world is a high pressure world – not just in jobs or in businesses but in just about everything. From parenting to maintaining social networks, friendships, from pursuing multiple interests. The culture is one of doing so much in so short a time. Efficiency and scale, even in personal lives, pursuits and social interactions, are privileged. They used to be expected only in business organisations.

When people are running everywhere and in every place with no place to rest, pause and reflect, anyone who allows them to step back, reflect and question these will actually be deemed a saviour! People feel grateful to be allowed to voice their self-doubts and inner doubts, their anxieties and frustrations once in a while and feel connected with those who do not hesitate to let them know that they share these too!

Therefore, that CEO or leader who allows his lieutenants the odd opportunity to step back, to say NO and to warn him of over-reaching, should be received with gratefulness and will be reciprocated with trust, commitment and higher motivation actually. That is my guess.

Not without dangers. Someone might take advantage and someone might embarrass the leader publicly about this. Some one in the media might say that the leader is a shirker and the share price might nosedive! The leader will be out of his or her job soon.

It is not that easy to swim against the prevailing currents even if you are convinced that the current will eventually plunge into a ravine. Given time, it will be right. The GE story is an example. The company went with the social norms and ethos of the times – good news, optimism, success, high performance, not taking NO for answers and deadlines are yesterday, etc. Indeed, it defined the ethos and norms of the times. Has it succeeded? Now, we know that it has not.

But, it takes time to know that it does not work. Not many have that luxury of time or luck to take a bet against consensus norms and ethos and succeed. They have to live in a society and be part of it. Humans are social animals. They need to belong. Some of us actually come to like it. It is seductive. It is lonely to be not part of it. Not easy.

The best we can do is to be aware of how excessive any organisational culture can become and modulate it from time to time. No one size fits all and no one culture works in all situations.

Let us also not forget that these articles are appearing with the benefit of hindsight. Note this paragraph in the WSJ story:

Former GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin, who worked alongside Mr. Immelt during challenges such as the financial crisis, said the CEO would methodically approach a problem with his team, consider multiple viewpoints and communicate regularly with the board, making sure executives stayed focused on the most important issues. “I never found him to be overly optimistic,” said Mr. Sherin, who retired in 2016.

To his credit, Jeff Immelt did not preach one thing and practise another. He believed in his model:

At a conference hosted by Axios in November, the month after he stepped down as chairman ahead of schedule, Mr. Immelt noted that GE is “125 years old; we go through cycles,” and said he was “fully confident that this company is going to thrive in the future.”

A spokesman for the former CEO pointed to his decision to purchase $8 million worth of GE shares in 2016 and 2017. That included 100,000 shares in mid-May at a price roughly twice today’s.

The only enduring lesson in all this is that in business as elsewhere, the need for luck and learning is constant and continuous.

An unreasonable assumption

In reviewing two important books that are making the case for incorporating moral considerations into economics turning it from ‘dismal science’ into ‘distinguished science’, Ricardo Hausmann writes,

But with a few reasonable assumptions, such as the idea that more is better than less, you can make many predictions about how people will behave.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that it is not a reasonable assumption at all because if, at any given point in time, more is preferred to less (or, what you have – because what you have can always be less than what you imagine you should have), it is both socially, economically and morally hugely problematic because the answer to that desire is unbounded.

Admission bias in Ivy League

More than two weeks ago, this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal accusing Ivy League institutions in the US as practising discrimination – leaving out Asian students – and casting the attempt by Princeton University attempts to block the government’s release of document that could ‘show discrimination’ in a negative light.  Well, I am not persuaded.

Any Club has the right to decide on whom it would admit as its members. All those who are not admitted can claim discrimination. Any subjective decision can be termed arbitrary. There is a fine line.

If Ivy League Schools decided that they would try to lower the percentage of Asian students in their campuses, that is their prerogative.

An educationist whom I know very well and who does not live in the U.S. wrote me this:

Admissions decisions are inherently subjective when raw data between candidates is broadly equal.  Global admissions data patterns are naturally subject to external economic, social, political and legal considerations.  None of that is defined or definable because those sands are shifting continually.

Total transparency is not possible or even desirable in admissions.  Every decision can be questioned on some grounds or other, but schools need some autonomy to make decisions, within the bounds of reason, ethics and the law of the land.  Wise students learn soon enough that their Destiny cannot be mapped.


Well, this emphasis on foisting diversity (hard to beat that for an oxymoron) is a manifestation of the virulent and toxic and often ridiculous political correctness that is sweeping through American campuses, reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s – or is it far worse now?

Read this interview by Jonathan Haidt with Wall Street Journal to figure out what he thinks is driving it.

It is up to you to read this story before or after you read the interview – a free speech area in Los Angeles! Bizarre.

Good weekend reads

Sri Lanka Port Loans contributed to the debt trap. But, why did India deny the offer of Trinconmalee port?

Chinese students threaten free speech abroad – Defenders of the global order that Trump is seeking to ‘destroy’?!

The town of Vijayawada immortalises its civil servants and one of them is my co-author and good friend Gulzar Natarajan. Good practice.

Bombay Jayashri makes her debut as a columnist. She might have written one-off articles before, I guess. A very good and nice start.

A lovely article and a very good reminder – on Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The death of Ivan Ilyich’.

If all theories that do not explain reality are thrown out of economics, what would be left?

Neel Kashkari makes the case for deregulation and higher capital requirements on big banks. Good stuff.

A great article on the exploitation in American Universities. Hypocrisy is one successful and enduring example of globalisation. May be, behind a firewall.

Economists would do well to put this up on their walls. A good exercise in spiritual evolution.

Paul Collier’s essay in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ on saving capitalism may not have a original title but has many quotable and thoughtful lines. Made me buy three of the books reviewed or discussed. Was directed by Emanuel Derman’s quote from one of the paragraphs in the essay in a tweet.