Calling Bullsh*t In the Age of Big Data
We live in an era of fake news, alternative facts, hyperbole, and doublespeak. This is compounded further by the 24-hour news cycle that can leave us utterly exasperated. In trying to keep up with the near constant release of information, it can take its toll on even the most seasoned of journalists, causing them to either overplay their hands or distract from a bigger story entirely.
This relentless barrage of bullshit that needs to be sifted through in order to get to the truth or even the meat of what’s being reported hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two enterprising professors at the University of Washington have introduced a course into the curriculum and within one minute of the course being offered, was filled to its 160 student capacity. Professors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West’s course? Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.
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.
In speaking with StatNews, “We woke up the next morning to chaos. We had 20,000 visitors, our mailboxes were full, we were getting book offers.”
In the Calling Bullshit course, students will be introduced to six case studies and the materials, and eventually lectures, for the class are available free online. The case studies, or “bullshit in the wild,” that will be discussed and dissected are:
1. Track and field records as examples of senescence
2. Food stamp fraud
3. Musician mortality
4. Traffic Improvements
5. 99.9% Caffeine Free
6. A gender gap in 100 meter dash times
So what constitutes as “bullshit?”
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.
Bergstrom and West hope that by the course’s end, students will know “how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.”
“We need a citizenry that’s more informed and has the ability to call bullshit,” West said. “That’s good for everyone.”
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