There seems to have been an escalation in the reach and significance of BS in recent years. We have a variety of contemporary names for aspects of this: spin, fake news, alternative facts, as well as good old fashioned propaganda and disinformation. Fashions in political nomenclature don’t change the basic problems we face in discerning what is true from what is not, weighing evidence in the face of countervailing evidence, and what to do when confronted with BS.
All this and more certainly affects both the quality and the comity of discourse on this site and throughout society. There was a time when many here and beyond took great pride in being part of what was then- called the “reality based community.” It seems like a lifetime ago. And although I have no nostalgia for a better time that never really was, I think that it is fair to say that that ethos is gone.
That said, staying grounded can be challenging. It can be even more challenging to hold others (not to mention ourselves) back from the deep end of believing their own hyperbole and interpretations of convenience, as well as the temptation of deeper dives into conspiracism. Confirmation bias — tending to see only those things that support our preconceived ideas — is rampant, along with the full monte of logical fallacies from the ever popular false equivalence, to straw man arguments, broad brushing, and so much more.
I have no panacea -- except to say that it is up to all of us to acknowledge and to address the fragmentation and distortions we face. Much depends on how well we do this.
In that spirit, I want to begin by suggesting a resource that I came across recently that some may find helpful. It is a free online set of short undergraduate lectures from the University of Washington titled Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data. It is a useful and fairly apolitical way of getting at some of these things.
The course was developed by professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West as a way to meet what they see as a major need in higher education nationwide, and not as a cute way of filling an undergraduate lecture hall with a provocative sounding course title. They insist that they are seeking to address the serious situation I describe above. They also insist that they are not responding to the Trump administration:
We began developing this course in 2015 in response to our frustrations with the credulity of the scientific and popular presses in reporting research results. While the course may seem particularly timely today, we are not out to comment on the current political situation in the United States and around the world. Rather, we feel that in a democracy everyone will all be better off if people can see through the bullshit coming from all sides. You may not agree with us about the optimal size of government or the appropriate degree of US involvement in global affairs, and we're good with that. We simply want to help people of all political perspectives resist bullshit, because we are confident that together all of us can make better collective decisions if we know how to evaluate the information that comes our way.
Bergstrom and West explain on their web site that
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.
I recently came across all this on the very useful Twitter feed of Open Culture, which I commend to you. Open Culture reported:
According to The Seattle Times, the course "achieved the academic version of a chart-topping pop single: At the UW [University of Washington], it reached its 160-student capacity shortly after registration opened this spring." And now colleges "in Canada, France, Portugal, England and Australia have contacted the professors about teaching a version of the course this fall."
The course itself was premised on this basic idea: "Bullshit is everywhere, and we've had enough. We want to teach people to detect and defuse bullshit wherever it may arise."
A longer overview of the course appears below. It was cited in our original post. And it's worth highlighting again:
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.
As challenging as it can be, I am confident that we can keep up with and ultimately beat back the bullshit if we put our minds to it.