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. So-called higher education often rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture has elevated bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, then take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with second-order bullshit. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, often 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 combatting it with effective analysis and argument.

While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political sphere, this isn't a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse and buttressed with vast assemblages of data. Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but, 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 "breakthrough" in big data analytics? Can you tell whether a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is solid science, or just a press release for some pharma outfit?

In this course we aim 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.