Calling Bullshit

Chen Wenling - What You See Might Not Be Real.jpg

Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West, from the University of Washington, have developed a course called ‘Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age’.

The lectures and readings might be crap, but they are at least easily accessible online, and the little assignment looks fun. But what I think I most like about the look of the course is the format, and the refreshing use of Benny Bloom’s silly taxonomy:

Learning Objectives

Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.

That said, would it not be considerably more interesting – and manifestly more important – to take (and to teach) a course on the possibility, nature, and habits of ‘truth’ and its relationship to the cardinal virtues, rather than one on ‘bullshit’?

Pontius Pilate, in his greatest moment, probably thought so too: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; It’s a pity he ‘would not stay for an answer’ and so risk having his ‘mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth’ (Francis Bacon).

[Image: Chen Wenling, ‘What You See Might Not Be Real’, Beijing Art Gallery, 2009. Photo credit: Ng Han Guan/AP]

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