University Course Proposal: “Calling Bullshit”

Professors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West from University of Washington have developed a new interdisciplinary course with the compelling title of Calling Bullshit.

From publication bias to fake news, bullshit is everywhere. And it’s important to be able to navigate it, separate delusion from reality, and call out bullshit when we see it. In a post-truth world, we need evidence and facts more than ever, and Professors Bergstrom and West have decided to do something about it.

                      Prof. Jevin West

As they write: “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.”

Naturally, if people learn how to detect subtle bullshit that might otherwise go under their radar, that also can make them better at producing bullshit. Bergstrom and West recognize this possibility: “As with biological weapons, there is no such thing as purely defensive bullshit research.” Like them, however, we see far more positives than negatives in educating people to become more effective at distinguishing bullshit from evidence and fact.

                Prof. Carl Bergstrom

“Calling Bullshit” (whose subtitle is “In the Age of Big Data”) isn’t yet part of a course catalog, but Professors Bergstrom and West have assembled a great selection of reading, and hopefully it will be an “official” offering soon. Their aim is to teach people “to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences” — in other words, to spot bullshit.

We encourage everybody to look at the course materials and fight for evidence and reasonable discourse (and for the right to party). Professor Bergstrom is in the Department of Biology and Professor West is in the Information School, so clearly bullshit crosses disciplinary boundaries, and their course promises to be both fascinating and educational.

(Thanks to investigators at the Bansal Lab for bringing this course to our attention.)

Closely related: In 2016, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the authors of the paper On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.

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