University Course Proposal: “Calling Bullshit”

January 14th, 2017

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.

Least Interesting Units: a new concept for enhancing one’s academic career opportunities

January 12th, 2017

dr-cabboletfotoIn these days where ‘Publish or Perish’ pressures are rife in academia, scholars who wish to enhance their career opportunities might want to turn to the work of Marcoen J.T.F. Cabbolet, who is a research affiliate at the Free University of Brussels. In a new paper for the journal Science and Engineering Ethics he suggests the liberal application of Least Interesting Units (LIUs) in research – in other words the importance of prioritising investigations that are only just interesting enough to pursue.
He presents the concept in the form of a maxim :-

“Maxim 6. A researcher should pursue as many LIUs as possible.”

with the observation that :

“[…] this maxim yields an enhanced career perspective in the current `publish-or-perish’ world that academia has become.”

See:The Least Interesting Unit: A New Concept for Enhancing One’s Academic Career Opportunities’ in : Science and Engineering Ethics December 2016, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 1837–1841.

It should be emphasised however, that although Dr. Cabbolet suggests this as a viable strategy, he doesn’t necessarily regard it as ethical behaviour :

“[…] giving up on the grand ideas is not just a defeatist attitude, it also harms science itself. Of course, most of the grand ideas turn out to be wrong or not feasible, but it is precisely these rare cases where such ideas led to tangible results that have virtually completely determined the entire historical development of science. And even if such a grand idea turns out to be wrong, it can still remain useful. Taking this view, while a certain number of LIUs is not necessarily a bad thing, scientific progress would be undermined if fulfilling Maxim 6 would become the new norm in science.”

A full copy of the paper may be found here.


And Now, a Needle in the Rectum (podcast #97)

January 11th, 2017

What do doctors do when they find a needle in a patient’s rectum? A research study explores that very question, and we explore that study, in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

SUBSCRIBE on, iTunes, or Spotify to get a new episode every week, free.

This week, Marc Abrahams discusses a published oh-look-there’s-a-needle-in-this-patient’s-rectum study. Yale/MIT/Harvard biomedical researcher Chris Cotsapas lends his voice, and his scientific expertise, and his opinions —with dramatic readings from a research study you may have overlooked.

For more info about what we discuss this week, go explore:

The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, on the CBS web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

When a monkey loved a deer…

January 10th, 2017

Love has always been difficult to define exactly. A newly published study adds nuance, or at least data, to the concept. The study is:

Interspecies sexual behaviour between a male Japanese macaque and female sika deer,” Marie Pelé, Alexandre Bonnefoy, Masaki Shimada, and Cédric Sueur, Primates, epub January 2017. The authors, in Strasbourg, France and Uenohara, Japan, report:

“Interspecies sexual behaviour or ‘reproductive interference’ has been reported across a wide range of animal taxa. However, most of these occurrences were observed in phylogenetically close species… Only one scientific study has reported this phenomenon, describing sexual harassment of king penguins by an Antarctic fur seal. This is the first article to report mating behaviour between a male Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata yakui) and female sika deer (Cervus nippon yakushimae) on Yakushima Island, Japan. Although Japanese macaques are known to ride deer, this individual showed clearly sexual behaviour towards several female deer, some of which tried to escape whilst others accepted the mount.”

Here’s pictorial detail from the study:

The penguin/seal study, mentioned above, is: de Bruyn PN, Tosh CA, Bester MN (2008) “Sexual harassment of a king penguin by an Antarctic fur seal,” Journal of Ethology, 26:295–297.)

(Thanks to Reto Schneider for bringing this to our attention.)

An Iconography of Carrots

January 9th, 2017

raffineAuthors John Stolarczyk and Jules Janick present their assessment of Carrot History and Iconography in the scholarly journal Chronica Horticulturae© (volume 51 – Number 2; June 2011).

A great deal of further information can be found at John Stolarczyk’s World Carrot Museum which has a section devoted to Carrots Depicted in the Fine Arts.

More on carrot iconography here

Note: The illustration is ‘Combat de deux Raffinés’ (Fight of two debonaires) (at least one being a carrot) by Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville (1803-47)