University of Washington profs Carl T. Bergstrom (Biology) and Jevin West (Information School) have proposed a course called "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" that characterizes "the majority of administrative activity" as "sophisticated exercise(s) in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit" and aims to train students to "navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combatting it with effective analysis and argument."
The syllabus makes for a fascinating read in its own right. It begins with Harry Frankfurt's classic 1986 essay "On Bullshit"; moves through "TED talks and the marketplace for upscale bullshit"; statistical literacy and bullshit; a Tuftean detour through the deceptive use of infographics; big data and publication bias; fake scientific journals and fake news, and the "ethics of calling bullshit."
The course website is basically a piece of design fiction: the course doesn't exist, but the profs are hoping that by making the syllabus and readings available online, they will convince the administration to let them create it.
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.
There are three more stops on my tour for Walkaway: tomorrow at San Diego Comic-Con, next weekend at Defcon 25 in Las Vegas, and August 10th at the Burbank Public Library.
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