How to navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment.
January 13, 2017 5:16 AM   Subscribe

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. Two University of Washington lecturers have designed a course to teach students about Bullshit.

The course starts with Harry Frankfurt's classic "On Bullshit" and builds from there.
The website includes a full syllabus, tools and case studies.
(Note this is not yet an available course at University of Washington, but the goal is that it will be)
posted by Just this guy, y'know (33 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
 
This of course will lead to someone eventually doing their masters focus in this field leading to them being able to say that they have a B.S. in Sociology but their M.S. is in B.S.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:29 AM on January 13, 2017 [45 favorites]


I call bullshit on this because How To Lie With Statistics isn't on the syllabus.

But I salute the initiative!
posted by chavenet at 5:46 AM on January 13, 2017 [9 favorites]


"Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."

John Alexander Smith, Speech to Oxford University students, 1914
posted by BWA at 5:48 AM on January 13, 2017 [45 favorites]


Oh, and I just noticed the tags. Excelsior!
posted by chavenet at 5:50 AM on January 13, 2017 [15 favorites]


I love the disclaimer:

"Callingbullshit.org is not liable for any loss of credulity you may suffer as a consequence of reading the information herein. Viewer discretion advised. May cause drowsiness. Void where prohibited. No animals were used during testing. May cause excitability. Not recommended for children under the age of 12. Use only as directed. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental. Live, except on West Coast. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery while using this website. Additional taxes may apply in some jurisdictions. Individual results may vary. Not to be used with alcoholic beverages. I bet you think this website is about you, don't you? Don't you?"
posted by ipsative at 6:00 AM on January 13, 2017 [8 favorites]


+1 for the tags. Strong work.
posted by HumanComplex at 6:20 AM on January 13, 2017 [7 favorites]


The bullshit bullshits.
posted by thelonius at 6:30 AM on January 13, 2017


This should be taught in high school, with one of the tags as a euphemism. But, oh, you'd have to deal with locally-elected school boards!
posted by Miss Cellania at 6:54 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


I bet if you could just manage to call it Bullshit class in the schedule you would get a LOT of engaged high schoolers.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:59 AM on January 13, 2017 [8 favorites]


I have mixed feelings about science press releases, largely because mainstream news is just going to selectively quote the press release, trim those quotes to remove any nuance, and slap a sensationalistic headline on it anyway, often without providing a link to the article in question. You might as well these days go direct to the university or agency press office, who will give you the layman's summary in the primary author's own words, then check it against the paper assuming it's not paywalled.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:17 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


You might as well these days go direct to the university or agency press office, who will give you the layman's summary in the primary author's own words

That is not what the press office does. They are PR professionals and are writing things because they want "mainstream news [to] selectively quote the press release, trim those quotes to remove any nuance, and slap a sensationalistic headline on it." That is a win. They get quotes, edit them to be punchier, invent a narrative that invariably includes some claim of impact, and e-mail the researcher the new quotes to approve. The researcher can feel a little guilty (though some don't); the press office is there convince them it's all part of the game, that it's better to get a bad summary in the media than no summary.
posted by mark k at 7:39 AM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


I took a class in public high school in the late 1970s that sounds a lot like this.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:42 AM on January 13, 2017


Science news cycle
posted by dirigibleman at 7:55 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


I think the amount of bullshit in the world is at the same percentage as it's always been. I think there's a perception that there's more bullshit than ever before because now we're becoming more aware of it and it's now easier for us, the common people, to fact check stuff.
posted by I-baLL at 8:08 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Percentage the same? Certainly. But how chocolate and red wine is actually good for you as a "fake news" story was fun and rather less concerning than from and about the friggn "leader of the free world". Need an excuse to invade Mexico? Just read the news.
posted by sammyo at 8:13 AM on January 13, 2017


You know what, this pisses me off. Sokal AGAIN? How about instead recognising the ways in which the humanities and social sciences are ALL ABOUT reading critically and recognising the ways in which languages (statistical or otherwise) can be used to effect and affect. I teach history at undergrad and the first thing my students learn is how to recognise the ways in which arguments are constructed in what they are reading (the second thing they learn is that I'm pretty good at detecting various types of bullshit). Maybe rather than inventing new curricula, people should be recognising that its a problem that - for example - the number of history majors in US universities is dropping and that Humanities and Social Science departments are seeing radical cuts and underfunding in many university systems. Maybe it's time to wake up to what the Humanities have been saying for ages and recognise that objectivity is always an aspiration, and never fully realised, and that claims of truth-telling are often dangerous and always to be regarded with scepticism. Maybe a little of the humility that comes from engaging imaginatively with worlds other than one's own, and recognising the flawed nature of one's own judgements wouldn't be a bad thing at the moment.
posted by melisande at 8:49 AM on January 13, 2017 [22 favorites]


Or....you could study business and just embrace the bullshit uncritically.
posted by Pembquist at 9:31 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


You know what, this pisses me off. Sokal AGAIN? How about instead recognising the ways in which the humanities and social sciences are ALL ABOUT reading critically and recognising the ways in which languages (statistical or otherwise) can be used to effect and affect.

Uh, so Sokal is a reading in a unit called "The ethics of calling bullshit" with the following description:
Where is the line between deserved criticism and targeted harassment? Is it, as one prominent scholar argued, “methodological terrorism” to call bullshit on a colleague's analysis? What if you use social media instead of a peer-reviewed journal to do so? How about calling bullshit on a whole field that you know almost nothing about? Principles for the ethical calling of bullshit. Differences between being a hard-minded skeptic and being a domineering jerk.
I don't know from the syllabus whether they would end up being for or against the Sokal strategy, but it's pretty obvious that they're going to approach things in a bit more nuanced way than just "Sokal AGAIN".
posted by advil at 9:36 AM on January 13, 2017 [6 favorites]


But isn't this fundamentally a PR stunt to get people to recognise that?
Maybe to get some people from outside the humanities (I'm assuming since they're from Biology and Information Science respectively) to engage with some of the stuff that you teach your students?

My education was in Engineering and I got taught very little (maybe nothing?) in the vein of critical thinking or how arguments are constructed. (Worse even, the way engineers are taught actively encourages the spread of Engineer's Disease).
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:36 AM on January 13, 2017 [5 favorites]


Excellent! I have been quoting Frankfurt repeatedly on Facebook in response to everyone who calls Donald Trump a pathological liar. Calling him a liar gives him too much credit, as it assumes that he cares enough to know what the truth is, and then to say the opposite. Rather, he is a consummate bullshitter -- he says whatever he thinks will have the desired effect in the present moment, irrespective of whether it is true or not, even if it entirely contradicts some former bullshit he has spouted. He doesn't care whether he is telling the truth or not -- all he cares about is the reaction.

I would take this class.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:01 AM on January 13, 2017 [10 favorites]


you could study business and just embrace the bullshit uncritically

Surely you mean "develop opportunities for continuous improvement in stakeholder perception via enhanced uptake of seamlessly integrated media synergies going forward"?
posted by flabdablet at 10:16 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


Fair points Just this guy, and Advil. I should have recognised the mote in my own eye and read a little more carefully. See here for a nice example of some non-historians getting to grips with what thinking and reading like a historian can offer: "They learned that evidence has limits. They learned the value of browsing. They learned to restrict their claims to what the sources can support. They learned to adjust their question based on absences in the documentary record."
posted by melisande at 11:03 AM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


you could study business and just embrace the bullshit uncritically

Or go straight into business. You can learn a lot going straight into business.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:51 AM on January 13, 2017


>They get quotes, edit them to be punchier, invent a narrative...

Minor correction: often PR folks write the entire quote.
posted by matrixclown at 11:51 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


This is brilliant. Particularly useful is the tool on best practices for graphs with some outstanding illustrations. The section on temperature change is fantastic. Thanks for the post!
posted by bluesky43 at 12:17 PM on January 13, 2017


Thanks for the post, OP, and the glorious tags. Malarky, indeed!

I think the amount of bullshit in the world is at the same percentage as it's always been.

Probably true. I think one of the issues, for me, is that there are so many more platforms for bullshit that it's much easier in the modern era to be immersed or exposed to it for long periods. A lot of that is self imposed. I've started counting the number of folks on public transit not glued to their phones, when I'm not glued to my phone, and it's many fewer than it used to be.

I would love this class. What I want is a catchy rejoiner to the notion of living in a "post truth" world. I think that's bullshit and it enrages me to hear pundits or, worse, actual supposed broadcast journalists talk about that. Because they fucking ushered in this supposed new world. Sorry/derail.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:57 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


That is not what the press office does. They are PR professionals and are writing things because they want "mainstream news [to] selectively quote the press release, trim those quotes to remove any nuance, and slap a sensationalistic headline on it." That is a win.

Exactly. Last time our university put out a press release about my work, the media guy sent me a draft (thankfully) in which the grant was misnamed (to make it sound better than it was), the topic was referred to as "The Internet of Everything" (it should have been the "Internet of Things", of course), and they claimed I was the sole recipient of the grant, when actually it was a cross-institutional team who all deserved equal credit. They explained what IOT was by saying something dumb about lightbulbs making coffee for you or similar. They only sent it to me because they wanted me to "sex it up" a bit.

I sent back careful corrections to the draft using track changes, and a one-paragraph email summary of what I'd done and why, and the guy called me up on the phone. "I got your email," he said, "But can you just tell me what it says so I don't have to read it?" So I summarised the changes, and begged him to look at the corrections. He sent the press release out almost unchanged. (He did fix the "Internet of Everything" error, thank goodness.)
posted by lollusc at 1:20 PM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


*shrug* This last year, I saw over a half-dozen mainstream news sites point to the same published qualitative study to say that bi men are good fucks. Where did they get this? They cherry-picked one of almost a dozen reported results from a released summary of an intensive qualitative research study that's a few hundred pages in published length. This is only exceptional in the brazenness of bullshit. Please pardon my skepticism that the fourth estate is doing squat when it comes to covering published research.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:49 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


One problem that I foresee is that people have to want to identify and reject bullshit.

This isn't just delimited by the 'fake news' and Donnie Trumpy stuff, but prosperity gospel or get-rich-quick scams and the like.

Or even a good sales pitch; geeze louise but my CEO falls for every pitch with more than two scientific buzzwords in it and us, the science team, have to be 'negative' and let him down at least a couple of times a month - by pointing out that the pitch (and the details behind it) is bullshit.
posted by porpoise at 3:48 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


those tags really should be alphabetized
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 9:08 PM on January 13, 2017


Nuh-uh! You should be alphabetized!
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 1:56 PM on January 14, 2017


"I got your email," he said, "But can you just tell me what it says so I don't have to read it?"

Next time that guy sends you a draft of anything, I strongly advise you to call him straight back and ask him the same thing.
posted by flabdablet at 5:27 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


UPDATE:
The class was proposed by Information School assistant professor Jevin West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom, and has been approved as a one-credit special topics seminar for about 150 students in spring quarter, which starts on March 27.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:09 AM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


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