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Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West on identifying fake news

Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 10:30

There’s no soft or polite way to say this. The trial run of the University of Washington’s class “Calling Bull—-” by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West went well this year.

“I think what’s surprising to (students) is how easy it is to BS,” Professor Jevin West said. “We have an assignment where we give them a data set from the World Health Organization. We split the class into three parts. We made one class make an argument with the same exact data that the United States healthcare system is the best system in the world. The other class had to make an argument that it is the worst. And the third class had the hardest job, which was to be as neutral as possible.”

“They couldn’t believe how easy it was to cherry pick the data,” he said. “Once they had learned that, any time we put up a graph they were very skeptical of what they were seeing.”

Under a trial run, there were two courses offered teaching critical thinking skills, focusing on facts and data. They were led by Professors West and Carl Bergstrom. The first class was only a single credit. It was strictly a lecture course.

“It went great,” West said. “We had students, by the end of the quarter, sitting in the aisle way. That’s a sign students are having fun, especially since it’s a senior level class. They are desperate to get off campus as fast as possible.”

The second run at the course was a three-credit version and was more interactive. About 160 students signed up.

“Some of the simplest lessons that we give them worked pretty well like if something sounds too good to be true, or too bad to be true, it probably is,” West said.

It’s incredibly easy now to find “news” that backs up just about any worldview. Whether or not it’s contextually accurate is another question. The internet has made it easy for anyone with an opinion to get their message out.

Students are taught skill sets like spotting graph and data manipulation.

“Most of the course was teaching the student to say ‘this graph is misleading me because they are not showing the axis properly and it makes a big difference look smaller, and a small difference look big,'” Bergstrom said.

Read the full article about the course at MyNorthwest.

Listen to a KUOW interview with Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West.

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