You are here

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West featured on The Guardian

Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 10:45

To prepare themselves for future success in the American workforce, today’s college students are increasingly choosing courses in business, biomedical science, engineering, computer science and various health-related disciplines.

These classes are bound to help undergraduates capitalize on the “college payoff”, but chances are good that none of them comes with a promise of this magnitude: “We will be astonished if these skills [learned in this course] do not turn out to be the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”

Sound like bullshit? If so, there’s no better way to detect it than to consider the class that makes the claim. Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World, designed and co-taught by the University of Washington professors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom, begins with a premise so obvious we barely lend it the attention it deserves: “Our world is saturated with bullshit.” And so, every week for 12 weeks, the professors expose “one specific facet of bullshit”, doing so in the explicit spirit of resistance. “This is,” they explain, “our attempt to fight back.”

The problem of bullshit transcends political bounds, the class teaches. The proliferation of bullshit, according to West and Bergstrom, is “not a matter of left- or rightwing ideology; both sides of the aisle have proven themselves facile at creating and spreading bullshit. Rather (and at the risk of grandiose language) adequate bullshit detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy.” They make it a point to stress that they began to work on the syllabus for this class back in 2015 – it’s not, they clarify, “a swipe at the Trump administration”.

The reason for the class’s existence comes down to a simple and somewhat alarming reality: even the most educated and savvy consumer of information is easily misled in today’s complex information ecosystem. Calling Bullshit is not dedicated to teaching students that Fox News promotes “fake news” or that National Enquirer headlines are fallacious. Instead, the class operates under the assumption that the structures through which today’s endless information comes to the consumer – algorithms, data graphics, info analytics, peer-reviewed publications – are in many ways as full of bullshit as the fake news we easily recognize as bogus. One scientist that West and Bergstrom cite in their syllabus goes so far as to say that, due to the fact that journals are prone to only publish positive results, “most published scientific results are probably false”.

West and Bergstrom first offered the class in January of 2017 with modest expectations. “We would have been happy if a couple of our colleagues and friends would have said: ‘Cool idea, we should pass that along,’” West says. But within months the course had made national – and then international – news. “We have never guessed that it would get this kind of a response.”

To say that a nerve has been touched would be an understatement. After posting their website online, West and Bergstrom were swamped with emails and media requests from all over the world. Glowing press reports of the class’s ambitions contributed to the growing sense that something seismic in higher education was under way.

The professors were especially pleased by the interest shown among other universities – and even high schools – in modeling a course after their syllabus. Soon the Knight Foundation provided $50,000 for West and Bergstrom to help high school kids, librarians, journalists and the general public become competent bullshit detectors.

Read the original article by on The Guardian's website.

Fields of interest: