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Carl Bergstrom featured in Perspectives: "How's Your BS Detector?"

Monday, September 4, 2023 - 16:30

Carl Bergstrom, UW Biology Professor, was featured in the Perspectives newsletter on a popular course, “Calling Bullshit," he developed with and teaches with Information School associate professor, Jevin West. 

Carl Bergstrom, UW professor of biology, was frustrated. Everywhere he looked, he saw information presented as fact when it was actually misleading, biased, or based on conjecture. In other words, bullshit. And he saw people believing it.

So when Jevin West, associate professor in the UW Information School, mentioned plans to teach a course on big data, Bergstrom had a strong response. “I told Jevin, ‘That’s too bad. Because if you teach a course on big data, I’ll have to start teaching a course calling bullshit on big data.’”

That got a laugh from West, who said it sounded like a fun course. “I’d teach it with you,” West said.

Those five words led to a wildly popular UW course taught by Bergstrom and West, “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World,” and a book with a similar name.

But suggesting all that happened without a hitch would be, well, bullshit.

After their conversation, Bergstrom and West brainstormed how they would teach a course on calling bullshit and what content they would include. They focused on all the ways people misuse data to make claims that may or may not be true. They had no problem coming up with topics and examples, but they hit a roadblock when they proposed co-teaching the course. With faculty appointments in separate colleges — Bergstrom in the College of Arts & Sciences, West in the Information School — they discovered there was no mechanism to approve a cross-college course.

Abandoning the idea, they instead posted their proposed syllabus and other course materials online for anyone interested in the topic. They expected a handful of friends and colleagues to take a look. Instead, their imagined course went viral overnight thanks to a shoutout from an influential blogger.

“There were emails and phone calls and then stories in all the big US and European newspapers about this course that actually didn’t exist,” Bergstrom recalls. “People were excited. It obviously hit a nerve.”

Bergstrom and West proposed the course to the University again, as a one-credit pilot. It was offered in spring 2017 in a lecture hall with 180 seats. Registration opened at midnight; the course filled in one minute. “The people in the records office told us it was the fastest they’d ever seen any course fill,” Bergstrom says. “The demand was there.”

Read the full article in Perspectives.

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