On Bullshit, part two

There’s a current course at the University of Washington (INFO 270/BIO 270): “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World.” The two instructors, one an information scientist and the other a biologist, are entirely serious:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

There was a time when the idea of a “liberal education” was attractive. That is, you learned a wide range of scholarly subjects in order not only to be informed but to understand how people, over the centuries, have thought about things and expressed themselves. Seeing the world from a variety of perspectives was meant to open the mind and give it a certain flexibility. These days “liberal education” makes certain folks froth at the mouth about left-wing indoctrination. Plus the cost of college has become prohibitive and people who can barely afford to go tend to pick professional majors (business, engineering, health care, etc.) so they can be employed straight away. It is considered frivolous to go to college “just to learn.”

This is unfortunate. Not that I have anything against professional majors—we need geologists and accountants and architects and whatnot. But learning is good, not bad. Good thinking can come out of any course. You don’t have to take Linear Algebra to learn some logic and analytical skills, a good teacher can make any subject rich with intellectual challenges. By that I mean things like guided inquiry, Socratic dialogue, rhetoric and argumentation, and other so-called “critical thinking” activities. There’s no reason why every course on campus can’t be that way.

But schooling is limited in time and space. And students are constrained by money and they have to get the most bang for their buck. So teachers lecture (mostly a waste of time when it comes to retention) and cram as much information into the semester as they can. We think that information is the same as knowledge, but it is not. Knowledge only comes about when we process that information and try to understand it, make sense of it, give it context, and evaluate it. That’s the important part: evaluation.

The Latin verb valere means “to be well, to be strong.” The Romans greeted each other with vale, the imperative form. In English to evaluate means to decide the worth of something, to find the value (health, strength) within it. (The e- prefix in Latin means “out from.”)

But we don’t spend enough time and intellectual energy on evaluation. We usually decide in advance what is bullshit and what isn’t. If you are an engineering major you probably think Art History is pointless. It’s not! It’s about how people see the world and how they decide what is important and how they’ve expressed their feelings and ideas. We all need that sort of thing. If we had more of that we wouldn’t need a course on bullshit because we would know something about truth and authenticity which are fundamental to art.

Scientific types think they are immune to bullshit. They think the scientific method protects them from falling into intellectual holes. That’s crap, of course. Scientists are people, and people are biased. We can’t help it, it’s the way we are made. Social and cognitive biases are present in every human activity. Not to mention that most science is damned expensive and thus scientists are answerable not to the truth but to those footing the bill.

Here’s more from the UW BS guys:

What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.

All I can say is “bravo” and let’s have more of this sort of thing!

8 thoughts on “On Bullshit, part two

  1. Although I agree with most of what you have said, your comment of “Scientific types think they are immune to bullshit” is, in my view, incorrect. Good scientists are careful to have the proper controls and, even with those, realise that reality is complex and we are only seeing a piece of it. I agree that seeing the bullshit- or potential for bullshit- is something that can, and should, be part of most if not all of the courses taught. I try to be sure to include this when I show data (noting sample size, importance of data collection bias, various ways the data can be interpreted) and when I point out errors in the text or other sources (these are really valuable tools). So, lecturing isn’t necessarily only an adventure in boredom and forgotten factoids. OK. I had my say.

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    • Theoretical physics is a perfect example. There is an entire field–string theory–which has little in the way of testable hypotheses, yet churns out piles of papers and PhDs (and best-sellers). It MAY all be true, this stuff about multi-verses and the anthropic principle and etc, but it is more like Freudian psychology than science. Cool-sounding, and lots of groovy notions, but not much of it amenable to experimentation. Seems like these guys have drifted away from working models and real-world results and are way too intrigued by their own ideas about what “nature” is supposed to be like.

      And the so-called “replication crisis” in psychology seems to be a product of group-think, and an appetite for massaging data until you find what you are seeking. Scientists chase money, fame, and validation just like everyone else and that gets in the way of clear-headedness. I suppose what I’m really saying is that we are ALL capable of being deceived no matter how smart we are (or think we are) or how many initials after our names. The best thing about science is that you have to “deliver the goods” in that you can say whatever you want, but if you don’t have the results to back up your claim you are just blowing smoke.

      Unfortunately, like any field, accomplished greats can become too famous and too influential (think James Watson or Linus Pauling or William Shockley) and their attitudes can penetrate their disciplines even if those attitudes are bullshit. Youngsters in every profession look to elders for guidance and mentorship, but old guys can be just as stubborn and full of nonsense as anyone else.

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      • Yep. The older I get the more I realise just how little those (us) old folks are! Science is not perfect, and scientists- being human- are far from perfect. Most of us know that.

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  2. I do believe that science is humanity’s greatest hope. Perhaps that’s why I tend to be more critical when I see scientists succumbing to silliness! But we all put our pants on one leg at a time, eh?

    Funny thing, I LOVE bullshit. I’m fascinated by para-literature: political propaganda, broadsheets, advertisements, rants by conspiracy nuts, religious tracts, all that un-classifiable shite that appears in the mail box. It’s too bad a lot of it is believed by seemingly otherwise normal-intelligent citizens.

    I had a colleague (social studies teacher) who “balanced an egg on its end on the equinox” and was absolutely convinced it was due to some cosmic force-planet-gravity-whatever alignment. I kept asking “did you try it any other day besides the equinox?” and he was ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that doing that test was irrelevant. He KNEW it could only happen on the equinox and he had PROVED it. He KNEW it would fail on any other day!

    Proof is in the eye of the beholder. Or, as math prof once said, “what a proof is depends on who and when you are.”

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  3. I’ve always though much of what people say is “just bullshit” but with our present POTUS I’ve come to realize there are some people that outshine others in the ability to use all of the forms of bullshit including lies, treachery. trickery and injustice and that there are numerous people that can’t see through it. Sadly, Bullshit works I’m afraid.

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