Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Now that we are firmly living in a post-fact world where the monster in charge of the United States lives life according to "alternative facts" (otherwise known as LIES), it is more important than ever to be vigilant to bullsh*t, lest we truly devolve into an Orwellian version of society.

Two professors, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West, from the University of Washington have created a course designed to educate people to think critically and to equip them with the skills necessary to see through the lies, half-truths, obfuscations, disinformation, and misrepresentations (whether deliberate or not) of our modern world.

Their website states their mission:

"The world is awash in bullsh*t. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullsh*t over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullsh*t to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullsh*t — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullsh*t 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 bullsh*t.

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 bullsh*t-rich modern environment by identifying bullsh*t, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

What do we mean, exactly, by the term bullsh*t? As a first approximation, bullsh*t is 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.

While bullsh*t may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bullsh*t. Instead, we will focus on bullsh*t that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullsh*t are those that we will be addressing in the present course.

Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullsh*t — and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup's big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?

Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences."

By the way, the censor asterisks on their website header and in the text above are my own additions--lest some nervous, righteous complainer stumble upon this post and find an objectionable word. Exactly the kind of person who needs to take the course to really understand communication and intent.

For more information, please visit their website:

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