“Calling Bullshit”: See the Syllabus for a College Course Designed to Identify & Combat Bullshit

Two pro­fes­sors at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, have cre­at­ed a web­site meant to accom­pa­ny a poten­tial col­lege sem­i­nar enti­tled “Call­ing Bull­shit.” Here’s how Bergstrom and West explain the premise of their course. It’s worth quot­ing them at length.

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.

What do we mean, exact­ly, by the term bull­shit? As a first approx­i­ma­tion, bull­shit 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 bull­shit may reach its apogee in the polit­i­cal domain, this is not a course on polit­i­cal bull­shit. Instead, we will focus on bull­shit 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 bull­shit are those that we will be address­ing in the present course.…

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.

The “Call­ing Bull­shit” course would sit nice­ly along­side the work of Prince­ton philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt, the author of the fair­ly recent book, On Bull­shit. (In fact, On Bull­shit would be read dur­ing Week 1 of the “Call­ing Bull­shit“course. See the syl­labus here.) There’s a lot of bull­shit freely flow­ing through our world, and it may well take a cross-dis­ci­pli­nary team to help us cut through the crap.

To learn more about the envi­sioned Call­ing Bull­shit course, vis­it Bergstrom and West­’s web­site, where they have an FAQ that explains what a study of bull­shit might look like.

Update: You can now view the lec­tures for the course here.

Note: You can down­load Har­ry Frank­furt’s “On Bull­shit” as a free audio­book (or any oth­er two free audio­books) if you sign up for Audible.com’s free tri­al pro­gram. Learn more about Audible’s free tri­al pro­gram here.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Spot Bull­shit: A Primer by Prince­ton Philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the Eng­lish Lan­guage a New Exple­tive (1910)

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties


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