"Calling Bullshit" Is the College Course for Our Times - Here's How You Can Take It Online

A college course on how to recognize "bullshit" addresses fake news, memes, clickbaiting and misleading advertising. 

"Calling Bullshit" Is the College Course for Our Times - Here's How You Can Take It Online

Taking a course with the word "bullshit" in its title is a cynical student's dream that University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West are making a reality. Their 10-week seminar, enticingly titled "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" begins in March.


The course is a perfect match for our fact-challenged times, where charges of "fake news" and "alternative facts" have become part of common public discourse. If you can't take the course in person, you can follow it online, as its syllabus, readings and recordings of lectures will be available to the general public.

The synopsis of the course is listed succinctly as "Our world is saturated with bullshit. Learn to detect and defuse it."

The course looks to teach students key skills for judging information. The specific ways in which those taking the course will benefit are outlined in the syllabus:

Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.

Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.

Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.

Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.


It's hard not to agree with such objectives. 

The course will consider a number of case studies that range from a story on food stamp fraud by Fox News to viral social media memes, clickbaiting and misleading advertising.

The inspiration for the course came to the Professors from reviewing scientific articles over a number of years. They noticed a trend of statistics better suited for smaller data sets being used for big data sets of millions or billions of examples. This could result in forcing correlations that aren't necessarily there.

Another disturbing trend noticed by Professor West was in seeing the "overfitting" of data by machine learning algorithms which were too perfectly matched to particular data sets instead of being more general.

The course is not geared towards a particular political ideology.

"We simply want to help people of all political perspectives resist bullshit, because we are confident that together all of us can make better collective decisions if we know how to evaluate the information that comes our way," explain the authors on the course's website.

You can access the course's materials here.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

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End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
  • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
  • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
  • Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
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Surprising Science

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

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