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.