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Calling B.S. – Reasoning In A World of Fake News & Bad Data
Meets once a week for 8 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-18
The world is awash in B.S. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards B.S. over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates B.S. to high art. It’s increasingly difficult to know what’s true. Misinformation, disinformation, and fake news abound. The aim of this course is to help students navigate the B.S.-rich modern environment by identifying B.S., seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.
The world is awash in B.S. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards B.S. over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates B.S. to high art. It’s increasingly difficult to know what’s true. Misinformation, disinformation, and fake news abound. Our media environment has become hyperpartisan. Science is conducted by press release. Startup culture elevates B.S. to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the B.S. — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with B.S. 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 B.S.
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 B.S.-rich modern environment by identifying B.S., seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.
What do we mean, exactly, by B.S. and calling B.S.? As a first approximation:
B.S. 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 B.S. is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than B.S. alone. You can call B.S. on B.S., but you can also call B.S. on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.
In this course, we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.
While B.S. may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political B.S. Instead, we will focus on B.S. 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 B.S. 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 B.S. — 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. Our world is saturated with B.S. Learn to detect and defuse it.
(The development of this course owes much to Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West who created this course to meet what they saw as a major need in higher education nationwide. They are both college professors at the University of Washington in Seattle.)
SCHEDULE AND READINGS
Each week, we will explore one specific facet of B.S. For each week, a set of required readings are assigned. Supplementary readings are also provided for those who wish to delve deeper.
- Spotting B.S.
- The natural ecology of B.S.
- Statistical traps
- Publication bias
- Predatory publishing and scientific misconduct
- Fake news
- Refuting B.S.
Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:
- Remain vigilant for B.S. contaminating your information diet.
- Recognize said B.S. whenever and wherever you encounter it.
- Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of B.S. is B.S.
- Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is B.S.
- Provide others, including family members and friends, with a polite, accessible, and persuasive explanation of why a claim is B.S.
We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your education.
OUR APPROACH TO TEACHING
Polyhistoria classes emphasize critical thinking, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. We believe that students learn history best by doing what professional historians do.
(Read more about our approach to history.)
Our approach to academics helps learners view traditional disciplines in unconventional ways. With immersive classes that cross disciplines, learners stretch themselves both within and beyond conventional academic pathways, while small classes encourage close collaboration between learners and instructors. Today, Polyhistoria is the only comprehensive online learning platform teaching in-depth, cutting-edge social science scholarship to teenagers.
(Read more about our teaching philosophy.)
Learning is not a spectator sport. Interaction and intellectual exchanges involving all students and the instructor enrich learning for all. Studying history involves an accumulation of knowledge about the past. But it also requires that we communicate that knowledge to others. You must be ready to share your views in class. A worthwhile course depends upon active participation by all students in class discussions.
The goal here is to advance an intelligent conversation from which we all learn. The most obvious way to do that is to say smart things and say them clearly. But that is not the only meaningful way to participate. Asking a question, connecting something already on the table to another thing, clarifying something that someone else has said, and offering evidence from the text under discussion are also all valuable. Bonus points are awarded for contributions that draw on what others have said. Other things to keep in mind: aim for clarity, keep in mind the value of an amicable classroom environment, and try not to monopolize the conversation.
1) Students’ cameras and microphones must be turned on during the class.
2) This class requires the continuous use of logical thinking & hypothetical reasoning skills to critically and creatively analyze the topics covered in the class. These cognitive functions are generally not sufficiently developed until a student is 13+ years old. Students must have the ability to think critically and logically to analyze the topics covered in the class.
1 hour per week in class, and an estimated 1 – 2 hours per week outside of class.
Meets once a week for 8 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-18
Can you actually use the word B.S. in the title of an academic course?
Do you really need to use profanity to make your point? Isn’t that rather puerile?
For better or for worse, the term bullshit has few exact synonyms in the English language. The best alternative we can think of is the shorter (and more sanitized) B.S.
One motivation for using the term bullshit is that this is the word employed when the subject is discussed in the philosophy literature. If you are sensitive to this, be aware, that some of the course readings include papers that use the word bullshit. This course is a bit like the state slogan of Nebraska: “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
How could you have omitted Darrell Huff’s 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics from your syllabus?
We acknowledge that Huff’s book did a good job of providing a humorous and non-technical introduction to the perils of statistical reasoning to a 1950s audience. Unfortunately, the casual racism and sexism of the illustrations make it virtually unusable as an educational text today.
Is this some sort of swipe at the Trump administration?
No. We began developing this course in 2015 in response to our frustrations with the credulity of the scientific and popular presses in reporting research results. While the course may seem particularly timely today, we are not out to comment on the current political situation in the United States and around the world. Rather, we feel that in a democracy everyone will all be better off if people can see through the B.S. coming from all sides. You may not agree with us about the optimal size of government or the appropriate degree of U.S. involvement in global affairs, and we’re good with that. We simply want to help people of all political perspectives resist B.S. 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.
Adequate B.S. detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy. Democracy has always relied on a critically-thinking electorate, but never has this been more important than in the current age of false news and international interference in the electoral process via propaganda disseminated over social media. Mark Galeotti’s December 2016 editorial in The New York Times summarized America best defense against Russian “information warfare”:
“Instead of trying to combat each leak directly, the United States government should teach the public to tell when they are being manipulated. Via schools and nongovernmental organizations and public service campaigns, Americans should be taught the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, from how to fact-check news articles to how pictures can lie.”
We could not agree more.