The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. So-called higher education often rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture has elevated bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, then take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with second-order bullshit. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, often 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.
Two professors at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom (Biology) and Jevin West (Information School), have created a course they’d like to teach called “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.” Their syllabus starts with philosophy: Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” along with G. A. Cohen’s critique of it, “Deeper into Bullshit” (in which he memorably claims that Frankfurt has identified “just one flower in the lush garden of bullshit”). But unlike typical critical reasoning or logic courses in philosophy departments, which themselves are also sometimes taught as a kind of anti-bullshit training, their syllabus takes students beyond problem sets and logic texts to explore statistical traps, data visualization, scientific misconduct, fake news, and other topics.
Check it out (and don’t miss the “yet another disclaimer”).