Tired of alternative facts, fake news, and breathless hyperbole, two professors at the University of Washington are trying to strike a blow for science.

Their weapon? A new course: “Calling Bullshit In the Age of Big Data.”

The class website and colorful syllabus went online last month and almost instantly went viral.

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“We woke up the next morning to chaos. We had 20,000 visitors, our mailboxes were full, we were getting book offers,” said Carl Bergstrom, a biologist who helped create the course.

Bergstrom’s teaching partner, Jevin West, an assistant professor in UW’s Information School, put it this way: “We just struck a nerve.”

Bergstrom and West are longtime scientific collaborators and have spent years grumbling about the inflated claims, manipulated algorithms, and twisted interpretations of scientific research that they see not just in the popular press, but also in grant applications and scientific papers. “We just thought, instead of griping, we could make a class — a really fun class,” Bergstrom said

Though the course will be held on UW’s Seattle campus — capped at 160 students, it filled in the first minute of online registration — the materials are available free online. Lectures are expected to be posted as well.

The class taps into a growing sense of unease among devotees of the empirical method that valid science is too frequently distorted or dismissed — while outright scams are embraced.

“What I’m finding among scientists is an uneasiness that goes back years, even decades, about an eroding appreciation of science, how it works, and how it’s incorporated into our society. And it seems to be in a crescendo right now,” physicist Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told STAT earlier this week.

Scientists around the world are even organizing a series of marches on Earth Day in April, which they’re billing as “a call to support and safeguard the scientific community.”

In Seattle, the professors hope to do their part by dissecting case studies — or, as they call it, “bullshit in the wild” — to demonstrate how scientific data can be manipulated to mislead the public. Examples include a Fox News report on food stamp fraud; the professors promise to explain “how Fermi estimation can cut through bullshit like a hot knife through butter.”

The duo has fielded many requests from other institutions who want to create their own courses using the material. In the name of scientific literacy and a reasoned populace, they are more than happy to share. “No copyright. No trademark. Use it. Take it. Run with it,” West said.

They’ve been pleasantly surprised to see an upswell of interest from high school and middle school teachers, too.

“For them, we’ll have to re-title it ‘Calling Malarky,’” Bergstrom joked.

While others may have reached for a more scholarly term, the course creators were dead set on using bullshit.  “There are few synonyms that can match the thump it has,” said West. University officials, he said, have been hugely supportive. The term “bullshit” even appears in the school’s official course catalog.

With no shortage of examples, the two plan to continually update their website. “We have so much bullshit you wouldn’t even believe it,” West said.

Many have asked if the course is a response to President Donald Trump, who has dismissed evidence of vaccine safety and called climate change a hoax. But the course was in the works long before the election. And while Bergstrom makes no secret of his disdain for Trump on his Twitter feed, he wants the course to remain apolitical. He promises to attack misrepresentations of science coming from politicians of any stripe.

“We need a citizenry that’s more informed and has the ability to call bullshit,” West said. “That’s good for everyone.”

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  • One more comment built around analogy for the failings of Applied science in the current environment, with Canadian examples :

    Applied science where the focus is necessarily on getting to market and generating a profit for shareholders, is like studying a specific path up a mountainside. Basic science is about studying the entire mountain in the context of the entire globe, its hydrology, contours, ecosystems, geology, climate etc. When we no longer have meaningful public sector funding of independent basic science research we no longer understand the mountain…..e.g. we often do not know the ultimate disposition of most compounds and their metabolites nor the long term effects. Lack of proof of toxicity is not at all the same as proof of safety, and this is critical when a new compound becomes ubiquitous e.g. glyphosphate. Furthermore the culture of our educational system is also perverted by this context, such that students of science and particularly post-graduate students who must publish or perish may also start to lose perspective. Recently the “Science Council of Canada” was replaced by the Science Technology and Innovation Council with a narrower mandate towards applied science and no further oversight of the more fundamental aspects of the role of science in our society. The Canadian Institute of Health Research is the other body which likewise does not appear to have a mission which includes oversight of the broader aspects of the role of basic science in our society. Thus abdication.

    Science is about uncertainty . That it was why we stopped burning witches. Many disheartened young people have become intuitively biased against science not understanding the difference (between applied and basic) and once again we have the need for new self-proclaimed prophets of in the “new age” (“experts”).

    • Instead of burning witches, since evolvement has happened in the twentieth century, the new order of service by physicians is to diagnose people with mental illness, prescribe psychotropic drugs. Funny that you mention this Andre Piver, read in the 1983 assessment that you accessed 13 years after the fact when i was a battered wife, in it a registered psychiatric nurses states, in Kaslo BC there are many that believe in their perception I am a witch. The new self proclaimed prophets of the age are doctors whose word is as God in courts, entries in medical records, police files. Psychotropic drugs…prescribed by GP’s, the new wave of mental health… one of the results of over-prescribed psychotropic drugs..https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2017/09/04/antidepressants-found-in-the-great-lakes-and-fish/#437915b387db. Included letter written in 2010 included, poeple like me have made them a lot of money in medical services due to medical conditions that developed after diagnosis and misidagnosis,It’s sad to see that among all those who contributed to the systemic abuse you endured, there doesn’t seem to be even one – amazing, not even one – who has the humanity to admit that they may have been mistaken and that they are sorry for the negative impact on your life. It’s almost as if they don’t consider you to be a human being, as if you’re essentially different in some way from themselves. Possibly they’re afraid of lawsuits or of being publicly exposed as incompetent or worse, corrupt, but they have set out into a field of work to help people, and if they can see that they have contributed to harming someone, ethical considerations dictate that they try in some way to alleviate that. I’m not talking about money here, as I have no way of assessing that, but about trying to in some way offer you help, if in no other way than apologizing for misunderstanding and mistreating you, or for not caring enough to follow up when they knew things weren’t

      going
      right for you and that they had contributed in some way to that bad
      outcome.

      Even if one of them just told you verbally (so
      you couldn’t use it in a lawsuit) something like “look, they
      didn’t have anyone else to do this job, and I was interested and they
      offered it to me, and I thought I could help people, but in your
      case, I just wasn’t experienced enough and unfortunately didn’t think
      to bring in someone with more expertise, and I’m sorry for that”,
      at least it would indicate some humanity. All of them probably
      have some mentor or therapist or past teacher or someone who they
      could contact to help them figure out what they could do for you, if
      they were motivated to do so, but it appears they are mired in
      complacency and content with their misuse of their positions in your
      case. It is a very scary and sad example of laziness, lack of
      professionalism and really, just plain stupidity and lack of human
      concern.

      Having been with my ex-husband, Phil (who was a
      licensed MFCC with a masters in psychology and notable successes
      within his practice) for almost 14 years, at a time when (I just
      counted, trying to remember) over a dozen of our closest friends
      either were or had been licensed and practicing psychology
      professionals, either with MDs, PhDs or MFCC and Masters degrees, it
      makes me almost physically sick to think of what you went through and
      are still going through without any decent human in the field
      actually going out of their way to try to help you. I wish I
      was one of them so I could apologize to you on behalf of the
      profession, but since I’m just another lay person (who’s been through
      years of therapy myself and lived through all those years
      participating in discussions about all aspects of the profession with
      all those professionals, and read most of the books they have), I can
      only tell you I’m so sorry that you have met up with some of the
      worst examples of human beings who practice in that field, and hope you will continue to make the discoveries you need to come to terms in your
      own way with what happened and that you’ll be able to make peace with
      it all and move on from it so you can finally start living your own
      life.among our friends in that profession, none of them were
      beginners. All except one had had a previous career before getting into
      the field of psychology. Several were MDs, one was a famous actor,
      one a soap opera star, one a dancer and choreographer (on
      Broadway), one a sociologist (even now a tenured professor at
      one of the UC universities), one now has a practice in Beverly
      Hills where some of her patients fly in regularly to see her
      from other countries, and they were all the kind of seriously
      ethical and caring people who you could trust with your life.
      I cannot speak for them, but I will tell you that I spent so
      much time talking with them about so many related issues,
      that I would be profoundly surprised if they weren’t all as disgusted by the treatment you’ve received as I am. Not that that is
      any consolation to you, but I wish you could believe that there
      are competent and caring people in that field, although I admit
      evidence in your area would not lead to that conclusion.
      Idon’t see what you can do except get out of there…..

  • Dear Colleagues I thought this relevant to share,

    This was an “open letter” to the organizers of the March for Science.

    Please consider that the Media (Free Press/Fourth Estate) are also under attack and peruse this article in Psychology Today :

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america

    I believe the article nails it, but misses out on the specific fact that it is NOT about INTELLECTUALISM but rather the being doomed to repeat history if we forget how SCIENCE evolved as the antidote to tyranny and superstition that were the hallmark of the Dark Age(s). The Scientific Method, evolved as the necessary antidote to the human brain’s bias towards perceiving/confirming what we want to believe and that during the Dark Age, witches were obviously at fault when things went “wrong” and superstition ruled the day. Unless the popular media and our institutions re-educate us about the role of science in countering our human “lemmings’ leap”, we are obviously close to a point of no return, including a probable repeat of fascism in action.

    Please use this awesome movement you have sparked to leverage and connect with historical and constitutional scholars, the professional and academic leaders of journalism and educational institutions to collaborate on a broad and sustained campaign of re-information of the general public, using broadly accessible language and starting with history. Reminding our citizenry what history teaches us and the critical role of professional evidence-based standards for journalism is absolutely a critical part of the theme you are espousing.

    SIncerely,

    Andre C. Piver, BSc., MD, FCFP
    6774 Harrop Procter Rd.
    Nelson, B.C., V1L 6R2
    Canada , tel 250.229 4665

  • There may seem to be a problem with this, yet the more you study it, the more correct you can see that it is.
    They knew that the new temple would need to be bigger, so as the ancient Cubit was about 18 inches, the modern Cubit was to be about 24 inches, being 60.96 Centemeters. (Psalm 60:6-7) 96 helped us remember to worship correctly when it was prayer time; focus on GOD when praying. Praise the LORD in His sanctuary. (Ephesians 6:5-7) (Psalm 96:1-13) To figure the year, we look at the Chronology from Adam to Moses. Adam to Abraham was 1948 years. Abraham to Jacob being in Egypt was 290 years. Moses to the Exodus was 80 years. Together these are 2,318 years. Here is where the Hebrew Calendar began. (Exodus 12:2) The year 2017 is the Hebrew year 5,777 to 5,778. Add these together for the year 8,096. Forever 96 rooms with 4 others representing the 4 parts of the Cross. It is the year to give up meat, as seal 7 is actually seal 8. (Revelation 3:16-21)

    Here is a measurement of how old the world is. Billions of years in scientific calculation. Each day is a thousand years, and they can calculate the days of years, as Enoch walked 365 days of years. (Genesis 5:23) A year for each day, and the Bible is perfected. Here is the key to the dinosaurs in the Bible. Then line this up to Moses. (2 Esdras 14:3-12) There is one more verse about the first children being taller than the last ones, and that verse goes with that. Here the dinosaur verse is. (2 Esdras 5:51-55) It is very true. Billions of years old the Earth is. GOD also calculated creation of modern humanity since Adam, yet the world was already here. Bible is perfect.

    They say that the world is about 3 billion years old. Here is the Biblical Math to make sure the scientists are correct. With GOD’s smile of course. 8096 times 365 days of years (Genesis 5:23), times a thousand years for each day (2 Peter 3:8), equals 2,955,040,000 years. Yep, about exactly three billion years according to the Jews. It was about that long ago when GOD dropped the Adam amoeba in the ocean by the hand of an Angel. Then GOD had the Angel tell us that we had to shape up about 7 days ago; seven days of a thousand years. We add one day because one is usually hidden veiled, as a 7 is an 8. The first amoeba was A sexual, like Eve coming out of Adam’s rib. Then they evolved, and Eve tempted Adam to begin eating other Amoebas which were their own children, the fruit of the loins of their own family trees. Quite the contemplation isn’t it. This is spoken of in the Bible.
    (Lamentations 2:20) (Leviticus 7:23, 17:12-14) (Deuteronomy 28:54-57) I thought that was really cool to learn. Biblical Sciences.
    Two Amoebas; at least one plant and one animal. That is still not all of it though, and not where we came from.
    This lines up to the scientific evidence that bacteria appeared 12 galactic years ago, each galactic year being 225,000,000 years.
    A galactic year is said to be between 225,000,000 and 250,000,000 years. The three estimations in galactic years are;
    12.9536 galactic years at 225 million years
    12.44227368421053 galactic years at 237.5 million years
    11.65824 galactic years at 250 million years
    According to our doctrine, this is how old the Earth is. Also according to our doctrine, when this is calculated, we have 2½ parcels of time left before the Earth shuts down. (2 Esdras 14:11-12)
    Being that this calculation was done during the Hebrew year of 5,777 we have to notice the calculation of how many years we have left to survive here. Having 9.5 ages down, and 2.5 ages left, the Earth has 777,642,105.2631579 years left if taken very well care of. This is about three galactic years total. According to modern science, in 2 to 3 galactic years from today, Tidal Acceleration will have moved the moon far enough from the Earth that Total Solar Eclipses are no longer possible. Also, this will have dramatic effects on the ocean. Here are these prophesies in the Bible. (Revelation 21:1) (2 Esdras 5:4)

    The 2 1/2 ages we have left are in the Book of Daniel. (Daniel 12:7) Consider we are already shattered. We do not wait till the end of the 2 1/2 times to be shattered. Believing in science without GOD has been shattering us, yet GOD had a plan already. Know that we have more science than can be imagined in the Bible. Our mathematics are perfected by GOD in a way that no one could have done it except for GOD alone through the ancient Holy Prophets.

  • I love it! Will be studying what ever info this class shares. The quote we have so much bullshit you wouldn’t believe it. Just cracks me up. Thanks

  • Your course sounds quite interesting I live in Greenfield Massachusetts so obviously attending is out but I would be really interested in the materials at whatever the cost maybe

  • This is a good way to seize the pseudo science high ground to gain false authority in one’s assertions of their favorite political stance such as global climate emergencies.

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