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.
“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.”