T

ired 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.

advertisement

“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.

Newsletters

Sign up for our Daily Recap newsletter

Please enter a valid email address.

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.”

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • Here’s evidence that is clear as day. I received the anthrax vaccination at TAMC in Hawaii. I immediately experienced joint pain and severe gastrointestinal complications. Added to them is now thyrid dysfunction, all known to be linked to the anthrax vaccine, especially 017 administered there in 1998. I have now been forced to take disability retirement from my job as a forensic scientist. The following link will blow your mind.

    https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/01/19/2017-01058/federal-policy-for-the-protection-of-human-subjects

  • It’s not “science” that is bullshard, it’s the “publications” of science that are feces laden. Why is the “science” that moon rocks predate anything in our solar system, including the sun, by 800,000 years, not published in “mainstream” journals? Did the entire solar system develop around only our moon? Ha! Not. But science says our moon shouldn’t be there! How is this “Bullshit course” going to tackle that?

    How is this “Bullshit Course” going handle zero point energy?

    How is this “Bullshit Course” going to handle the Nutonian lie of the laws of entropy and thermodynamics?

    This “Bullshit Course” will quickly find that they cannot publish what they want! THAT is the filth of the publication censors.

  • Can’t wait to hear mentioned all the ridiculous claims about the North Pole disappearing by now, no more snow in Britain, New York being under water by now, “only 5 more years to save the world” 10 years ago.

    Nothing destroys science more than ridiculous claims that demonstrably false by simply observation.

  • None of this is news. I have been writing about it for years but until recently no one really cared. However, at the end of the article there was an unfortunate head fake, where Carl Bergstrom says that he wants the course to “remain apolitical.” Speaking truth to power is never apolitical. When one side in the political argument is using misrepresentations to make false points, and you point out the errors in their statements, you are no longer apolitical. Although Democrats are known to spread the truth too thinly, that isn’t an instrument of power for them because THEY AREN’T IN POWER.

    • If a truth offends a political position, the offended see truth as political.

      Myriad regulations written and enforced by unaccountable bureaucracies have the full power of federal law.

      Overwhelmingly Democratic-oriented employees are fighting to maintain positions of power and their policies. They ARE still in power.

      As if the Trusted Media and Hollywood aren’t hugely influential to all-too-human scientists.

  • I think the biggest mistake science makes is to assume that the mind is inside the head (Rupert Sheldrake mentions this in his “Science Delusion” talk). This assumption leads to several other invalid assumptions and also restricts research investigations in other interesting areas. I even often hear people say that the mind is equal to the brain – they forget that the brain is just another organ in the body that does not talk for itself. In this regard, it is interesting to note how ancient people conceptualized the mind – see for example the following article: Karunamuni, N.D. (2015). The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind. SAGE Open, 5 (2).

  • One thing you’ll possibly never be able to comprehend (hopefully you eventually will) is how we exist in this time continuum in the first place. I, like you, used to think the same way about religion. However, I was lost for a large duration of my life until I finally got it. Back then I would criticize the concept of God or religion, but still never find any answers, even will my overwhelmingly curious scientific mind. It literally took absolute helplessness for me to fully understand or appreciate the value of life and it’s meaning. Science is absolutely awesome, and I don’t blame many of you for believing what you do (or don’t) regarding God, because I’ve been there. But just know that life didn’t start out of nothing, which is a concept I’m sure you’ve all witnessed and embraced at least one point in your lives. Sometimes it takes extraordinary circumstances to know God and his love. I didn’t recognize it until I finally let go of what I thought I could control in life. The fact is that I control nothing, and no matter how much I learned of science (which is powerful, interesting, and full of self fulfilling influence), I never found happiness and content. God shapes our life. He owns science, because it s he who made it. Science is a tool that he created in order to find ourselves and truth. God loves you, and as much as I know many of you do not believe that, I pray you all find the answers eventually.

    • Interesting that you discovered god when you were absolutely helpless and lost. Might that be the reason we invented god in the first place? To put the cause and solution of our concerns beyond our control.
      I have yet to meet a person who ‘found god’ when everything in their life was great and they were happy.

      God does not ‘own’ science. God did not ‘create’ science. We did. We did because we are curious. Because the more we understand the rules of this universe, the better our lives get. The repeated concept is that god exists in the space beyond our understanding. I mean, how could we understand god? Each time we increase our understanding of this universe god moves to just beyond the limit of our understanding.
      I appreciate your honest intentions here, but god is a beautiful concept that has fulfilled its purpose. If we are to progress as a species we must move beyond the fanciful, comforting inventions of humans who thought the sun revolves around the earth. Maybe I should just let you make your case and leave no comment. Maybe I will be accused of intolerance.
      But I believe god to be the single most dangerous thing we ever invented.
      God exists because we are ignorant. Not because we are smart.

    • @Fergal whelan “I believe god to be the single most dangerous thing”
      Life on earth is a miracle that man did not make or invent.
      The lack of God is a dangerous thing, as without fear, science can do foolish things when playing as a God.
      Man might destroy the ecosystem of the planet with Fukushima type radiation of greater than 500 sieverts of radiation released per hour.

      Religion that is tolerant , can unit mankind, which is a good thing, otherwise you do know what animals do over land? They fight endless wars ( who is stronger?) over the land instead of cooperating for the common good.

  • It would be great if a class like this was available online and free to the public. People need to learn all about the bullshit and how to identify it for themselves.

  • But the lib-tards will be triggered! The bible thumpers and right-wingnuts will just cry bullshit back but, good on ya, it’s worth a try. D

Sign up for our Morning Rounds newsletter

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine.

X