Two University of Washington professors are taking aim at BS in a provocatively named new course they hope to teach this spring. The professors would like to push the course materials online — teaching it as a MOOC, for example, a freely available course taught over the web.
When it came to picking a title for the course they will teach this spring, University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West decided to abandon academic stodginess and get edgy.
Their new course title? “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.”
Bergstrom and West figured using a minor profanity was a surefire way to draw attention to the course. And sure enough — within hours of unveiling a wickedly funny webpage they created for the proposed class, and announcing it via Twitter, the BS course went viral.
The webpage went live at midnight, and “we woke up the next morning and it was over the whole planet,” West said. “I’ve never seen anything like it … the response has been insane — emails, questions, comments. …
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“It resonated,” he added, in a bit of an understatement.
Although some people online took it as a joke, there’s serious intent behind the provocative title.
Bergstrom, a biology professor, and West, an Information School professor, want to teach students how to think critically about numbers and statistics, and recognize when people are using them to distort or spin an argument.
They say they’re tired of seeing a growing number of charts, graphs, algorithms and big data sets manipulated in such a way as to mislead or deceive.
“We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something,” the two say on their webpage, “and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people.”
As more people have access to tools to quantify the world we live in, West says, people are going to make mistakes when they interpret what they see. After all, humans are fallible.
But sometimes, he said, they’re also nefarious.
“As we read various scientific papers, or media descriptions of the latest discoveries or the latest claims some startup is making — let alone seeing the kind of stuff you get sent on Twitter — we were like, wow,” Bergstrom said. “There’s so much bullshit.”
West and Bergstrom say the course will arm students with critical reasoning skills they can use to identify BS and respond to it. Those skills will take the form of a set of rules to follow, a kind of folk-wisdom BS detector.
“We both feel there’s not a more important skill than critical reasoning,” West said.
Over the course of 12 weeks, they will define BS, show students how to spot it, discuss its prevalence in the news media as well as the growth of “upscale BS” (think TED Talks), and explain why social media is the ideal way to spread BS.
They’ll show how BS is created when people ignore the fact that correlation is not causation. They’ll look at how data visualization can be misleading, examine why so many published scientific studies are false, and cover the rise of fake news. They’ll also tackle the ethics of calling BS, including the “differences between being a hard-minded skeptic and being a domineering jerk.”
The two professors took an unusual route toward getting approval for the one-credit seminar class: In addition to petitioning a faculty committee for approval, they created the webpage to outline what they intend to teach.
On Friday, a UW committee approved the course as a one-credit “special topics” seminar for spring. Now, it’s just a matter of finding a room large enough, Bergstrom said. “We’d like to teach 150 students if possible.”
The faculty committee that approves new courses took an earnest, thoughtful approach, asking West whether “Calling BS” might be a little too contemporary, a little too faddish.
“So, when I responded back, I said, ‘Well, bullshit’s been around a long time,’ ” West said, laughing. “I don’t see this as a fickle topic.”
The professors are using the internet to broadcast their ideas because they’d like to push the course materials beyond the walls of the university — teaching it as a MOOC, for example, a freely available course taught over the web.
And they’d also like to see materials from their course used in high schools — although they might have to drop the provocative title.
West thinks there’s no more important role for education than arming students to face a world awash in BS. He’s fond of a quote from Oxford philosophy professor John Alexander Smith, who, in a speech to his students in 1914, told them pretty much the same thing.
“ … If you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education,” Smith said.
If they’d picked a more conventional academic title, the course would have been called something like “Critical Reasoning and Statistical Inference.”
But who would sign up for that?