University of Washington professors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom say the world is awash in bullshit and they’re tired of it. This is why they designed a class called Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World. Their aim is to teach people how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences. They say the skills students learn in this course will turn out to be the most useful they will acquire during the course of their college education. The Guardian says the class provides the tools for every American to disrupt the foundation of even the most trusted sources of information.
A blatant disregard for truth.
Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, says bullshit is deliberately misleading and deceptive speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. West and Bergstrom define bullshit as language, statistics, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming readers and listeners.
This theme sounds familiar to long-time readers.
Ever since creating my university course to teach people how to tell good information from bad, I’ve been writing on the related themes of how people use lies and trickery to con us into believing untruths. In Mind the Gap, a reader favorite, I wrote about how a social media marketing services firm intentionally manipulated their study sample and method to concoct a bullshit story they used to dupe customers to spend more on social media marketing services. Their bullshit worked.
West and Bergstrom’s course syllabus includes a section that explores how data graphics are used to steer viewers toward misleading conclusions. Here they introduce students to Edward Tufte, who the NY Times called “The Leonardo da Vinci of data.” Tufte is very passionate about the abuse of data graphics and has written several books on the subject. He describes most of the data graphics we see as chartjunk.
Take a Closer Look, Volume 2, is free to Kindle Unlimited customers. The best way to protect yourself against the manipulations, distortions and fabrications that are more and more prevalent these days is to learn how to see through them.