Review: The art and science of bullshit detection — skepticism in a data-driven world - Salish Current
March 31, 2023
Review: The art and science of bullshit detection — skepticism in a data-driven world
Dean Kahn

How do you decide what is true? Too many people confuse correlation with causality, swallow misleading statistics, blindly accept data graphics and grant unquestioning credence to scientists, say the authors of a guide to skepticism. Researchers Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West will delve deeper in a free presentation in April.

March 31, 2023
Review: The art and science of bullshit detection — skepticism in a data-driven world
Dean Kahn

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I already knew some specific verbs connected to President Bill Clinton’s famous one-on-one sessions with intern Monica Lewinsky, but I learned a new one while reading “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.” 

The verb is “paltering,” which means to mislead someone without lying outright, that is, to say something that is technically not untrue. Clinton threaded that verbal needle when he said on a credible national news program that “there is no sexual relationship (with Lewinsky).” Clinton later defended his misleading statement by noting that he had used the present-tense “is,” thus indicating there was no ongoing relationship with said intern. Bill Clinton, palterer-in-chief. 

“Calling Bullshit” is a recent book (2020) by two academic colleagues at the University of Washington, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West. They teach data science, statistics and related subjects, and offer a class also entitled “Calling Bullshit,” (a fun title for charades, as well as one certain to pique the interest of parents paying their child’s tuition at UW.) 

“Calling Bullshit,” the book, is an informative yet engaging primer on the need for a healthy dose of skepticism in our age of information — and faux information — overload. It’s a field guide to recognizing bullshit, with advice on how to debunk BS.

It’s a badly needed field guide. Too many people confuse correlation with causality, swallow misleading statistics, blindly accept data graphics and grant unquestioning credence to scientists. 

Free tickets are available for a presentation by the authors of “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World” on April 13.

Bullshit covers wide ground. As the authors put it: “Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics and other forms of presentation intended to persuade or impress an audience by distracting, overwhelming or intimidating them with a blatant disregard for truth, logical coherence, or what information is actually being conveyed.” 

A time or two the book starts to read like a textbook, but never for long. Bergstrom and West kept this reader happy with a steady supply of humor, plus plenty of examples of bullshit, from both liberal and conservative sources, from scientists who should know better, and from news outlets ranging from partisan hacks to shockingly establishment sources. For people who favor images over words, the chapter on data visualization becomes a fun game of “what’s wrong with this chart?” 

Even as the authors equip readers with an attitude, and an arsenal of tools, to detect bullshit, it’s easy to feel a bit discouraged. It’s widely accepted that lies sprint while corrections walk, and that it takes less energy to spread bullshit than to clean it up. And those general rules of bullshit are exacerbated by the rise of social media, which quickens the spread of bullshit to an exponentially larger number of people. 

What’s the answer? Government regulation might help, the authors say, but the First Amendment means any regulations must be finely crafted. They discuss technical fixes to make bullshit detection easier, but fear that could trigger an arms race between detectors and bullshit creators. So the two professors urge more education. Courses in media literacy and critical thinking would be a great start. 

Bergstrom and West wrap up with advice on how people should debunk bullshit without becoming mired in the muck. Debunkers should remain humble, because they, too, can be wrong. They urge debunkers to not automatically presume the other person is malicious, because honest mistakes and run-of-the-mill incompetence abound. A debunker’s goal, they say, is to correct erroneous information, not destroy lives. 

“Remember, calling bullshit is more than a claim,” the authors write. “It’s a powerful action, and can easily be misused. But if you make an effort to be clear and correct and to remain reasonably civil, most people will respect you.” 

Let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be bullshit. 

— Contributed by Dean Kahn

The free presentation of “Truth, Trust and the News: ‘Calling Bullshit’” featuring authors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West will be held on Thursday, April 13, at Whatcom Community College. For free tickets, register here.

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