Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, authors of “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World,” discussed their book with Shawn Vestal in a Northwest Passages Book Club livestream event Tuesday night. Bergstrom and West explained the origins of the project and gave advice on how to “call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.”
Opening the discussion, Bergstrom, a theoretical and evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Washington, explained how he and West, a data scientist responsible for designing and implementing UW’s data science curriculum, began their collaboration.
“A few years ago he (West) called me up and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be teaching a course on big data,’ and I said ‘I want to teach a course about calling bullshit on big data,’” Bergstrom said.
The college course resulting from that conversation would become, according to West, the most important course that they could teach their students.
“When I think about all the classes that I’ve taught and all the classes I took as a student, I think this is one of those things that probably should be the first thing a student takes when they get here but probably before they get to the university, and maybe the last thing,” West said. He isn’t concerned about students memorizing the Krebs cycle or specific dates or the ideal gas law, “but I do care about whether they (students) can look critically at any argument – arguments that come in terms of data or in any form.”
They explained that different generations display different abilities when it comes to detecting “bullshit.” For example, millennials and younger students can more easily identify clickbait websites than older generations, but they may struggle when it comes to identifying whether an article uses legitimate scientific sources.
“The source of BS that you need to be most concerned about is yourself,” Bergstrom said, recalling a Neil Postman quote from the 1960s about confirmation bias.
“As we get a little older, and … set in our ways … we get a little bit better at defending our beliefs and arguments. We become more and more set because we can always find ways to convince ourselves that the thing we believe before we started looking into it is true.”
For this reason, the book stresses the importance of avoiding confirmation bias by trying to be at least as critical, if not more critical of the stories and data that support one’s preexisting beliefs, as one would be of stories that oppose.
The book was completed before the rise of COVID-19, but, “You could rewrite the book using only examples from the pandemic,” Bergstrom said.
They discussed the influence of social media on confirmation bias at length.
“Social media has paved the way for bullshit,” Bergstrom said. “Instead of having professional producers and editors determine what content I see, I’ve got my Uncle Rob and he’s a conspiracy theorist. He doesn’t really even care whether it’s true or not – we all have these people in our lives. And so then because we are all taking on this editorial role, this kind of curation role fundamentally changes the quality of information that people are receiving.”
Newsfeed algorithms on platforms like Facebook, they explained, are ordered towards making sure that eyes stay glued to screens so users look at ads; whatever information happens to be keeping users attention is immaterial.
“So you see things you want to hear and what your friends want you to hear, regardless of the truth. If it’s a conspiracy theory that keeps you there longer, that’s what you’re going to see.”
The phenomenon poses “a big problem for democracy,” Bergstrom said. “People need to make informed decisions based on true information about the world. But that also requires us to be able to recognize true information.”
Bergstrom and West offered several pieces of advice on beginning to approach information critically. First, Bergstrom said, “ask who’s telling me this, how do they know it, and what are they trying to sell me?”
“If something sounds too good or too bad to be true, it’s probably not true,” West said. “Be very wary of emotion-evoking clickbait.”
“Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore.
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