older adults

Spotting and Calling Out Big Piles of BS

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation is everywhere. Wary citizens aren’t sure how to combat the misinformation surrounding them. Now there is a class for that.

University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have created a course titled “Calling Bullshit” that is designed to identify and call out misinformation “cloaked in data and figures.” For those unable to enroll in college, you can check out @Callin_bull account on Twitter, where you can find videos of course lectures and examples of revealed bullshit.

The core idea Bergstrom and West are pushing is critical thinking, which seems as rare at times as misinformation is abundant. They offer clues for non-mathematicians on how to detect fraudulent and misleading “information,” such as checking sources, looking for logical coherence and testing statistical relevance. The same techniques that require careful scrutiny apply to detecting fake videos.

Their college course has snagged the attention of at least 70 universities that have asked to borrow course materials. Bergstrom, who is a computational biologist, and West, a former graduate student of Bergstrom’s, are working on a public version of the course. “We wanted to show our students that you don’t need a master’s degree in statistics or computer science to call bullshit,” Bergstrom told The Washington Post.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Research indicates the group most likely to be fooled by and share fake news are older adults over 65 who align as political conservatives. 

Bergstrom and West honed their skills of spotting misinformation by reading professional papers and sniffing out statistical flaws and illogic. They realized misinformation – especially when propelled by social media echo chambers, created with artificial intelligence and carried on websites dedicated to conspiracy theories – is a far larger problem. Careless academic research is one thing; intentional efforts to mislead to sell products, push a political candidate or defame someone by deception is quite another.

They aren’t the first crusaders against bullshit, noted Post science writer Ben Guarino. “Journalist Darrell Huff wrote ‘How to Lie With Statistics in 1954. Astronomer Carl Sagan published “The Demon-Haunted World” in 1995, in which he offered to readers a ‘baloney detection kit.’”

In his story, Guarino includes a practical example of how an anti-BS examination works and the results it can produce. A Bates College student challenged claims that Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city with a high percentage of Somali refugees, was “dangerous.”

Using crime statistics provided by Lewiston police, the student generated graphs showing that Lewiston’s crime rate between 1985 and 2017 had actually declined. More than 20 other cities in Maine, she showed, had higher crime rates.

Her findings, which she printed on fliers that were distributed, surprised many in Lewiston, a town that saw its mayor resign after his racists text messages were leaked. Local police asked for a copy of the flier, recognizing a lower crime rate was an unacknowledged compliment for their work.

West called it a “thoughtful correction,” but also an instructive guide on how to combat misinformation, whether intentional, inadvertent, malicious or simply sloppy.