BS Detection 101 becomes actual University subject

Uni of Washington says the age of Big Data makes statistical literacy essential

Wagyu Bull

How could El Reg ignore this? – two University of Washington professors have assembled a course to teach students to identify bullshit.

Biology professor Carl Bergstrom and assistant professor at the university's Information School Jevin West have devised the “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data” course as their small contribution to moving manure out of scholarly discourse.

Alas, they're not addressing politics, where they write the practice of promulgating poo and manhandling manure reaches its apogee, but they're swinging the shovel at a cause equally worthy: “more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullshit are those that we will be addressing in the present course.”

Tugging strongly on The Register's heart-strings, they call out some of the world's richest known sources of bullshit: “the TED talk you watched last night … the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup's big data analytics”.

We almost weep with joy to see them ask “Can you tell when a clinical trial … is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?”

The syllabus will teach students how to spot the misuse of statistics, how visualisation can mislead audiences, the use and abuse of big data (with Weapons of Math Destruction as a supplementary reader, we note), publication bias in science, and the ethics of calling bullshit (the difference between “being a hard-minded skeptic and being a domineering jerk”).

If you're not a student at the University of Washington, take heart: once they've taught the single-credit course in the Spring 2017 quarter, they will post the lectures online. ®


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