BOOK REVIEW | Calling Bullshit

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The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World

By Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West


The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought.

Start-up culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order.

The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

What is bullshit?

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim is to help readers navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.



What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

  • Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.
  • Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse.

Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but 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.

Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullshit, and if so, can you explain why?



Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some start-up’s big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?

About the authors

Carl Bergstrom is a professor of biology at the University of Washington. He studies how information flows through the world, from how animals communicate with one another to how social media is changing our society.

Jevin West is an Associate Professor in the Information School at the University of Washington and the Director of the Centre for an Informed Public. He studies how technology and data both help and hinder science and democratic discourse.


  • PUBLISHER | Penguin Random House SA |
  • ISBN | 9780241438107 |
  • Recommended Retail Price | R395.00 |
  • Classification | Tertiary Education, Communication Studies, Research |

 



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