Newswise — The very name of the class, when proposed, seemed to fire imaginations nationwide and beyond. Now with the beginning of spring quarter, the University of Washington Information School's new course "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" is getting started.
The class was conceived and is taught by iSchool assistant professor Jevin West with biology professor Carl Bergstrom. It's a one-credit course offered through the iSchool as INFO 198 but listed also in the Biology Department, as BIOL 106B. The class will meet on Wednesday afternoons, with its first session on March 29.
When registration opened, the class reached its 160-student ceiling within one minute, like a rock concert selling out.
Each session will take up a different topic related to, well, BS. As the online syllabus shows, West and Bergstrom will start with definitions and "spotting BS," followed by a session on "the natural ecology of BS." Subsequent topics include causality, statistical traps, big data, publication bias and predatory publishing, fake news, and the ethics of calling and refuting BS.
In a lengthy online FAQ, the instructors say the class is not about any one party or politician — despite being "particularly timely today" — and will not seek to comment on the current political situation in the country or the world.
"This class is about how to spot bullshit and how to call it. It's not about cataloguing all the bullshit out there, telling students what we think is bullshit in contemporary science and society, or calling bullshit on the most egregious cases," said Bergstrom.
Examples to be used in class, he said, are those "that serve a pedagogical purpose" by showing ways BS is spread and demonstrating effective ways to refute it. Basically, they say, the course is about how numbers, statistics, data visualization models and algorithms are increasingly used for propagating BS, and how people can detect and it and avoid being taken in.
West and Bergstrom plan to hold a three-credit version of the class in fall quarter.
And though the class is for UW students, Bergstrom and West plan to edit their lectures into video clips and make them publicly available on the UW's YouTube channel.
"We don’t care whether our students agree with our world views," Bergstrom said, "but we do want them to have the skills to see through nonsense, form well-founded beliefs based on evidence and make their best arguments for those beliefs."
West added, "Now, we need to make sure it's as fun as a rock concert."