The University of Washington’s answer to concerns about speech and thought in America is a new course, whose announcement in January went viral. Naturally so, considering the name that professors Jevin West (Information School) and Carl Bergstrom (Biology) bestowed on their intended offering: “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.” Of course, this being the 21st century, the pair rendered “BS” in unscrubbed, non-caponized form.
The course’s syllabus declares: “Our world is saturated with bulls**t. Learn to detect and defuse it.” The target: “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.”
How about that? Truth, logical coherence: historic ideals of the academic enterprise, less often held aloft nowadays than twisted like taffy to service political needs. At, say, the University of Washington, whose president, Ana Mari Cauce, denounced the idea of hosting “repulsive” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos lest he hinder the “civil, respectful” dialogue Washington works to foster. And where 4640 students signed a petition urging this “renown [sic] bigot and misogynist” be prevented from speaking at all. Not to mention where, in the spirit of sportsmanship, Huskies 6’9” forward Malik Dim recently slapped a couple of Colorado University students he accused of heckling him.
Professors West and Bergstrom deny that theirs is a “course on political bulls**t. Instead, we will focus on bulls**t that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse,” ablaze with “big data and fancy algorithms.” Clinical trials as “reported in the New England Journal or JAMA” will come under scrutiny as possible press releases “for some big pharma company.” Hence the course’s aim: “to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.”
It’s hard to object to that, save for a cavil about the course’s allegedly non-political nature. Everything is politics these days, politics being the science of, among other things, achieving and maintaining power, and “truth” being mainly a slogan useful for hurling at people who would dare to put Milo Yiannopoulos on stage and hand him a mike.
You can’t ever tell where the search for truth will end, a reality that universities used to celebrate in behalf of their students and faculty: maybe not with perfect consistency but certainly with more of it that presently is communicated to students who communicate their own ideas of what’s right by slapping fans of a rival team and trying to muzzle the exponents of unorthodox views.
Professors West and Bergstrom, if they’re as serious about “truth and logical coherence” as they say they are, have their work cut out for them. And that’s no BS.