In this post-truth world, the power of facts is much diminished. Whether it is the conspiracy theories of US president Trump, fake news, mendacious political campaigns in the UK or the filter bubbles we find ourselves trapped inside, it seems factual information is in retreat from public discourse.
Some educators are coming to the rescue. The University of Washington in Seattle is now offering students course credits for a new class titled Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data. Seriously!
The world is awash in b..t. We expect it in some spheres, but the hype surrounding Big Data has provided ample cover for b..t to infiltrate the sciences as well. Through readings and discussions, this course will develop the critical thinking skills for spotting and refuting b..t wherever it may occur.
Evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom and data scientist Jevin West describe their syllabus by way of a succinct mission statement: Our world is saturated with b..t. Learn to detect and defuse it.
A non-partisan effort, the pair explain that the course is neither a veiled critique of certain individuals nor a satirical offering. Adequate b..t detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy, they write on the course homepage.
If you’re a long way from being a Seattle student (either in kilometres or years), don’t despair. The syllabus and most materials are online and available to anyone who wishes to enrol.
Someone who doesn’t need additional training to detect b..t, either in big data or in big talk, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel 🙂