There’s nothing new about it. Usually, it’s cloaked in words that are designed to create the opposite effect, to make it seem smart, or insider-ish, There’s nothing new about this, either. Remember Pacific Bell’s Kroning, for example, that produced only one thing of value.*
What we need is an anti-bullshit movement. It would be made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language. It would question management twaddle in government, in popular culture, in the private sector, in education and in our private lives.
The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak. It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit.
What may distinguish this call to arms is that it calls bullshit what it is, bullshit. But then, to say “don’t bullshit” is about as useful as saying “don’t rape.” Duh, but it fails to inform anyone what it means. Some bullshit is easily identified, such as hip jargon.
These days, Krone’s gobbledygook seems relatively benign compared to much of the vacuous language circulating in the emails and meeting rooms of corporations, government agencies and NGOs. Words like “intentionality” sound quite sensible when compared to “ideation”, “imagineering”, and “inboxing” – the sort of management-speak used to talk about everything from educating children to running nuclear power plants.
Wrap it up in cool-sounding words and even the most empty notions sound cutting edge. For the drones, the ability to parrot such words does wonders to make them not seem anywhere near as intellectually bankrupt and full of bullshit as they are. Many a “thought leader” can win over a tribe this way.
Left to their own devices, people not only fail to recognize bullshit, but embrace bullshit. More serious efforts will be required to overcome this adoration of pseudo-thought. Enter academia.
Data Reasoning for the Digital Age
Course: INFO 198 / BIOL 106B. University of Washington
To be offered: Autumn Quarter 2017
Credit: 3 credits, graded
Enrollment: 180 students
Instructors: Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West
Synopsis: Our world is saturated with bullshit. Learn to detect and defuse it.
While this falls under the heading of Logistics for now, how long before this is Ph.D. material?
Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:
- Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
- Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
- Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
- Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
- Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.
A key component, taught up front, is Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
As the syllabus makes clear, it’s not just the lack of understanding of logical fallacies, but the mesh of confirmation bias, dubious studies validated not by rigor but approval of the outcome, the reluctance to be that mean guy who calls bullshit on bullshit and the fine line between the ethical obligation to prevent bullshit and the desire not to be attacked by the bullshit crowd.
The ethics of calling bullshit. Where is the line between deserved criticism and targeted harassment? Is it, as one prominent scholar argued, “methodological terrorism” to call bullshit on a colleague’s analysis? What if you use social media instead of a peer-reviewed journal to do so? How about calling bullshit on a whole field that you know almost nothing about? Pubpeer. Principles for the ethical calling of bullshit. The Dunning-Kruger effect. Differences between being a hard-minded skeptic and being a domineering jerk.
Is this course perfect? Hardly. There is no assignment requiring the reading of SJ, or even its suggestion as a supplemental reading. That’s bullshit, but the course is still young and will require some honing, rather than kroning, as it’s fine tuned.
And there’s one further issue, buried within the notion of teaching people to recognize and refute bullshit.
Refuting bullshit. Refuting bullshit requires different approaches for different audiences. What works for a quantitatively-skilled professional scientist won’t always convince your casually racist uncle on facebook, and vice versa.
Is your uncle “casually racist” or is that complete bullshit?
*Proof that every cloud has a silver lining, and every silver lining has a cloud.
During this period, a young computer programmer at Pacific Bell was spending his spare time drawing a cartoon that mercilessly mocked the management-speak that had invaded his workplace. The cartoon featured a hapless office drone, his disaffected colleagues, his evil boss and an even more evil management consultant. It was a hit, and the comic strip was syndicated in newspapers across the world. The programmer’s name was Scott Adams, and the series he created was Dilbert.