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University offers course to help sniff out and refute 'bullshit'

Get the tools to show your "casually racist uncle ... why a claim is bullshit."
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Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Not only is fake news everywhere, but its purveyors call genuine news fake, making it doubly hard for the average person to know what's real and what's Inception. For example, President Donald Trump recently made up a terrorist attack in Sweden, and when the nation's former PM called bullshit, he said the refutation itself was "fake news." Luckily, there's now a course at the University of Washington, "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" that helps you find bad information and show others why it's bad.

The instructors, Professors Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom, jokingly write that "we will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful ... that you acquire during the course of your college education." They add that the intention is not to be political, as "both sides of the aisle have proven themselves facile at creating and spreading bullshit."

The intention, then, is to arm students (and the public if they want) with the tools to combat a scourge of misinformation that's aided and abetted by social media. The 160-seat class filled up within minutes of being posted, but it will be videotaped and possibly made "freely available" on the web, the listing says. The syllabus details all 12 lectures, with links to the (free) reading materials in case you want to audit the class in a serious way.

Some of the lectures include a study on why people ignore the "correlation is causation" dictum, "statistical traps and trickery," "predatory publishing" in science and the art of "refuting bullshit." In the latter class, you'll learn why "quantitatively skilled professional scientists won't always convince your casually racist uncle on Facebook."

Just reading a few of the listed books and articles would probably make us all better people. Examples include a chapter in Carl Sagen's 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World called "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection," a Guardian article about why Ted Talks are "a recipe for civilizational disaster" and Factcheck.org's How to spot fake news. Much of the course also deals with "big data" and statistics, and how, for instance, "data graphics can steer viewers toward misleading conclusions."

The course starts up in the spring semester at the University of Washington (March 27th) with classes each Wednesday. There's no word on where the public will be able to find the video lectures, but we'd expect them to eventually post the information on the course syllabus website.

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