Welcome to Butte Public Library’s new “Calling Bullshit” class!1
What, exactly, is bullshit? American philosopher Henry Frankfurt first coined the term in 1985, and academics have debated the question ever since. For the purposes of this class,
Bullshit is 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.
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 other people 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 useful and broadly applicable.
Being critical and using critical thinking are not the same thing. You can disagree with opinions, but no personal attacks (a common logical fallacy). You can and should criticize issues we are discussing, based on the tools learned in the class.
View news through an information literacy lens. This is not a public policy class, so we don’t need to debate the pros and cons of a specific policy or proposal. We want to understand how stories, policies, and proposals are communicated. Through the information literacy tools covered, we want to learn what and why something works or doesn’t work.
Name the medium and specify the source. Is it the news media? Or social media? TV? Is it a news story or op-ed column?
Schedule and readings
Each of the topics will explore one specific facet of bullshit. For each week, a set of readings are assigned. Although the Calling Bullshit Syllabus can be used entirely online, it may also be printed for your records.
Week 1: Introduction to Bullshit
Week 2: Spotting Bullshit
Week 3: Logical Fallacies
Week 4: Statistical Traps
Week 5: Visualizations
Week 6: Predatory publishing, scientific misconduct, and algorithms
Week 7: Fake News
Week 8: Refuting Bullshit
1. This class is loosely based on a one-credit University of Washington course of the same name created by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West. ↩