Calling Bullshit

I knew I was going to like Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World right from the opening paragraph:

“The world is awash in bullshit, and we’re drowning in it. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Silicon Valley startups elevate bullshit to high art. Colleges and universities reward bullshit over analytic thought. The majority of administrative activity seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit … However modest, this book is our attempt to fight back.” [p. ix]

You had me at “the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.”

The authors, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West, are both profs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Bergstrom is a professor in the Department of Biology where he studies the spread of both epidemics and information. West is an associate professor at UW’s Information School and is director of its Center for an Informed Public. The book is based on a course the two of them taught at UW from 2017 to 2019 titled Calling Bullshit. Apparently, you can use the word “bullshit” in the official title of a university course. You can find the course syllabus, recorded lectures and other course material at callingbullshit.org.

Cover of Calling Bullshit

Calling Bullshit
Carl T. Bergstrom & Jevin D. West
Random House, New York, 2020

The book is a toolkit for detecting and refuting bullshit. Because the authors are scientists, they focus mainly on quantitative bullshit. So you won’t find much on debunking conspiracy theories or dissecting politicians’ nonsensical sound bites.

But before we go any further, what exactly is bullshit?  Bergstrom and West give this definition:

“Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade or impress an audience by distracting, overwhelming, or intimidating them with a blatant disregard for truth, logical coherence, or what information is actually being conveyed.”  [p. 40]

How is that different from a lie? Well, for the authors it seems to come down to a difference in motives. A lie, they say, is intended to deliberately mislead, to draw us away from the truth, while the purpose of bullshit is to impress or persuade us. That’s why bullshit is often used to conceal or distract us from a lie.

In other words, a lie is the result of deliberate malice. Bullshit often comes from incompetence, carelessness, or even just mistakes.

This is too subtle a distinction for me. I find it hard enough to determine the validity of some piece of information let alone discern the motives of the person conveying it. Fortunately, I don’t think it really matters in terms of the usefulness of the rest of the book.   

Bergstrom and West point out that while technology has put the world’s information at our fingertips, it has actually made the bullshit problem worse. That’s because technology, from Gutenberg’s printing press to the internet, has democratized the publication of information, and of bullshit. Social media further exacerbates the problem, they say, because the economic incentives are more aligned with generating clicks than with verifying truth.

The bulk of the book is devoted to examining various forms of bullshit and giving us techniques for detecting them. One chapter looks at the difference between correlation and causation. They’re not the same. The authors urge us to be on the lookout for causal language. For example, if A happens before B, then B cannot cause A. But just because A happens before B, it does not mean that A causes B.  A temporal relationship is not necessarily causal. They also caution us to be on the lookout for “spurious correlations”, phenomena that appear to be related but really are not. This is especially problematic in today’s era of big data where if you have a big enough dataset you can find just about anything in it. Here’s one of my favorites:

Example of a spurious correlation between the per capita consumption of cheese in the US and the number of people who died by becoming tangled n their bedsheets.
Source: http://tylervigen.com/view_correlation?id=7

Another chapter looks at the appalling ways that newspapers, magazines and web sites publish misleading charts and diagrams. Some of the examples would be funny if they weren’t so deceptive.

I took away three main principles from the book.

  • If something is too good or bad to be true, it probably is. Look deeper, ask questions, triangulate with other sources that can confirm or disconfirm the claims.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If someone is making a claim about the fantastic curative powers of a particular herbal supplement, they need to provide strong evidence to back up such a claim. An extraordinary claim supported by weak or circumstantial evidence is highly suspect.
  • We don’t need to look inside the black box. A lot of bullshit originates from research studies or algorithms like machine learning that few of us deeply understand. Bergstrom and West call them “black boxes.” We don’t need to know what happens inside them in order to ask critical questions. They show how asking questions about the inputs and the outputs is still a very effective way to detect bullshit. Remember: garbage in, garbage out.

In the final chapter of Calling Bullshit, Bergstrom and West argue that we, as consumers and as citizens, have important responsibilities when it comes to dealing with bullshit.

First, we shouldn’t spread any of it ourselves.  They say, “think more, share less.” Most of us understand that we shouldn’t litter our roads and parks with trash. The same goes for our behavior online.

“Online, we need to stop throwing our garbage out the car window and driving away into the anonymous night.” [p. 263]

Secondly, we have an obligation to call bullshit when we see it. Many of us may not feel comfortable calling out friends or family members, especially in public. The authors have some useful suggestions for how to do this. But they insist it’s a moral imperative.

Unsolicited Feedback

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have done a great public service by writing this book. In that sense, Calling Bullshit forms a nice complement to Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed here.

I think the final two chapters that summarize the methods for spotting bullshit and for refuting it are probably the most important in the book.

I will say that I skimmed through parts of some of the middle chapters where they got into details about, for example, selection bias, or how academic publishing works. Some of this I already knew, and some of it I just didn’t find all that interesting.

The problem of bullshit seems daunting and overwhelming. There’s just so much of it! And as the authors point out, it’s way easier to create and spread bullshit than it is to refute it. Just look at the lasting damage caused by Andrew Wakefield’s much-debunked research on the supposed relationship between vaccines and autism.

How on Earth are we, members of the public, supposed to sort through all this? And who has the time?

We can’t fight all of it all the time. But the methods described in Calling Bullshit can help us develop the mental habits and critical thinking skills so we’re better equipped to detect it and to call it out.

As Bergstrom and West say in concluding their book,

“We all have to be a little more vigilant, a. little more thoughtful, a little more careful when sharing information – and every once in a while, we need to call bullshit when we see it.” [p. 386]

Thanks for reading.

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