Calling Bullshit 101: The (real) college course the world needs now

March 29, 2017 Originally published on SFGate

It’s come to this. And not a moment too soon.

Calling Bullsh*t in the Age of Big Data is indeed the awesome, pitch-perfect name of a new and uniquely urgent seminar soon to be taught at the U of Washington, and it’s all about, well, just that: how to spot BS in all modern forms: fake news, statistical nonsense, political misdirection, scientific collusion and diabolical myth-making in the modern socio-political miasma, and beyond.

Want to take the class? Join the world.

I mean, who wouldn’t? Every age, gender, demographic, politician, priest and climate-denying Neanderthal (hi, Scott Pruitt) could certainly use some better understanding of how we’re being manipulated, tracked and lied to and, by the way, please look at that ad on the side of your browser right now – why, it’s an ad for the same pair of shoes you happened to glance at in the mall three days ago. The hell…?

Yes, it’s a real seminar. It’s from two professors, Carl Bergstrom and Devin West (Biology and Information School, respectively). And yes, the marvelous course syllabus, as you would expect, quickly went viral. Because bullsh*t.

After all, it’s everywhere; flooding the body politic, swamping social media, impressing you in a snooty TED talk (what the profs call “upscale bullsh*t”), gushing forth from the bloviated flesh of the president himself in a nonstop fire hose of reeking Twitter spew.

Which is to say: The bullsh*t? It’s downright epidemic.

Would that it were this easy to spot

Do you think the seminar sounds sort of obvious, like it should be about an hour long and consist mainly of memorizing the names of a few dozen truly legit, credible news sources, a few hundred quality reporters and the handful of media companies/social-media juggernauts that are not savagely engineering your every twitch and swoon?

Or maybe you think such a seminar should merely teach to the naïve plebes of Generation Emoji what is already an obvious response for any attuned human with a functioning soul: the instant smackdown of anything and everything vomited forth from Fox News, Breitbart, Trump, InfoWars and the myriad sociopathic trolls who create and follow them?

Ah, would that life were so simple. Or that bulls*hit were that easy to spot, deflect, remedy.

Thing is, modern BS has become, let’s just say, extremely complicated. Nefarious. Sinister and shrewd and enormously destructive. As Bergstrom and West describe it in their terrific FAQ for the course:

Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullshit — and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup’s big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?

Translation: The fake news epidemic that helped the Orange Goblin steal the election? Just the tip of the BS iceberg, really, given everything from elaborate Russian hacking, WikiLeaks conniving, scripted “reality” TV, the invention of “advertorials,” cherry-picked scientific studies, snake-oil health scams, corporate-funded “research,” foreign con artists dangling counterfeit documents in front of desperate reporters hoping to dethrone the Orange Goblin, and on and on – all making far too much of modern life increasingly impossible to differentiate from the one thing so many claim to seek, but so few know how to find: authentic truth.

But herein lies the rub: Because if there’s anything wrong with such an otherwise fantastic seminar, it’s knowing where, exactly, to draw the line. Big Data, in the grand scheme, is but a fragment of history’s epic BS apparatus (Bergstrom and West say they hope to make their seminar into a full-length course of study in the fall).

Put another way: It’s relatively easy to point out how the Googles, Amazons, Facebooks, Apples, Ubers, Pfizers, RJ Reynolds, NRAs of the world are massive bullsh*t generators. But BS, of course, has been around much longer than any of those cute whippersnappers, in forms perhaps even more destructive, personally humiliating, socially caustic than anything Big Data can conjure.

From organized religion to centuries of macho military posturing, from pseudo-cowboy gun fetishism to bogus Iraq wars, from capitalism itself to the made-up existence of a cruel and vindictive God, it’s easy to argue that a rank and sticky bedrock of bullsh*t lies in the very foundation of modern human existence.

Worse still? Most people – hell, most world societies – couldn’t survive without it.

All of which is to say: As helpful as Bergstrom and West’s seminar is, to call bullsh*t on the nefarious logistics of the modern, data-driven world is a slippery slope indeed – and not just in terms of developing critical thinking – insofar as it dances right up to the divine edge of the larger, far more gloriously devastating truth of life.

Don’t you already know? Of course, you do: It’s all bullsh*t.

It’s the truth of all truths: As far as the desperate human ego goes, it’s all phantasm, delusion, mental storytelling, educated guessing, happy abstract nonsense in the name of power, knowledge, temporary stability and, of course, a desperate – and futile – attempt to avoid death.

As the Buddha said: Good luck with that.

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Mark Morford

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