A FEW YEARS ago, Jevin West told fellow University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom that he was starting a new course on big data. “Oh yeah,” Bergstrom joked, “I’m starting a course called ‘Calling bullshit on big data.’”
The pair worked together to develop a course, Calling Bullshit, broadening the scope to offer tips on how to detect and disarm spurious appeals to data and science in anything from TED talks to medical papers. The syllabus went viral, and dozens of universities around the world now draw on the UW material. Bergstrom and West reoriented their careers around bullshit detection, wrote a forthcoming book, and in December established a new Center for an Informed Public.
A month later, the novel coronavirus arrived. The professors quickly realized it would be their toughest assignment yet in forensic scatology. The pandemic has added Miracle-Gro to what Bergstrom and West’s course calls the “natural ecology of bullshit.” Human nature and society—particularly online—offer psychological and monetary rewards for attracting attention, regardless of whether information is accurate. That the president of the United States has repeatedly spread untruths about the coronavirus and the government’s response aggravates the situation.