by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West
“Myths are most difficult to debunk when they are interwoven with a person’s worldview and sense of cultural identity.”
In the information age, we enjoy unprecedented access to knowledge. However, the deluge is difficult to sift, and there is more fake news, propaganda, and disinformation than ever before. All of this requires time and energy to sort through, and many people feel as if they do not have the necessary skills to perform such an assessment. Calling Bullshit offers a toolkit for spotting misinformation and disinformation, as well as suggestions for how to approach the actual act of calling bullshit when someone has shared questionable data. It also provides readers some suggestions for guarding against their own confirmation biases or desire to be right. Based on their course of the same name taught at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West lay out a toolbox for skeptics in the information age.
Calling Bullshit includes the type of skills that are taught to librarians, journalists, and scientists, all professions where assessing the accuracy of information is paramount. However, it also aims to teach readers strategies for spotting misinformation and disinformation that don’t rely on expertise in any particular field. For example, you don’t need to be a scientist to check the axes of a graph to make sure they haven’t been inappropriately foreshortened, or that the intervals are even. Nor do you need to be a computer programmer to consider the quality of that data that goes into the black box algorithm. If garbage goes in, garbage will inevitably come out, regardless of what happens in between. As the authors put it, “there’s no magical algorithm that can spin flax into gold. You can’t compensate for bad data. If someone tells you otherwise, they are bullshitting.”
The authors are specifically interested in the type of claims that cloak themselves in math, science, or other quantitative evidence as a means of trying to appear more valid than they actually are. This strategy is often effective because people are less likely to question quantitative evidence, often because they do not feel competent to evaluate it. However, there are a variety of methodological questions from sampling method to data presentation that anyone can ask of a study, without being an expert in that field. Each is illustrated with a variety of clear examples that help teach readers what to watch out for, particularly crucial for examining information graphics.
When it comes to sharing misinformation, Bergstrom and West argue that “participating in social media is only secondarily about sharing new information; it is primarily about maintaining and reinforcing common bonds.” This goes a long way towards explaining why people are often not terribly concerned with the exact truth of their postings, as well as why people share articles they haven’t read. If the headline conveys the right emotional valence and social signals—what the authors call “tribal epistemologies”—that may be all that is necessary for them to hit share, cementing their loyalty to the group. It also explains why arguing with these posts can be so fraught and fruitless; beliefs that are tied up in people’s identities are much harder to refute because persuading them requires not just debunking the incorrect information, but also contending with the emotional ties they have to what it signals.
While Bergstrom and West laud the merits of science as a method of investigation, the book also includes an important chapter on the limitations of science, and the ways in which it can itself be subject to bullshit through human foibles. Science is a system that tends towards self-correction by its very nature, but mistakes can and will be made along the way. This includes an overview of both misreporting on science by the press, and a dive into some of the ways that science can be misused, from p-hacking to publication bias. This is particularly useful for thinking about studies you read about in the news, where correlation and causation may have been conflated, or other important factors gone underreported.
To quote Jonathan Swift, “Falsehoods fly and truth comes limping after it.” Creating misinformation is easy; debunking it is a much more difficult task. Calling Bullshit offers an interesting look at some of the reasons why that might be the case, as well as the tools for spotting the most common types of misinformation, accompanied by illustrative examples.
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