The fight back against lies, distortions half- truths and new alternative facts

Two US college professors, at the University of Washington in Seattle, Carl Bergstrom ,a member of the Department of Biology, and Jevin West, a member of the Information School, have set up a college course entitled “Calling Bullshit”.   They will teach the course at the University of Washington during  the Spring Quarter 2017. It will be structured as a one credit lecture-style seminar. Their intention is to expand the class to three or four ‘credits’ in subsequent years. ‘In the meantime,’ they say,’ connoisseurs of bullshit may enjoy the course syllabus, readings, tools, and case studies that we have developed.’

As they explain on their Home Page, ‘we feel that the world has become over-saturated with bullshit and we’re sick of it. However modest, this course is our attempt to fight back. We have a civic motivation as well. It’s not a matter of left- or right-wing ideology; both have proven themselves facile at creating and spreading bullshit. Rather (and at the risk of grandiose language) adequate bullshit detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy. Democracy has always relied on a critically-thinking electorate, but never has this been more important than in the current age of false news and international interference in the electoral process via propaganda disseminated over social media. In a December 2016 editorial in The New York Times about how America needs to respond to Russian “information warfare”, Mark Galeotti summarized:

“Instead of trying to combat each leak directly, the United States government should teach the public to tell when they are being manipulated. Via schools and nongovernmental organizations and public service campaigns, Americans should be taught the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, from how to fact-check news articles to how pictures can lie. “The Academics say they could not agree more.’

They subscribe to the following definition of bullshit:

‘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.’

They continue:

‘It’s an open question whether the term bullshit also refers to false claims that arise from innocent mistakes. Whether or not that usage is appropriate, we feel that the verb phrase calling bullshit definitely applies to falsehoods irrespective of the intentions of the author or speaker. Some of the examples treated in our case studies fall into this domain. Even if not bullshit sensu stricto, we can nonetheless call bullshit on them.’

‘In this course, we focus on bullshit as it often appears in the natural and social sciences: in the form of misleading models and data that drive erroneous conclusions’.

It  has been  said that a lie gets half way around the world before the truth has even got its  boots on. Social media accelerates this process .It gives instant,and wider currency to the views of  a motley  crew of charlatans, fraudsters, con men , conspiracy theorists  bigots  psychopaths,  and demagogues, to name a few.  In this Echo Chamber views, however extreme , and plain  wrong ( in other words not backed by  objective  evidence),  attract a spurious credibility simply by being digitally published ,’liked’  and ‘shared’ .  So minority  views can begin to look mainstream.  And, frankly ,with so many sources of information and little transparency about the sources, or motivation of those disseminating information, it is hard,  and something of a hassle,  to check their veracity. And, where is the help?

It is also the case that the Russians,  with not a  a huge amount of subtlety,  have cottoned on to the idea that  if you control information sources,  and hack around  a bit,  you can say pretty much what you like and a significant minority  will believe it, without the willingness or ability to fact check.  Its all part of a cunning plan to  create a perception of a strong , ‘dont mess with us’ Russia, and  for it to position itself to  compete on  a more equitable basis with the USA (and China)and  to woo back its lost sheep in what it regards as its sphere of influence, in Eastern Europe . But one must not  just blame Putin.

The new Trump Presidency  has managed to introduce the Orwellian construct of ‘alternative facts’ . In short, lies. But lies that come from the Office of the Presidency.

So, helping people to be made more aware of how to spot the objective truth  and ‘ fact check’  seems to be a matter that  deserves  rather more attention than it is  currently  getting.


For all those ‘snowflake’ students, campaigners ‘liberal’ academics and Facebookers seeking safe spaces, no platforming, and other restrictions on free thinking and free speech take a long hard look at  This,  from a ‘liberal’ philosopher who understood and articulated liberal values:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” JS Mill On Liberty