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Thursday, February 22, 2024

'Calling Bullshit' Skewers the World's BS-Merchants

Back in 1990, George Carlin proposed a taxonomy for three kinds of bothersome people: those who are (1) “fucking stupid,” (2) “full of shit,” or (3) “fucking nuts.” Then he explained how to identify each. “Full of shit” people, he said, were averse to telling the truth but weren’t necessarily unintelligent. Bullshit purveyors might be manipulative or provocative or just plain liars, but they weren’t crazy or stupid.

In 2020, Carlin’s categorization is no longer sufficient. The act of being “full of shit” and producing bullshit has since undergone a Cambrian explosion. Today’s bullshit is more diverse, with many more faces, personalities, and types of camouflage. Carlin’s world was also waist deep in political liars, but it didn’t have automated bots propagating bullshit that can spread to the minds of billions (interpreted as fact) within minutes. In the face of robo-bullshit, Carlin’s algorithm looks like retro-tech. “Full of shit” people and nonpeople are now everywhere—some are both crazy and stupid—and their lies and deceit are unraveling the social order.

While the world has fought back with anti-bullshit instruments like Snopes and the growth of the fact-checking industry, there is a paucity of texts that explain exactly how bullshit works today. Providing a nuanced perspective on what we’re up against, and teaching us to stand up to a world now full of it, are the goals of Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West’s Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. I shit you not: They pull it off in a modern classic that is troubling in some places, sobering in others, and enlightening from beginning to end.

The book draws on several influences, including intellectual cross-examinations of bullshit from philosophers like G. A. Cohen and Harry Frankfurt (whose 1986 essay “On Bullshit” gave birth to bullshit studies). More directly, Calling Bullshit is a descendant of a popular undergraduate course of the same name that Bergstrom and West have taught at the University of Washington since 2017.

The book’s opening chapters focus on big ideas: bullshit’s definitions, faces, manifestations, and origins. The authors then draw lessons straight from the Calling Bullshit course, providing a reasonably technical survey of statistical laziness, ignorance, and malfeasance. Here it moves through topics such as false causality, selection bias, and the many pitfalls of the big data and artificial intelligence movements. Like Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction and Safiya Noble in Algorithms of Oppression, Bergstrom and West caution that AI often “creates unreasonable expectations, drives irresponsible research in both industry and academia, and threatens to extinguish any hope of personal privacy, and motivates misdirected policy.” The book ends with lessons and heuristics for fighting bullshit in the world.


West is an expert on the spread of misinformation and the “science of science”—a new field that examines the factors that drive knowledge production and consumption. Bergstrom has worn many hats: a highly regarded mathematical biologist, evolutionary theorist, and information scientist, and now one of the public’s preeminent advocates for science during the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors bring their full selves to Calling Bullshit, writing in several voices. Sometimes the reader is in class, listening to their favorite teacher use pop culture analogies to make statistics more digestible. Other times, it feels like banter at a college town dive bar, the authors half-a-pitcher deep: still precise, but loose enough to let you know that they’re really, really tired of the bullshit, and they think you should be too.

What results is a rare popular statistics book that is neither pedantic nor condescending. Unlike Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s series of chest-thumpers that tell the reader why everyone else is stupid and wrong (Fooled By Randomness, for example), Bergstrom and West leave the reader feeling a very particular kind of smarter: the empowered kind.

They skewer bullshit with statistical and rhetorical precision, and often poetically. In the process, they transfigure the word bullshit from a gimmick to a useful term for specific problems in modern society (most notably, the role of data in perpetuating lies and half-truths). And the act of “calling bullshit” is artfully defined: “a performative utterance in which one repudiates something objectionable.”

Among the many terms they coin, “mathiness” may be my favorite, because it cuts so deep. The word describes “formulas and expressions that may look and feel like math—even as they disregard the logical coherence and formal rigor of actual mathematics.” Mathiness propagates bullshit by exploiting a public insecurity: Because so few people understand advanced mathematics, we often (erroneously) equate rigor with the use of equations.

As a computational biologist, this struck a nerve. After reading this, I might argue that one of my research interests, population genetics—a subfield that often uses math to describe genetic variation in populations of living things—has roots and tendencies that are somewhat guilty of “mathiness.” Calling Bullshit cajoled me to call bullshit on my own career field.

To be clear, much of modern population genetics does embody the formal rigor of mathematics. And its practitioners have mostly good intentions for using math to describe genetic changes in populations (often successfully). But some of the theories advanced are no more useful than verbal analogies, and too often the math serves to make the analogies appear more scrupulous and “real.”

This becomes a major problem when these analogies, infested with “mathiness,” are applied towards nefarious ends. Eugenics, for example, led to the forced sterilization of thousands of women on the basis of “science” that was racist, classist, and inaccurate. The “mathiness” at work in eugenics explained why the reproduction of certain human populations was bad for our species. Now we know it was all just bigoted bullshit masquerading as mathematical rigor.

“Mathiness” constitutes only one section of a single chapter on the misuse of numbers to perpetuate bullshit. The prescience of Bergstrom and West’s methods now haunts us every day in the data chicanery underlying the Covid-19 catastrophe in the United States.

Examples of the misuse of numbers are easy to locate in the Covid-19 nonsense ecosystem. One area—the messaging around Covid-19 testing—has been so full of bullshit that many lessons in the book could have been written with this as the sole example.

On August 1, the White House (again) trotted out the bullshit argument that the United States’ explosively high Covid-19 numbers were the product of an increase in testing (bullshit causality, chapter 4), and not rushed reopenings and infection rates that are far worse than Europe’s.

The truth is, as of August 1, the United States’ rate of positive tests is still higher than every single European country. Higher positive test rates reflect a scenario where the sickest individuals, who seek medical attention, are tested disproportionately (selection bias, chapter 6). This suggests a reality that is the opposite of that put forward by the White House’s bullshit: The United States is almost certainly not casting a wide enough net in testing relative to its European counterparts. A low positive testing rate would yield confidence that we are capturing the full shape of the United States’ pandemic debacle.

The dark side of this bullshit argument—that the US is testing widely and sufficiently enough—is that it specifically undermines the incentive to increase testing capacity. More testing would increase the total number of positives, which some view as politically unfriendly. But testing widely is the key to controlling the spread of disease and saving lives.

Calling Bullshit rarely discusses examples as grim as eugenics or Covid-19, but it offers ideas that are relevant to these ordeals. The book strives to be diverse and neutral in its test cases, maybe to avoid accusations of being too political. For the most part, they borrow a sleight-of-hand from their classroom: The teachers give you some tools for how to solve problems. Applying them is up to the student.

Whenever we are able to peruse bookstores again, in what aisle might we find Calling Bullshit? It’s a “science book,” for sure, but not entirely unlike the run of popular Freakonomics-style works that are often successful in telling the reader (for better or worse) how dumb and confused we really are. Calling Bullshit explains everyday quirks like 2005’s Blink does, but it both demands and offers more than anything in the Gladwellian tradition. Where Gladwell works best in airport layovers, Calling Bullshit works anywhere, for anyone: the academic, the citizen-scientist, citizen-skeptic, and citizen-curious.

Calling Bullshit achieves what most ominous science books rarely even attempt: It leaves the reader with practical tools. For Bergstrom and West, teaching us about the origin, scope, and consequences of bullshit isn’t enough. They equip the reader with an updated, Bluetooth-enabled “Carlin algorithm” for more than the annoying people we encounter. Calling Bullshit is a straight-talking survival guide to the mean streets of a dying democracy and a global pandemic, and it emboldens you to actually do something about it.

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