There are lots of reasons to like Bergstrom and West’s book Calling Bullshit. There is just so much BS available to anyone who wants to consume it. This can pose a threat to democracy if people choose their leaders based upon things that just aren’t true. While I am not against attempts to improve the quality of information available it is hard to imagine that perfect information will rise to dominate the public discourse. Beyond the practical there are real issues about who does the policing to get rid of nonsense. These issues need more work but we are never likely to come to a universally accepted perfect conclusion. As such we need to get better at spotting and rejecting nonsense ourselves. Calling BS is a skill we all need.
BS Is Distinct From Lying
The authors define BS as distinct from lying. Lying is telling an untruth in the hope you will be believed. On the other hand, whether BS is true or not doesn’t seem like an important question at least compared to the more important questions around whether anyone will retweet what you say.
Along with interesting anecdotes the book contains a number of ways to spot nonsense, to learn the art of calling BS. These are reasonable. For example, the practical advice that when confronted by a number you do a ballpark reasonableness test. Even if you don’t know the exact numbers you can try and see if the numbers could be true. Perhaps compare the size of the claim to the size of the population.
We Accept Nonsense When It Chimes With Our Thoughts
The authors make the important point that sometimes nonsense gets through our detectors because it chimes with something we believe. They share an anecdote about a story on how much plastic we throw away which gave a ridiculously large number. It wasn’t questioned like it should have been because people know they throw away too much plastic. (Just not anything like as much as was claimed).
Tackling big data they highlight that nonsense is still nonsense despite being spewed out by an algorithm. They note the principle of “Algorithmic accountability … that firms or agencies using algorithms to make decision are still responsible for those decisions”. (Bergstrom and West, 2020, page 200). This is important — as firms delegate actions to AI we still need to know that someone is responsible for any negative impacts.
I enjoyed Bergstrom and West’s book, I’m sure you would too.
Read: Carl T. Bergstrom, and Jevin D. West. Calling bullshit: the art of skepticism in a data-driven world. Random House, 2020.