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How to call B.S. on Big Data: A practical guide

While data can be used to tell remarkably deep and memorable stories, Bergstrom told me, its apparent sophistication and precision can effectively disguise a great deal of bullshit.

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Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you,” the Oxford philosophy professor John Alexander Smith told his students, in 1914, “save only this: if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot.” Smith might be pleased to know that this week, at the University of Washington, in Seattle, some hundred and fifty students will complete “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data,” a course less profanely and more prosaically known as INFO 198/BIOL 106B. Taught by Jevin West, an information scientist, and Carl Bergstrom, a biologist, it created something of an online sensation when its syllabus went up, in January, and when registration opened it filled to capacity in less than a minute.

The results of our most recent Presidential election notwithstanding, West and Bergstrom maintain that humans are pretty good at detecting verbal bullshit. Members of the species have, after all, been talking rot for millennia, and its warning signs are well known. Bullshit expressed as data, on the other hand, is relatively new outside scientific circles. Multivariate graphs didn’t begin to appear in the popular press until the nineteen-eighties, and only in the past decade, as smartphones and other information-gathering devices have accelerated the accumulation of Big Data, have complex visualizations been routinely presented to the general public. While data can be used to tell remarkably deep and memorable stories, Bergstrom told me, its apparent sophistication and precision can effectively disguise a great deal of bullshit.

Bergstrom believes that calling bullshit on data, big or otherwise, doesn’t require a statistics degree—only common sense and a few habits of mind. “You don’t have to understand all the gears inside a black box in order to evaluate what you’re being told,” he said. For those who were unable to enroll in INFO 198/BIOL 106B this spring, here is some of his and West’s advice:

• Recognize that bullshitters are different from liars, and be alert for both. To paraphrase the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the liar knows the truth and leads others away from it; the bullshitter either doesn’t know the truth or doesn’t care about it, and is most interested in showing off his or her advantages.

• Upon encountering a piece of information, in any form, ask, “Who is telling me this? How does he or she know it? What is he or she trying to sell me?” (Journalists have their own versions of these questions.) If you’d ask it at a car dealership, West suggested to the students, you should ask it online, too.

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