OK, so here we are just a couple of weeks into the Trump administration and facing a barrage of misinformation, lies, distortions, and “alternative facts.” So much so that two professors at the University of Washington are mounting a new course on “Calling Bullshit” (see “The Fine Art of Sniffing Out Crappy Science”); legal experts are showing how a ban on people from seven countries is a deceptive, sleight-of-hand-way of instituting a Muslim Ban; and teachers of writing across the nation are struggling to help students distinguish between facts and lies, which is easier said than done given the power of manipulation and misrepresentation at work.
In an interview with Robert Manning after he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Ernest Hemingway said “Every man [and woman] should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside. It should also have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.” Today, every single citizen needs one, or more than one! Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, the University of Washington professors, offer a cogent definition of such crap, or what they term “bullshit”: “language, statistical figures, 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.” As this definition suggests, Bergstrom and West are particularly interested in the use of statistics and visual representation of data to misinform or confuse, in essence to say “look, here are the statistics, and we ran the latest machine-learning algorithm on it, and here’s a fancy data visualization” to put up a smokescreen. Such deception can certainly be delivered verbally, they say, but “more and more we see it done quantitatively with figures, data graphics, and with appeal to algorithms that generate results but which no one can understand.” Purposefully.
With the help of Edward Tufte, writing teachers have gotten considerably more sophisticated about analyzing the visual representation of data and helping students see that “big data” can often obscure rather than reveal valid claims and that there is more than a little truth in Mark Twain’s suggestion (which he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli) that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But today, we need to work harder than ever to help students read between the lines (or words or graphs) and to challenge “facts” that are presented without any evidence or proof to back them up. More specifically, we must provide students with opportunities to practice:
- Being skeptical—check the author, check the publisher, check the sources: how reliable are they?
- Looking for unstated assumptions behind claims—and questioning them.
- Distinguishing between facts, which have verifiable support, and claims, which may or may not be completely empty
- Learning to triangulate—never take single source as sufficient for belief
- Becoming fact checkers themselves. Of course, they can start this process by becoming familiar with non-partisan political fact checkers like Politifact, Factcheckers.org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, the Sunlight Foundation, and Snopes.com.
These sources can certainly help our students get started, but as Hemingway reminds us, we need to build our own “crap detectors” and keep them running at all times.
Credit: Pixaby Image 1424831 by GraphicMama, used under a CC0 Public Domain License