Dan Murphy: We’re ‘Awash in B.S.’

Some students may need to learn how to distinguish between truth or fiction. ( Free Images )

A pair of college professors are hyping the world’s least controversial observation: Social media is ‘awash in bulls**t’ — only they’re trying to do something to remedy that destructive reality.

There is no shortage of college courses these days that are, shall we say, less-than “academically rigorous.”

At least according to those of us who long ago left the bosom of some higher ed institution and now ask (rhetorically), “Hey, where were those courses when I was an undergrad?”

Contemporary examples include such gems as “How to Win a Beauty Pageant” (Oberlin College); “Learning Elvish from Lord of the Rings” (University of Wisconsin); and the poster child for such seemingly soft academic offerings, a Reed College course called “Underwater Basket Weaving.”

I kid you not.

But after we’ve stopped laughing at what we glibly characterize as “BS courses,” there’s another course in the same genre that should be taken seriously. It’s taught at the University of Washington in Seattle and it’s titled, “Calling Bullsh**t” (you can complete the actual name).

The undergraduate class, taught by UW Profs. Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, is designed to train students “to identify and call out misinformation,” according to a profile appearing in The Washington Post.

A noble aim, although some of the examples of BS students are being trained to identify seem ridiculous. For example: The article noted that Whole Foods sells a product advertised as “non-GMO” Himalayan Pink Salt (yeah … that’s a thing). “Technically speaking, the claim is true,” the professors explained. “The pink salt was made without genetic modification. But it’s also BS, because salt, a mineral, doesn’t have any genes to modify.”

(Not explained was why anyone would pay a premium for Himalayan Pink Salt in the first place, but the truth is it’s only one of several thousand overpriced, over-hyped products Whole Foods shoppers needlessly stock up on every day of the week).

A skill most useful

As is true in any good college course, the syllabus begins with a definition. As the good professors define it, “Bulls**t consists of 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.”

That last phrase is the operative one: A blatant disregard for truth and logic, a phenomenon that manifests itself in far more than misleading marketing messages.

I mean, if the only reason to conduct a class in “Calling Bulls**t” was to turn 20-somethings into more sophisticated shoppers, it would be hard to justify forking over the $990 it costs to register for the course.

But the prevalence — and malevolence — of BS is way more common and far more destructive then fleecing a few clueless consumers at some upscale retail establishment or confusing potential voters with deceptive political ads.

With regard to animal agriculture, for instance, consider how many people now buy into the notion that cattle have become the primary culprits in triggering climate change, and if we all just cut down on eating red meat, we could go merrily on cruising around in our gas-guzzling SUVs to some drive-thru/drive-up window at a store a couple blocks from home to which we could have easily walked.

The idea that livestock are destroying the planet is total BS, but without the ability — and the willingness, let’s be honest — to properly analyze the data, those false narratives become ever more credible.

And speaking of climate change, I couldn’t even count the numbers of otherwise intelligent ranchers, producers and feeders over the years who’ve told me straight up that, “Climate change is nothing but a hoax.” And these are the very folks who will suffer the earliest and most devastating effects of the superstorms, droughts and eventually permanent shifts in weather patterns caused by anthropogenic climate disruption.

Forget about the acidification of the oceans, the death of coral reefs, the melting glaciers and rising sea levels so many people feel comfortable in dismissing. Agriculture as we know it could be impacted so severely by the climate crisis as to ultimately threaten food security — even in a highly developed country such as the United States.

The cold, hard reality that BS distorts elections, damages businesses and perpetrates scams far worse than suckering some shoppers into buying non-GMO salt. The causal acceptance of so much misinformation, so many non-factoids that represent a “blatant disregard for the truth” undercuts the science that should be informative as to public-sector policymaking and programming.

Exhibit A: The increasingly widespread outbreaks of measles and other diseases because too many people have accepted the BS that vaccines cause autism.

The learning objectives of the “Calling Bulls**t” course focuses on teaching students how to remain vigilant for the BS that contaminates people’s information diet.

As the professors phrased it, “We will be astonished if those skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that [students] will acquire during the course of their college education.”

Unlike Underwater Basket Weaving, that’s no BS.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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