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 Sofiya 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.