How to Detect Bullshit

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, two professors from the University of Washington, have recently developed a course which teaches college students how they can recognize and challenge everyday bullshit. Fact-checking seems particularly relevant given our current political climate, and Bergstrom and West have focused their syllabus on the misuse of statistics and graphs which directly contradict empirical facts. When we hear outright lies from friends, family, elected representatives, advertisers, corporations, teachers, etc., we can normally uncover the truth with careful research. Bergstrom and West ask how much this situation changes when data itself becomes one of the basic means of warping reality. If scientists, politicians, news outlets, and spokespersons misrepresent and bury facts with rhetoric, statistics, and graphics, then we must consider when, how, and why others might manipulate us. Bergstrom and West themselves claim that bullshit does not end with news and politics: it enters academic journals, TED lectures, published books, and (perhaps most problematically) classrooms nationwide.

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The course website includes specific case-studies of statistical bullshit, academic essays about the spread and detection of bullshit, and clear statements of purpose from its two architects. I highly recommend the site for instructors concerned with how well their students analyze evidence, and the cases from the website can spark useful discussions about why even 99% caffeine-free products still contain high doses of caffeine and why over $70 million of fraud should not end the national food stamp program. Students can then locate and discuss their own examples of popular and academic bullshit, and the authors of the course have requested more case-studies and articles for future versions of their syllabus. You can find the website here: Calling Bullshit Course Website.

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Should Graduate Students Unionize?

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students from private universities could legally form unions (see this short article from the New York Times), and commentators have subsequently asked whether graduate students actually need protection from their institutions. Graduate students already receive fee and tuition waivers, stipends, and healthcare from their universities whereas medical and law students pay for their entire educations. Why, then, should graduate students complain about their labor conditions when many other students and employees at the university level potentially suffer from even more clear-cut exploitation?

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The case for graduate student unionization follows two central principles: 1) Graduate students do not receive adequate compensation for their skilled academic labor. 2) The use of underpaid graduate students for college courses not only prevents universities from hiring tenured faculty but also lowers the wages of adjuncts and other nontenured instructors. Based upon personal experience, graduate students typically work over fifty hours per week and must divide their time between their own research (which will determine their long-term success) and their instructional responsibilities. Graduate students must therefore prioritize between their careers and their students whenever they manage their schedules, which inevitably weakens either their research programs or the curriculum and administration of their courses. While these trade-offs certainly apply for tenured professors, graduate students experience similar pressure from their departments for original research but generally receive less protection from campus administrators who expect well-designed classes from their instructors.

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Recent Study Finds Handwritten Notes Improve Retention

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I recently came across this NPR article (one of my former coworkers from OU posted the link using Facebook) about the cognitive differences between handwritten and electronic notes. The article summarizes the results of a recent study from two psychologists from Princeton and UCLA showing that handwritten notes significantly improve how well students synthesize complex information. Notes serve two primary functions: they help us process material while we write down critical details and later provide records of these details when we study for exams and translate face-to-face meetings into products and documents. The authors of the study believe that although electronic notes help students and professionals transcribe more content than handwritten notes, these verbatim records actually prevent note-takers from identifying the main ideas and possible applications of lectures, conversations, etc. Even having more electronic notes did not help most of the students from the study, who took short exams after hearing various Ted Talks; the students with handwritten notes received higher scores regardless of whether or not the two groups studied for the tests beforehand. Click the link below for more information: NPR Handwritten vs. Electronic Notes Article.

Why We Undervalue the Humanities

When we start our careers after college, we frequently have limited work experience for our expected professions and enter the workforce based upon the skills from our majors. Computer scientists advertise their expertise with CSS, Python, and HTML, biologists list their applicable lab techniques (gel electrophoresis, chromatography, etc.), and students from the humanities stress their extensive practice with research, written communication, and analysis. Despite the value of these humanities skills for private and public institutions, entry-level job applicants without field-specific knowledge cannot always compete with their more technically-inclined counterparts. Why do executives simultaneously insist higher-level problem-solving drives success and still resist hiring soft-skill specialists from English, History, and Philosophy?

Professionals from the humanities face two related problems: almost everyone within the modern workforce can hypothetically research, write, and analyze problems and solutions, and these skills resist quantification. Technical resumes outline general “tiers” between levels of expertise: the words “proficiency,” “fluency,” “competency,” and “familiarity” all mark different thresholds of mastery. Unless employers require portfolios from their applicants, which causes more problems for recent graduates who must either submit academic projects for potential employers or develop portfolios from scratch, companies cannot straightforwardly evaluate soft skills. Most recruiters do not respond favorably when applicants differentiate themselves with their “expert” written and spoken communication skills without extensive evidence that these skills have and will improve the bottom-lines of their companies. Continue reading

Computer-Generated Poetry Competition

The Neukom Institute at Dartmouth College recently held its annual PoetiX competition, where judges assessed whether ten carefully-selected poems had computer or human authors. Unsurprisingly, the judges had little trouble differentiating the human poems from their machine-written counterparts. The NPR podcast linked below discusses why automated programs cannot write perfect sonnets and will also let you compare human and software-generated poetry.

NPR PoetiX Competition Summary and Podcast