Calling BS

I think the University of Montana is onto something.

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary societies–not just in the U.S., but worldwide–is propaganda. Disinformation and conspiracy theories and just plain lying are ubiquitous (propaganda today, as Steve Bannon inelegantly put it, is achieved by “flooding the zone with shit”). It matters. As any medical professional will attest, a wrong diagnosis of what ails you will prevent the identification of a remedy to cure you.

The University of Montana has an intriguing approach to that flooded zone; it offers a course titled “Calling Bullshit,” the purpose of which is to examine why it’s so easy to spread misinformation and untruths and why it’s so hard to combat it. It’s an effort to explore “what citizens can do to become better consumers and producers of factual information.”

“The name is definitely provocative, but the class is not about the cussword,” said course instructor Professor Lee Banville, director of UM’s School of Journalism. “It’s about information literacy. People need to be both better sharers of information and better consumers of information.”

Because the subject is indeed serious, Banville chose a more appropriately earnest title when he launched the course in 2021. News Literacy, however, generated about as much excitement from students as one might expect.

“We had about 20 students in the class because, let’s face it, the title was boring,” Banville said. “Calling it B.S., we had 40 students this summer and 102 are enrolled this fall.”

The idea for the class – and its unconventional  title – isn’t entirely original. The University of Washington also sponsors a course titled Calling Bullshit, and its instructors, Professor Carl Bergstrom and Associate Professor Jevin West, wrote a book on the subject with the same title. Their emphasis though is on the misuse of data, Banville said, whereas UM’s looks more at how to spot and debunk misinformation in journalism and social media.

Students have noted that, while the title was provocative, the course content was surprisingly rigorous, imparting skills that will help them navigate our increasingly fraught information environment. The ultimate goal is to educate students to become critical thinkers regardless of where the country leans politically from year to year.

“The title may be a little playful,” Leigh said, “but I can’t think of a better skill set to teach our students than to not take things at face value. It’s valuable really for all consumers of news and media.”

 In the coming semesters, Banville and Leigh would like to expand the number of students who can take the course, but they want to keep class sizes small enough to foster two-way dialogue that respects other points of view.

Teaching such a course requires discussion of the difference between recognizing BS and “calling” it. The latter takes fortitude.

And that title?

Banville said he wanted a course name that “hit” students upside the head, but even he struggled at times with Calling Bullshit.

“When I was filling out the paperwork to start the course, I kept thinking I can’t believe I am submitting this form, and I even used an asterisk in place of the ‘i’ at first,” he recalled. “I was waiting for someone to push back, and no one did.

“Yeah, the name is provocative,” he said, “but information literacy is incredibly important to society and our democracy.”

Several years ago, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed a little book published by Princeton University Press and written by Harry Frankfort, a noted moral philosopher. It was titled “On Bullshit.” In it, Frankfurt explored bullshit and the related concepts of humbug and lying, and distinguished among them.

Courses like this one, that help students develop critical thinking skills, are increasingly important in a world where so much “information” should not be taken at face value. That said, there are people who–for a variety of reasons–are especially vulnerable to so-called “fake news.” One recent study found that some people have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation.

Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person even after they were explicitly told the information was false. The study is significant because it identifies what may be a major risk factor for vulnerability to fake news.

The study found older adults to be especially vulnerable to fake news. Lack of vulnerability  correlated highly with education–presumably, because education helps people develop “meta-cognitive skills.”

Like the ability to call bullshit…..


  1. I had to google the last sentence:
    What is cognitive and meta cognitive skills?
    this came back:
    Cognitive skills include instructional objectives, components in a learning hierarchy, and components in information processing. Metacognitive skills include strategies for reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics. Motivational skills include motivation based on interest, selfefficacy, and attributions
    well OK – but I fail to see the META attachment to things . Put META in front of something and it becomes ????

  2. News, civic, science literacy. All have been frequently mentioned here.

    An old “literacy” was about reading. After a while, we took a shortcut to the meaning of the word illiterate to meaning not adequately educated in reading.

    Let’s reconsider the real meaning. That the US is illiterate should be the input at school board meetings and articles advising new parents. The reaction would undoubtedly be, WTF? Correct?

    What if we added in news, civic, and science? Mom’s for Liberty would surely panic.

  3. patmcc

    Meta as a prefix means information about ……. something.

    Metadata is information about a set of data. Actually, it’s data on a dataset.

  4. Wonderful! Carl Sagan’s “Bullshit detector,” come to college!
    Mom’s for Liberty would have good reason to panic, and that would be wonderful, also.

  5. CNN and MSNBC ratings have plummeted precisely over the Trump GPS Fusion Russian election interference garbage. Half the people who trusted them knew they couldn’t and the other half who are still there want to believe them.
    The Democrat war complex left billions behind in Afghanistan and is now sending billions to Ukraine? Its not just inefficiency thats the problem , its that we keep printing money which hurts the poor in this country. We can hand out money like candy, but what is it worth? Hamburger was $329 at the end of the last administration, its now $5.79. So you’re telling a young black mom you have to decide between a PBJ and a burger for dinner now?
    Look at the Hakeem Jeffries saying there is no evidence where $20 million was given out through 27 shell companies and no product was given except the difference in political affairs? Paxton somehow shockingly wasnt prosecuted but several local journalists exposed that there really wasn’t enough evidence in bank accounts or gifts? When you dig deep you can see politics isnt reality, but it does get people to vote against their best interest time and time again in midst of political wars.
    We fiscal conservative policies so that we can run the social programs we are fighting for, but with the corruption in politics its more than evident after all the crap clears we are destroying the middle class.

  6. I read somewhere that cognition is thinking and meta cognition is thinking about thinking. For example, thinking about how and why we think as we do. Why are some people better thinkers than others? Why are people better at thinking about some things, like math versus poetry, than others? How do thinking skills relate to age, gender, cultural influences, etc. All of these inquiries, including the detection of bull shit, are part of the field of meta cognition.

  7. I asked Bard why the US ranks so low in freedom of the press. The answer I got was:

    “The United States ranks low in freedom of the press for a number of reasons, including:

    * Violence and harassment of journalists. In recent years, there has been a troubling increase in violence and harassment of journalists in the United States. This includes physical attacks, threats, and online abuse. In 2022, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker recorded 341 press freedom violations, including 11 arrests and 50 physical assaults.

    * Government surveillance of journalists. The US government has a long history of surveilling journalists, both in the United States and abroad. This surveillance can have a chilling effect on press freedom, as journalists may be less likely to report on sensitive topics if they fear being targeted by the government.

    * SLAPP lawsuits. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are lawsuits that are filed against individuals or organizations for exercising their First Amendment rights. SLAPP lawsuits can be used to silence journalists and other critics of powerful people and organizations.

    * Concentration of media ownership. A small number of corporations own a large majority of the media in the United States. This concentration of media ownership can limit the diversity of voices and perspectives in the media.

    It is important to note that the United States still has a strong legal framework for protecting press freedom. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. However, the factors listed above have made it more difficult for journalists to do their jobs freely and safely.

    In addition to the factors listed above, some experts also believe that the decline of public trust in the media has contributed to the decline in press freedom in the United States. When people do not trust the media, they are more likely to be distrustful of journalists and less likely to support press freedom.

    The decline in press freedom in the United States is a serious concern. A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. When journalists are able to report freely on important issues, the public is better informed and can make better decisions about their government.”

  8. All media makes money selling advertising to others, who are trying to market whatever their wares are. Between “commercials” all media sells watching their channel, their own wares, to a certain demographic “brand”.

    A huge stash of cash circulates chasing more and more.

    We the people have become truly desperate for more entertainment.

    Ultimately workers create value to their employers demographic and are customers and buy the products made by others.

    Economics is currency chasing currency and consumers are the circulation pumps.

    Politicians are products that used to advertise value from good governance. They’ve been replaced by two parties with huge funding selling to demographic brands whatever they say that they want.

    That’s the end of the Republican story today because it works for their demographic brand.

    The Democrat brand demographics never abandoned wanting good governance. That’s what they advertise.

    This economy is endlessly chasing growth and wealth redistribution up. Capitalism is out of control and doesn’t know how to stop.

    Democrats know that but are afraid of not knowing how to end the endless chase for more, without a crash or ideas for what’s next?

    The human species insatiably chasing living this comfortable by more entertainment is unsustainable and therefore sadly facing extinction.

    What will save us from that is the secret by which all life survives environmental change, which is natural evolution and adaptation.

    Hopefully human beings can now substitute cultural evolution to a sustainable life style.

  9. If only we had a course on “calling decency” to help students understand that your words, dress and behavior should be adjusted for the situation, not “anything, anywhere, anytime” because I want to….

  10. I think it’s something like: Cognition = thinking/knowing.
    Meta cognition is the ability to acknowledge what you “know” might not be true. IE to interrogate your own mind and accept that you might be wrong. That old Socrates chestnut (paraphrased) “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

    But, I could be wrong.

  11. One of my friends on facebook posted a link to a video. It was children’s cartoon titled “how inflation really works”. It took a few minutes to get to the point of the message video, but the actual message is inflation is caused by the government stealing from you.

    Because its aimed at children, the video is clever and offers a simplistic explanation of what might cause inflation (if you were a roman citizen), but I know there are guys with Phd’s in economics that still can’t explain or predict all of the various reasons for inflation in the modern world.

    When evaluating the evaluating the level of BS in information content, it’s always nice to understand the source of the information, and the intent of the author in publishing this information. With a quick google search I turned up a website called the “Tuttle Twins”. The title bar on the website comes up “Teaching Kids Critical Thinking” and the headline banner is “Are Your Kids Being Brainwashed?”.

    If this were the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise, the klaxons would be sounding and the computer would be announcing “Red Alert, Red Alert” on the BS meter. In this case, the author reaching out to parents and targeting kids with right wing propaganda in cartoon form. It’s sort of a PragerU for adolescents.

    The guy that posted this video on my facebook feed has a College education and he’s always said that he has “no filter”, in that he will often say what he’s thinking. I now believe that he really has “no filter” on the inbound stuff as well.

    If you want to see this clever bit of children’s propaganda, here’s the link to the video:

    If you want to see the website for yourself, here’s the link:

    College level course in “Calling Bullshit” is needed, but we obviously need to start with the youth. The Scouts has a cyber literacy program and each rank advancement requires the completion of various levels of the “CyberChip” certification. A good part of the training is protecting your identity, protecting yourself from strangers, being a good netizen, but also learning to question the validity of information.

    It’s not going to be easy.

  12. So the question is, “Why buy the lie?” The answer is likely to be that the lie feels right. That’s what happens when there’s no rigor in the curriculum. One day I was chatting with a young friend, who said she’d gotten an A on a term paper. She asked if I’d like to read it. It was full of spelling and grammatical errors. I asked her about that and she said her professor had said that didn’t matter, as long as everyone understood what she was saying. I was appalled by that. When I was in college we were promised a one letter drop in grade for each such error. Had things changed that much in four years? Seems like they must have. Sister Mary Grammar is apparently long gone!

  13. Todd – I have a question.

    Why would you ask Bard or any other AI model anything? Given:

    a) I gather you don’t trust corporate entities (can’t blame you!) and they are all created by large, corporate entities.
    b) AI models only “know” things based on the data set they are trained on.
    c) You don’t trust any sort of “mainstream” media
    d) Definitionally, the data set these AIs are trained on is provided almost exclusively by the mainstream media – simply because it’s the majority of the information available by volume.

    AIs don’t have opinions. They’re just predictive text models that spit back things they find on the internet. Seems like they would, by default, be spitting out things you don’t agree with? Genuinely curious why you seem to trust the output so much.

  14. I concur with Lesly’s observation. Auditing such a class would pay a lot of dividends.

    Each of us in varying degrees struggles with daily misinformation and journalistic prejudices thrown at us from various news sources. Mental fatigue predictably sets in from navigating through such an environment.
    Despite our own individual educational background and mental prowess, sharpening our skillsets of discernment (perception/insight) in the face of these challenges would do all of us some good.

  15. I agree with virtually all that you are speaking of. Additionally – I would add – related to Biden and his ilk – things aren’t exactly “clean” – in terms of both “the truth” and “reality” – note – what I posted elsewhere on Facebook:
    1. Ukraine will ONLY be admitted to NATO – when its war with Russia is concluded – and strongly related to that,
    2. Russia – will REFUSE to any peace settlement (beyond total surrender by Ukraine) – significantly Because – it does NOT want Ukraine in NATO which leads to the conclusion that:
    3. The U.S. – will be in endless War – support of Ukraine – UNLESS – it – pushes for and gets 1. above rescinded
    Regardless of what you or I may believe at both Ukraine and Russia – we are indirectly – fully supporting likely War continuing for a long, long time in a War – that Ukraine can not “win” – for the foreseeable future. – We. the U.S. no longer have Nicaragua, Iraq and multiple other countries as our SCAPEGOAT – Iran, North Korea and Russia – together with China are the primary ones who are left. Meanwhile – while we spend more on military spending than the Next 10 countries – combined – what do we get – besides – a false: “Hero Complex” and massive profits for the contractors – who make billions in profits. Big Oil, The Military, Defense Contractors and similar – are the priority – Racism and Reproductive Justice – aren’t useful – except in ridiculing the Republicans – meanwhile – while we allegedly Despise – Saudi Arabia -its oil – holds us hostage – ot to mention – Israel and the Palestinians – quite a future – we’re building towards!

  16. Groups like the Trump cult thrive on this. It’s like the old saying: Treat them like a mushroom. Keep them in the dark and feed them s**t. Seems to be working perfectly for them.

  17. There are several online publication outlets that allow research studies/papers to be posted without proper vetting. All it takes to post is $ and spurious research. Travesty.
    This course, “Calling Bullshit” for Disinformation and propoganda in the media, should be offered in the medical field with regard to false sources of information, research and outcomes and of course, who is paying to have the Bullshit published.

  18. Dirk:
    (b) in your reply.. yes, and what is congresses/commitee meeting ongoing NOW, idea of that control,and who? if Ai is the future so was the film THX1138..a fiction based on 1984. being able to read is fundamental and needs to
    be read between the lines with like journalism,of the same subject. then your Ai kicks in. ive listen to the biggest BS that can be thrown at a fan. working deep in trenches,and sometimes actully in trenches,the shit pool fills to depth. basically i work with true blue collars. all my life ive become
    deeply insecure about where this is all going. ignorance,and basic knowlege of why people have the right to free speach isnt on their radar. its a over flowing cesspool. trusting any,paid for media beyond the actual it did happen and thats why its here scenrio is all its worth$. todays opinion by or for such news media is akin to goebbels and 1932. unless theres substantial forms of subjects that can be read as,like how we discuss, and cuss, issues, you will never make a inroad to changing a
    damn thing out here in the blue collar world. in all best regards i enjoy the discussions here, i can relate,and understand,
    though many here may feel im a outsider, i am relating as it is out here. no apps buddy,face to face and in your face. but here i get ammo, i have to translate to blue collar jargon,after a fact check.
    sorry for the grammar,and capitals and other ends and pieces, but thats how its understood in a society that forgot us in basic education.
    thanks for the ammo over the years but lets face it,education lacks in America all the way to ground far as wearing a suit,nope, aint gonna happen for anyone/thing..dirty hands anyone?
    Sheila, thanks for your patience,

  19. When I stopped teaching 20 years ago. My mantra then, and before, to students had been this for sometime. Form your evaluative decision with any result of which you conclude to be valid. But question every supposed “fact” as to validity, sound context, motivation and soundness of the source. After long discussions with students I would say this: “Look, we are fortunate to live in a nation where you are hold any position or belief. But a position derived from untruth could destroy that right. Consider every valid evidence and ignore all else.”

  20. John S,

    I will say, that the stupidity of conflict covers all groups.

    The Vietnam fiasco was a prime example! But also, the Iraq fiasco which was promoted by the Bush clan. Remember Pootie poot? Or, I look into his eyes and I see the soul of a good man? The uncontrolled handover fist spending by DT? The shenanigans in Vietnam by Nixon and Kissinger?

    There is plenty of blame to go around, but Afghanistan is something that extends across all cohorts. And DT started that ball rolling.

    Selective memory and history revision serve no purpose except to exacerbate the flow of B.S.

  21. It appears that a number of us could benefit from taking a course on Calling Bullshit. But, using BS to buttress one’s point of view or ax to grind is an easy way out.

  22. How hard is it to say “falsehood” or “unproven” or? Just not “cool”…..sick culture…..

  23. For Dirk, Bard has a particularly strong data set and it’s growing. It includes:

    “Google Search: I can access and process information from the real world through Google Search and keep my response consistent with search results. This means that I can provide you with up-to-date information on a wide range of topics.

    Google Books: I can access and process information from a massive dataset of text and code, including books, articles, code, and other forms of text content. This dataset is constantly updated, so I am always learning new things.

    Other Google products: I can also access and process information from other Google products, such as Google Translate, Google Maps, and Google Scholar. This allows me to provide you with more comprehensive and informative responses.”

  24. Hunter Biden, Nazi Ukraine, runaway inflation, horrible debt, crime ridden cities, senile Biden, Fox equals truth while MSNBC lies (or both lie – believe nothing)

    OK – now that the troll words are out of the way –

    A much needed course, indeed. I like the title – direct and to the point.

    I’ve mentioned before, my old sociology prof, Jesse Pitts, said that every college course should be teaching “crap detection” and that this was the most valuable lesson to come away with.

    The fact that this is being taught brings some hope.

  25. I am 72 yo seminary graduate (this century). I like to think my “BS” filter is pretty good. I continue to struggle with the notion that people in the mainstream will intentionally insert and maintain falsehoods and in the next breath tell me how much they love Jesus. I cannot imagine a more egregious source than from the pulpit.

Comments are closed.