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…..