University of Washington professors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom developed a course on big data a few years ago. Calling BS: Data Reasoning in a Digital World offers tips on how to detect and disarm spurious appeals to data and science in anything from TED talks to medical papers. Dozens of universities around the world now draw on the UW material. Bergstrom and West reoriented their careers around BS detection, wrote a forthcoming book, and in December established a new Center for an Informed Public.
With the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the professors quickly realized it would be their toughest assignment yet. The pandemic has added Miracle-Gro to what Bergstrom and West's course calls the "natural ecology of BS." Human nature and society—particularly online—offer psychological and monetary rewards for attracting attention, regardless of whether information is accurate.
As the virus spreads, Bergstrom and West have been deluged by calls for help checking suspect claims and have helped clean up Covid-19 misinformation on Twitter and elsewhere. What they've found offers tips on spotting and avoiding the information hazards of pandemic times.
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