Frequently Asked Questions

Who are you guys?

We are both college professors at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Carl Bergstrom is a member of the Department of Biology, and Jevin West is a member of the Information School.

Is this your idea of a joke?

No. This is the website that accompanies a college course entitled "Calling Bull".

We are teaching this course as a one-credit, once-a-week lecture at the University of Washington during Spring Quarter 2017. We are recording video of the lectures and will share the edited video here. Our intention is to expand the class to a full three-credit course in Autumn 2017. In the meantime, connoisseurs of bull may enjoy the course syllabus, readings, tools, and case studies that we have developed.

Why are you doing this?

As we explain on our home page, we feel that the world has become over-saturated with bull and we're sick of it. However modest, this course is our attempt to fight back.

We have a civic motivation as well. It's not a matter of left- or right-wing ideology; both sides of the aisle have proven themselves facile at creating and spreading bull. Rather (and at the risk of grandiose language) adequate bull detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy. Democracy has always relied on a critically-thinking electorate, but never has this been more important than in the current age of false news and international interference in the electoral process via propaganda disseminated over social media. Mark Galeotti's December 2016 editorial in The New York Times summarized America best defense against Russian "information warfare":

"Instead of trying to combat each leak directly, the United States government should teach the public to tell when they are being manipulated. Via schools and nongovernmental organizations and public service campaigns, Americans should be taught the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, from how to fact-check news articles to how pictures can lie."

We could not agree more.

So is this some sort of swipe at the Trump administration?

No. We began developing this course in 2015 in response to our frustrations with the credulity of the scientific and popular presses in reporting research results. While the course may seem particularly timely today, we are not out to comment on the current political situation in the United States and around the world. Rather, we feel that in a democracy everyone will all be better off if people can see through the bull coming from all sides. You may not agree with us about the optimal size of government or the appropriate degree of US involvement in global affairs, and we're good with that. We simply want to help people of all political perspectives resist bull, because we are confident that together all of us can make better collective decisions if we know how to evaluate the information that comes our way.

What exactly is bull anyway?

Surprising as it may seem, there has been considerable scholarly discussion about this exact question. Unsurprisingly given that scholars like to discuss it, opinions differ.

As a first approximation, we subscribe to the following definition:

Bull is language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

It's an open question whether the term bull also refers to false claims that arise from innocent mistakes. Whether or not that usage is appropriate, we feel that the verb phrase calling bull definitely applies to falsehoods irrespective of the intentions of the author or speaker. Some of the examples treated in our case studies fall into this domain. Even if not bull sensu stricto, we can nonetheless call bull on them.

In this course, we focus on bull as it often appears in the natural and social sciences: in the form of misleading models and data that drive erroneous conclusions.

I'm a UW student. How can I take this course?

The course is currently being offered in Spring 2017 as a one-credit lecture, under the names INFO 198 and BIOL 106B. The classroom's capacity is 160 students, and the class filled in under a minute once registration opened. If you didn't manage to register this term, you can still do all the readings and watch the lecture clips on video. Rest assured we will be expanding the course in the future. We intend to teach a 3 credit course to a large audience in Autmn 2017. For the latest information about the course, follow us on twitter, on facebook, or by joining our mailing list.

I'm not a UW student. Will the course be offered online?

Informally, yes. Our full syllabus is already online. You can find almost all of the readings on the internet and the few that are not online should be at your local library. We will be adding course materials, including new case studies and tools-and-tricks articles, as they become available. We will make video clips from the lectures freely available on youtube. For the latest updates on new material, follow us on twitter, on facebook, or by joining our mailing list.

In the longer-term we may develop an open online course (a MOOC). When and if we do so, we will endeavor to keep enrollment costs to an absolute minimum.

We all know what "bull" is short for. Can't you just use the actual word instead of playing coy?

We can, and we have on our main version of the website. What you are looking at here is a "sanitized" version designed for use in high school classrooms and other situations where even minor profanity is unacceptable.

If you feel that even the term bull is problematic for your use of the website, please let us know.

How could you have omitted Darrell Huff's 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics from your syllabus?

We acknowledge that Huff's book did a good job of providing a humorous and non-technical introduction to the perils of statistical reasoning to a 1950s audience. Unfortunately the casual racism and sexism of the illustrations make it virtually unusable as a college text today.

Can you guys call bull on [this thing that I don't like]?

The purpose of this website is to teach people how to spot bull and refute it. We don't intend to use it as a platform for calling bull on things that we don't like, and we certainly don't intend to use it as a platform for calling bull on things you don't like.

Our case studies are not the most egregious examples of bull, nor the ones we most wish to debunk. Rather, they are chosen to serve a pedagogical purpose, drawing our particular pitfalls and highlighting particular strategies for responding. So read up, think carefully, and call bull yourself.

I'm an instructor. Can I teach this course at my institution or use your materials in my classroom?

Nothing would please us more. There are only so many students that we can reach first-hand, so we would be delighted to see others take up the cause. If you use the syllabus or materials, we have just two small requests. We (1) would appreciate acknowledgement of some sort in your course materials and (2) would love to hear from you about how you are using these materials. Among other things, this helps us justify the time and effort that we are putting into the project. Any comments about what you find works well and what does not would also be most welcome.

Doesn't your course just make matters worse by teaching people how to spew bull more effectively?

It is true that if one knows how to detect subtle bull, one can also create effective bull. As with biological weapons, there is no such thing as purely defensive bull research. And that puts us in a slightly awkward position Brandolini's Bull Asymmetry Principle. Brandolini's principle dictates that refuting bull requires an order of magnitude more effort than creating it. Unless one believes that good actors are an order of magnitude more common than bad actors, it might seem that teaching people more about the dark art of bull will only increase the amount of bull in the universe.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it holds Brandolini's principle constant while changing the bull detection and bull creation abilities of the populace. We believe that as more people learn to detect and refute bull, Brandolini's ratio will change. Bull is easier to spread and harder to eliminate when people are not expecting it; it is also harder to eliminate when people don't know how to best refute it. This course should help on both accounts. In our more optimistic moments, we can even imagine a future in which the Second Law of Coprodynamics is violated.

What's with all the old art?

Bull is by no means a modern invention. Each page on this website features a famous bull artist of yore.

Here on this page, a detail from Michelangelo's 1512 Expulsion from the Garden. According to Christian theology, all of the pain and suffering (and mortality) that pervades human life can be traced to the lies that the serpent fed Eve about the apple.

On our syllabus page, Theodoor Rombouts's early 17th century The Denial of Saint Peter. At the Last Supper, Saint Peter assured Jesus that he would never deny him, but Jesus saw right through that. By the next morn, Saint Peter had lied three times in denial of the savior.

On the home page, Rafael's 1511 The School of Athens. Here Socrates is depicted as he obliterates the arguments of the Sophists, a group of purported scholars who constructed an entire philosophical school around talking bull. (Fortunately, the Sophists are long gone and no other school of philosophy would venture to lay its foundations on the same effluent base. )

On our contact page, Botticelli's 1494 Calumny of Apelles. King Midas looks down on a man falsely accused by figures representing Slander, Fraud, Ignorance, Suspicion, and Conspiracy.

On our about page, Nicholas Regnier's 1620 The Fortune Teller. One might imagine this fortune-teller makes her living through her ability to deceive the willing.

Our case studies pages present many different renditions of a pioneering bull artist, Odysseus, and the foes he defeated . Not only does Odysseus best multiple foes through trickery and deceit; he is the original unreliable narrator. Here’s a leader who won a huge war and sacked a wealthy city, yet somehow managed to return home a decade later, impoverished and without any of his ships or men. The way he tells the tale, they were lost to unspeakable danger while he alone survived through his bravery, cunning, and heroism. Maybe the voyage really did go down the way he reports, but it sure is hard to verify given that no one survived to question his claims.

The header images on our tools and tricks pages offer tribute to those philosophers and scholars who over the centuries have sought to cut through the lies, ignorance, and superstition bring the light of knowledge to the world.