Calling Bullshit Profile picture
Calling Bullshit: Examples and opinions from instructors @CT_Bergstrom and @JevinWest at the @UW. Book coming August 4th:
Eric J Christeson Profile picture Brian Branagan Profile picture 2 added to My Authors
26 Jul
A couple of months ago, an almost unfathomably bad paper was published in the Journal of Public Health: From Theory to Practice.

It purports to prove—mathematically—that homeopathy will provide and effective treatment for COVID-19.…
While it would be fish in a barrel to drag this paper as a contribution to the pseudoscience of homeopathy, we'll largely pass on that here. More interestingly, this single paper illustrates quite a few of the points that we make in our forthcoming book.
The first of them pertains to the role of peer review as guarantor of scientific accuracy.

In short, it's no guarantee, as we discuss here:…

This paper shows that all sorts of stuff makes it through peer review.
Read 50 tweets
17 Jul
A truly remarkable example of misleading data visualization from the Georgia department of public health.
In our book we suggest that one never assume malice when incompetence is a sufficient explanation, and one never assume incompetence when an understandable mistake could be the cause.

Can we apply that here?
I bet we can.

A lot of cartographic software will choose bins automatically based on ranges. For example, these might be the 0-20%, 20-40%, 40-60%, 60-80%, and 80-100% bins.

As the upper bound changes over time, the scale slides much as we see here.
Read 5 tweets
25 Jun
We've written several times about what we describe as Phrenology 2.0 — the attempt to rehabilitate long-discredited pseudoscientific ideas linking physiognomy to moral character — using the trappings of machine learning and artificial intelligence.
For example,, we've put together case studies on a paper about criminal detection from facial photographs...…
...and on another paper about detection of sexual orientation from facial structure.

(tl;dr — both are total bullshit)…
Read 11 tweets
10 May
R is a dimensionless constant. Infections is measured in individuals. So what the f*ck are the units then?

This is the kind of bullshit we call “mathiness” in our forthcoming book.

H/t @merz.
From the book: "Mathiness refers to formulas and expressions that may look and feel like math—even as they disregard the logical coherence and formal rigor of actual mathematics."

(Admittedly the shock-and-awe factor is minimal here in this sum of two quantities)
"When an equation exists only for the sake of mathiness, dimensional analysis often makes no sense."

If Boris claimed the threat level was a *function* of these two quantities, fine. But to say it is a *sum* makes zero sense.
Read 7 tweets
3 Aug 19
1. I recently tweeted about a particularly poor piece of science reporting in the science/tech news site @BigThink. In that article, they describe a new study as showing that spending two hours a week in nature is essential for happiness.…
2. In our course, we encourage our students to question as strongly those claims that support their beliefs as those that challenge them.

I believe myself that time in nature improves well-being, so in the spirit of following my own advice, let’s look closely at this story.
3. The @BigThink story oversells the study. First of all, this is an observational study that establishes association, not causation. It could be that time in nature causes a sense of well-being. Or it could be that a sense of well-being causes people to spend time in nature.
Read 26 tweets
13 Mar 19
A recent @accenture advertisement appeared on my timeline as a promoted tweet and got me thinking about the evolution of bullshit.

The text is a perfect example of what we call *old-school bullshit*. It's a vapid jumble of jargon, neologism, and manager-speak. 1/n
It's not a one-off, either. Look at this bullshit bonanza!…

Increasingly, this rubbish is being replaced by *new-school bullshit*. New school BS uses the language of math and stats to create an impression of rigor and accuracy. Dubious claims are given a veneer of legitimacy by glossing them with equations, numbers, and data graphics. 3/n
Read 12 tweets
15 Feb 19
We teach fermi estimation in our Calling Bullshit course:….

It's a dark application, but we can use this technique to think about the costs and benefits for the school shooter trainings that so many school kids are now required to attend. 1/10
There are approximately 50,000,000 students in primary and secondary schools in the US.

It seems conservative, but let's suppose that only 1/4 of them attend school shooter trainings, and these trainings are only an hour in length. 2/10
Even if we ignore the psychological trauma to e.g. a second grader being taught how to fight back against an active shooter, that's 12,500,000 life-hours invested in school shooter trainings. 3/10
Read 10 tweets
21 May 18
Last week, @JosephHyder introduced us to the famous VMCC Quality Equation, shown here.
This equation illustrates a common pathology of the business and management literature, though the practice extends more broadly.
In apparent allusion to Stephen Colbert’s notion of #truthiness, @AnkurFactorial uses the term #mathiness in reference to such equations.
Read 20 tweets