Carl Bergstrom is a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. More than a decade ago he conducted research on the role of government in pandemic planning, and has been a trenchant critic of the current response. He is the co-author with his colleague Jevin D West of a new book, Calling Bullshit: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World.
Your book is very timely in that it suggests the exponential spread of bullshit would eventually crash against fact in spectacular fashion. Is this what we are seeing with the pandemic?
It was finished just before all of this, in a different world. Ironically, a bunch of us were working on a paper about “human collective behaviour as crisis discipline”. We felt we needed to understand that before the shit hit the fan. Unfortunately the paper was still being revised when the pandemic started.
You have been teaching a course with this theme – broadly the manipulation of fact, using data – since 2017. Was that a response to the political moment?
It started as an idea in 2015 but the impetus to get the syllabus out there was probably provoked by Brexit and the Trump election.
I’m guessing it is oversubscribed?
The first time we offered it, the 180 spots were filled in less than a minute. Our students come from 40 different majors. We often use the term “digital natives” to describe them, but we were surprised at how little ability they often have to distinguish between different information sources. Or to distinguish between fact and opinion.
The book read to me a little like an updating of the Two Cultures idea – it reflects a divide between those people who understand numbers and those who don’t…
My view of it is a little different. At the same time as we are going through this populist political movement there is a technocratic worship of data. Arguments are being presented in an increasingly quantitative way: people are using data to bullshit.
We wanted to help people to see that they don’t have to roll over in the face of this onslaught. Your first response to a lot of numbers might be: “Well if you have all that data who am I to argue?” The point of the book is that you should always be sceptical of cherry-picked data. We have seen a lot of this in the pandemic: it is usually in articles titled “Here’s the real truth about Covid”. What follows is scientific bullshitting where someone picks one or two papers out of 10,000, and hopes that you go away thinking Covid is just a common cold or whatever.
It is a huge challenge to confront, say, diehard conspiracy theorists, or anti-vaxxers with such scepticism. Have you had experience of conversion moments?
I think the places where we have had success is helping people understand the rules that any decent journalist would think about – where is this information coming from? How does this person know it? One of the challenges of conspiracy theories is that they use the same rhetoric that people use when they are arguing for scientific understanding: “Do your own research.” How do you talk to people who are susceptible to that, and have them understand that the New England Journal of Medicine is a more reliable source than Fox News putting up a ton of infographics? It’s hard, is the answer.
We have always had lobbyists trying to twist certain facts, but we are in an environment now where there is a vast amount of money and political capital being made promulgating direct lies. What should we do about that?
I’m not optimistic about tech solutions. We need to recognise that we have created through social media a potentially existential threat to liberal democracy. If we care about that we need to take steps that give people access to the kind of information that is necessary to perpetuate that way of governing. It may be, for example, that you need to ban political advertising on these media.
Populist politicians have deliberately loosened some people’s faith in the need to invest in independent expertise at the heart of government. Do you think the pandemic could be a watershed moment in reversing that trend?
I was involved in pandemic planning for a long time. During the Bush administration we had some very heated debates about the role of government in that planning. But I don’t recall ever having a debate about the necessary role of government in pandemic response. That has been the shock. Instead of it being all hands on deck, half the ship is denying that the ship is going down at all. Many people are standing waist deep in water saying everything is fine. And the political landscape is so fractured that it becomes possible for the populist elements to turn around and blame the very people they disregarded.
One thing you don’t address in your book is the sense that sometimes mockery is the most effective weapon against bullshit. Do you not think that is true?
A few years ago I would have said absolutely. But now I think it can be too easily cast as condescension. Calling people gullible or hicks doesn’t convert anyone. It strengthens that us-versus-them divide.
The alternative is the exhausting work of trying to describe point by point exactly why the emperor has no clothes. Are you optimistic that works?
I am generally optimistic about the young generation and the world they want to create. But I think the media environment we have created makes it much harder for them to do that. We could look at the BBC or the New York Times in the belief that they at least bore some relation to reality. The students in my class get most of their news from social media, and are more vulnerable to this tyranny of numbers.
Your book identifies several areas where that tyranny can be very seductive.
Yes, for example, there is a resurgence in what I have been calling “phrenology 2.0”. If some guy rolls in with a fancy algorithm telling you someone is a criminal using facial features, you need to be able to say that is nuts.
Do you think the real-time experience of the pandemic, and all the data that flows from it, has helped or hindered that scepticism?
We are in a moment where you have a mass of contradictory information. That requires scientists, if they are talking honestly, to admit large areas of uncertainty. When you hear, as we did for a long time, that the “mortality rate is between 0.5% and 5%”, that leads some people to say: “Why won’t they tell us the real figure?” The answer is that no one knows the real figure. On the one hand that provides an opportunity for people to say “The scientists don’t know what they are talking about”, and any crackpot or opportunist can exploit that by looking at the extremes. But if you can get past that I still think there is a wonderful chance for people to see how, slowly, science actually creates knowledge.
• Calling Bullshit: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl T Bergstrom and Jevin D West will be published by Allen Lane on 4 August (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15