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Review of Calling Bullshit: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West

Another great book on the dangers of spurious data and dubious claims. Apart from a great title (I’m also a fan of Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit which is referenced in the book). The book explores the challenges of mediums that massage, polarization, misinformation, and confusing causality with correlation. It discusses Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection” toolkit, Goodhardt’s Law, detection bias (watch out what question you ask in Google), and even Murphy’s Law.

I most enjoyed the later chapters on data visualization, big data (always ask about the training data) and the susceptibility of science (watch for p-hacking and publication bias). The book ends with chapters on spotting bullshit and refuting bullshit, which draw on common sense as well as journalistic good practice. Any good journalist will ask “who is telling me this?”, “how do they know this?” and “what are they trying to sell me?”.

These are all common-sense questions that we all ask, but not often enough and sometimes not when it really matters. An over-reliance on numbers is dangerous for all of us (I write as a maths graduate). This book is packed full of advice on when, where and how to be more careful and above all sceptical in today’s world. And it’s a fun read too!

 

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