‘Calling BS’ class at UW popular


‘Calling BS’ class at UW popular
  1. ‘Calling BS’ class at UW popular
    columbian.com
    SEATTLE — Did you hear about the researchers in China who said they’d developed an algorithm that could predict whether somebody was a criminal by scanning a photo of their fac…
    Washington (WA)

SEATTLE — Did you hear about the researchers in China who said they’d developed an algorithm that could predict whether somebody was a criminal by scanning a photo of their face?

The researchers used “fancy machine learning” to eliminate human biases and come up with a scientific way to determine criminality by examining facial features, University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom told his class in Mary Gates Hall one day last month.

“What do you guys think?” Bergstrom asked.

In unison, more than 100 students responded out loud: “Bulls—!”

Exactly.

Biology professor Bergstrom and Information School professor Jevin West are co-teaching a seminar this quarter that’s all about BS — or, precisely, “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data.”

The 10-week seminar class has achieved the academic version of a chart-topping pop single: At the UW, it reached its 160-student capacity shortly after registration opened this spring.

Its reach across the globe is even more impressive. Colleges in Canada, France, Portugal, England and Australia have contacted the professors about teaching a version of the course this fall. A partial list: Carnegie Mellon University, Hofstra College, Iowa State University, Stanford University, Columbia University, UCLA, Oxford University (England), Universite de Nantes (France), Murdoch University (Australia), University of Guelph (Canada) and Instituto Piaget (Portugal).

Currently, a Catholic high-school teacher in Minnesota and a tech college in Copenhagen are teaching the course, and the University of Alaska Anchorage will teach it this fall.

The course syllabus is freely available, as are YouTube videos of the lectures.

West and Bergstrom are especially enthusiastic about helping high school teachers use the BS course materials to develop classes.

“Ultimately, that’s very important to us, because this is material that shouldn’t wait until your senior year of college,” West said.

The professors attracted widespread attention by using a profanity in the title of the course, but the interest is real. So far, the first video of their class lecture has been viewed more than 12,000 times.

Calling BS is not a class about fake news, and it’s not a political science course. Rather, the professors want students to develop a skeptical eye about big data and its limitations, particularly in the sciences. They’re teaching how to recognize results that are just too good to be true.

In their fifth lecture, Bergstrom and West explored why Google’s much-vaunted ability to predict a flu outbreak turned out to be, well, BS.

They picked apart the Chinese criminality project. They examined the mystery of why — with the exception of Sept. 11 — the 11th day of the month is referenced less frequently in books and literature than almost any other day of the month, at least as measured in a Google book-scanning project.(Think you know the answer? Read to the end.)

One of their main themes: If the data collected for use in an analysis isn’t solid, the result won’t be, either. “Garbage in, garbage out,” West told the class.

In the case of the algorithm that claimed to predict criminality, the Chinese researchers used pictures of incarcerated and innocent people to create a mathematical formula to identify people in each category.

But, as Bergstrom noted, the non-criminals were wearing faint smiles; the criminals had subtle frowns etched into their faces. “I have this hypothesis that this is a smile detector,” he told the class.

As for Google Flu Trends — Google’s instantaneous map of influenza hot spots, created using the geographic locations of searches for flu-like symptoms — the company appeared to be predicting outbreaks as much as two weeks faster than the Centers for Disease Control, which relied on confirmed reports of influenza from doctors and medical centers.

“When I read this article, I remember taking it to my class and saying, ‘Big data really is amazing,'” West said. “Big data is changing the world.”

But Google Flu Trends soon became the poster child of big-data hubris and overreach, West said. As time ticked…

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