The History of Bullshit
“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” – Harry G. Frankfurt
Bullshit. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s all over social media, smart phones, televisions, and computers. Wading through mountains of bullshit has become a regular part of life for many people in the United States. This course seeks to understand why we have so much bullshit and what we can do about it.
We will examine “bullshit” as a category of knowledge that is distinct from lies, propaganda, myths, nonsense, or fantasies. In general, we will be adhering to philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit as a claim made for a purpose that is indifferent to truth. We will use the tools of social psychology, political science, media studies, history, the history of science, philosophy, and communications studies to understand bullshit as it relates to American media, society, and politics. We will also seek to contextualize our current moment in a longer history of American bullshit. Finally, we will work toward a methodology for recognizing and fighting bullshit.
This course does not advocate for one political point of view over another. Bullshit is endemic in American culture, and does not only reside on the “left” or on the “right.” Yet that does not mean, as many commentators have concluded, that both sides’ points of view on a particular issue (such as whether or not the Holocaust happened, to take a particularly extreme example) are equally valid or equally worthy of debate. Indeed, we will historicize this “both sides-ism” and its implications for American society. This course challenges students to evaluate truth-claims not based on their relationship to their pre-existing politics or ideology, but based on the available evidence.
- Critical Thinking: No matter what you study at Indiana University, it’s likely that you rely on information and media in order to learn. Moreover, as a world citizen in 2018, you are constantly facing a barrage of social media, news, and information. This class’s readings, discussion, and assignments will challenge you to reflect critically on your own relationship with media.
- Skills of Inquiry and Analysis: All strong arguments are based on evidence. This class will teach you about effectively finding and evaluating evidence for your own arguments. It will provide a model for productive, evidence-based conversations about challenging issues.
- Civic Knowledge: We are all part of a larger information ecosystem, and what we do affects others. Sharing a story on social media is therefore an ethical choice. In investigating the cultural, political, historical, and social conditions that foster bullshit in society, we will wrestle with the question of what we can do to challenge the spread of fake news and bullshit.
- Meeting with instructor: 5%
- Attendance and participation: 25%
- Reading responses on Canvas: 25%
- Information inventory: 15%
- Fake news piece: 15%
- Final: 15%
Meeting with instructor
You are required to find a time to meet with me one-on-one sometime within the first three weeks of class. This meeting is intended to provide an opportunity to discuss your expectations and hopes for the class, your learning needs, and any concerns you may have in a casual, non-confrontational atmosphere. We may also discuss how this course can help you in your particular course of study at Indiana University and your career.
This conversation does not need to be long. It could last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. We may speak in office hours, before or after class, or at another time depending on your availability. In extraordinary circumstances, I will consider staging this conversation over email (though I prefer an in-person conversation).
You are responsible for either attending office hours or setting up another time to meet with me during the first three weeks of class. This assignment is graded as a pass/fail. In other words, if you attend a meeting with me, you will receive a 100% A+ for the assignment, which constitutes 5% of your final grade. If you do not, you will receive 0%.
Attendance and Participation
This is mostly a discussion-based class. There will be relatively little lecturing, no tests, and only a few writing assignments. It is therefore very important that you read the material, pay attention, and participate in class discussion. For each day of class, you will be assessed from a scale of 0–3:
- 0: Absent, unexcused.
- 1: Attended class, but failed to demonstrate engagement with course materials.
- 2: Arrived late or left early, but otherwise participated well. Or, limited engagement with course materials in class.
- 3: Attended class, engaged closely with course materials.
At the end of the semester, I will drop the lowest four attendance and participation grades. If you have been absent four times, those zeroes will be dropped. If you attended class every day, but had four bad days for whatever reason, resulting in grades of “1,” those will also be dropped.
However, in addition to your attendance and participation grade, I will assess an additional 1/3rd of a letter grade penalty for every absence beyond the fourth. So if you are absent five times, your lowest four grades will be dropped, but the fifth will result in lowering your final grade from (for instance) a B+ to a B, or from a C- to a D+. Absences beyond the first four may be excused only in the most extreme circumstances, and only then with documentation of the emergency (for example: being in the hospital counts as an emergency; attending a wedding does not).
Note on participation: I understand that some students are more comfortable in class discussion than other students. Your participation will not be assessed solely based on the number of times you raise your hand to speak. Rather, I will also be noting your involvement in group work, whether or not you are paying attention, your respectfulness to other students, and other factors.
Final note: absences do not excuse you from posting reading responses on Canvas. If you are absent for a particular day, you will be penalized for also failing to post a reading response on Canvas. The only exception is if you are able to produce documentation for an emergency. If you are expecting to be absent in advance, I will expect you to read ahead and post your response to a reading in advance.
For each day that you read something, you must write a short response on Canvas. These responses, which should be around 150–200 words, should be posted at least four hours before class time. They will help to guide that day’s conversation in class. Reading responses will be graded on a scale of 0–3:
- 0: No response.
- 1: minimal engagement with course material.
- 2: some engagement with course material.
- 3: substantial engagement with course material.
Additionally, if you turn in a reading response late, it will be penalized by 1 point for every day that it is late.
In general, these responses should not summarize the material, but rather respond to or evaluate it. Here are some suggestions for potential starting points:
- Ask a question.
- Discuss what surprised you about the text.
- Connect the reading to other course materials.
- Reflect on the relationship between the reading and our present (though please try to keep personal anecdotes to a minimum).
- Identify the source’s argument and evidence and evaluate its soundness. Do you agree with the author based on the evidence provided?
You will complete an inventory of your information diet from the beginning to the class to the assignment’s due date of September 13. If you read a news story, a book, an online video, or an academic article for a class, make note of it. Think about the following: Where did you find it? Did someone recommend it to you? Have you heard of the source before? How would you describe the source? What kind of information does it contain? Does it confirm or challenge your existing beliefs? Would you consider it to be high quality information, bullshit, or something else?
This is not an essay, but a journal lasting from the first day of the course through September 12. You might write a paragraph for each day (“Dear Diary, Today I read nine BuzzFeed listicles…”), or bullet points for each piece of information you came into contact with (“Grandma shared something from InfoWars on Facebook again.”), or use a spreadsheet, or you might prefer to visualize or express your relationship to information in a different way. I will provide a spreadsheet template on Canvas that may be helpful. However, I will accept expressions or representations of your relationship to information in many forms. If you are considering a non-written medium, I would appreciate it if you would run your idea by me (in office hours, before or after class, or over email) before pursuing it.
Additionally, please provide a short paragraph that discusses your overall observations about your information diet. How often do you read things that confirm your pre-existing beliefs? Did anything about this inventory surprise you? How much low-quality information do you come into contact with? We will be discussing our inventories in class. If you do not wish to discuss a particular part of your inventory, please make that clear when you turn it in. It is due on Canvas by 11:59pm on September 12.
Fake News Piece
Create a piece of bullshit that would be plausible in the twenty-first century. This assignment can take many forms: a Facebook post, a fake news article, a viral video, a data visualization, or anything else that might have seized the attention of readers and observers from in the last eighteen years. Anything relating to the period from 2000 to 2018 is fair game.
In addition, you must also provide written a brief (one page or less) rationale for why you think this would be an effective piece of misinformation. This rationale should connect your project with course conversations and materials. Pieces will be evaluated based on their creativity as well as the extent to which they suggest an engagement with the ideas and materials in this course. Please submit it to Canvas by class time on Tuesday, Nov. 13 and bring a copy to class.
For your final project, you must complete one of two projects. In both cases, you will present your findings to the class in the final week:
- Option 1: Find a piece of bullshit (one which we have not discussed in depth in class) and thoroughly debunk it. Use course concepts, discussions, and materials to show why it is bullshit and to explain the stakes of debunking it. Who created it? What purpose does it serve? Why might people believe it?
- Option 2: Offer an argument/proposal for how American society might change in a way that would prevent the spread of bullshit in society. This could range from anything from a Constitutional amendment to a grant proposal for a new institution to a polemical piece for a publication to a piece or art or poetry for the new world order. In any case, it should be forward-looking, and informed by our course discussions and materials.
You will be graded on your presentation and the thoughtfulness of its use of course materials. Please provide me with a short statement about your topic by Tuesday, Nov. 13 so that I can offer feedback and ideas. If you do not email or turn in this short statement, you will receive a penalty of 10% from your project’s grade.
The presentation should last for about 8–10 minutes. It should frame the problem you’re addressing, provide context for it, and address it using evidence. In each of those stages, you must demonstrate engagement with course themes, conclusions, and materials. I also encourage you to explore different formats if you wish. You may use presentation management systems such as PowerPoint or Prezi, or other forms of media including a video, a web page, or a piece of visual art.
You will present your projects on either Dec. 4 or Dec. 6 in class.