St. Louis is the capital of Missouri.
Read that statement again. A trained bullshit-spotter might have realized it immediately. St. Louis is not the capital of Missouri. A simple Google search reveals that the actual capital of Missouri is Jefferson City.
A purposefully-mislabeled state capital, as in this case, is an example of what can be known as disinformation. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines disinformation as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”
Ziad Munson, an associate professor of sociology, believes disinformation has always been an issue, but says it’s become more of a problem because of changes in the structure of how we communicate.
“We are at a precipice in society,” he said. “The way in which we think about information and the way in which we think about truth, democracy and consent of the governed all depend on people being able to identify and call out BS in ways that are better than what they’re doing now.”
Munson created the course “Calling Bullshit” at Lehigh after learning about a course under the same name offered at the University of Washington. The aim of this course is to help students cultivate critical thinking skills, which they can use to navigate a world he says is awash in “bullshit.”
Munson said he wants students to leave his course with the ability to identify when they encounter mistruths and to have strategies for calling them out.
“We have a lot of technologies that we’re not accustomed to, our values and social structures have not kept pace to accommodate,” Munson said. “Part of the problem is this mismatch between the pace of technology and the pace of our lives. We need to catch those things up to technology.”
SOC 197: Calling Bullshit is not a requirement for any major at Lehigh, yet 58 students have enrolled in the course.
Sociology major Anneke Roy, ‘21, said she heard of the class through a course she took with Munson last semester. Roy said she was interested in how calling bullshit might relate to the 2020 election cycle and chose to enroll.
“(This class) is really taking education at Lehigh to the next step,” Roy said. “It’s shaping our education around the world. Instead of learning stuff, and going out and trying to find out how the stuff you learned applies to the real world, we’re actually learning things we can take and apply to the real world.”
Julian Savage, ‘23, was drawn to the course because of its eye-catching name.
Savage said “Calling Bullshit” has inspired him to learn more about how spotting disinformation can apply to other aspects of his life.
“The class is interesting,” Savage said. “We’re not learning stuff that doesn’t matter. It feels like everything we talk about is either important now or is going to be important in the future.”
Savage said the course has helped him gain an understanding of how to catch biases within the information he comes across, specifically in politics.
Roy also says “Calling Bullshit” has made an impact on her life.
“Being able to take the stuff we learn in this course, and being able to think critically about the information I get from Twitter has been huge,” Roy said. “I’ve checked myself a couple times before spreading disinformation.”
As Munson continues to teach the course, he wants his students to incorporate what they’ve learned in his classroom into their everyday lives.
“’Calling Bullshit’ is fundamentally a foundational course about critical thinking and making one’s way in an information world,” Munson said. “It’s an important skill set for students, regardless of what they want to do, what major they’re in or what career they’re going to have. I want to see what’s being taught in this class be a basis for everyone as they go out in the world.”