Unlearn Truth — Says Sydney University

Turns out, if I have the translation right, that new logo of Sydney University might be Verum Dediscere. Unlearn Truth.

I learned of this in a tweet from CC Pecknold. That’s where the picture above arose. A new ad campaign to encourage students to journey to Sydney and be indoctrinated in non-truth.

Reacting to the original tweet, one fellow said, “Their toilets swirl the other way, too.”

The Unlearn home page makes several promises. Under a picture of two men presumably “oriented” toward sodomy and pretending to be married, Sydney tells us to “Unlearn love”. Under jailed manicured hands with pink nail polish “Unlearn criminal”. Under a marijuana plant “Unlearn medicine”.

Clicking “Unlearn love”—because what could be better than unlearning love—brings us this:

From the day we’re born, we love. But what makes us love one thing, one way, one person over another? And how can we use love to create a more inclusive and diverse community?…

Diversity and inclusion have always been an important part of who we are…

Today, it’s one of the reasons we support our Ally Network, which promotes cultural change and creates an inclusive community for our staff and students to thrive and realise their potential.

We believe that a diverse, inclusive community is a stronger one.

They didn’t get the memo that Diversity is our weakness. Skip that. Did you ever notice that whenever somebody starts telling you about a subject “Keep an open mind” you know you are about to be bamboozeled? Same thing when they tell you about “We want an inclusive community”. Nobody who says this means it. What they want instead is a rigorously controlled and restricted community.

Under “Unlearn criminal”, this:

Good citizens live safely behind a nation’s walls or its protecting seas. Criminals, we’re told, sneak inside our borders, around our systems, and beat the queue.

So far, so good. The very definition of “criminals” is those who break the law. But, no. What they really mean is “Keeping minds — and doors — open.” Everybody has the right to live where they want, as long as where they want to live is certain Western countries (and they’re not white).

Under “Unlearn Truth”, this:

Professor Nick Enfield and his team are fighting the war against deception through the Post Truth Initiative. By bringing together political scientists, academics and researchers to examine legitimacy and fraud, they run public forums on the problems created by scientific fraud and explore why people are convinced by stories, but not by facts.

They’re also building a “Bullshit Detector” — a computer capable of analysing speeches, articles and even tweets to tell if someone is being deceptive.

Maybe people are convinced by “stories, but not by facts” is because facts are not convincing of anything: you first need a story before you can even have facts. Same in science. You don’t know what facts to measure without a guiding theory, i.e. story.

I also call BS on the BS detector. It’s not that such a thing is a priori impossible, but it isn’t needed. And it will give the false patina of Science! to what are bound to be political judgments.

The deatils of unlearning are this:

Why unlearn?

We’re changing the way we teach and how our students learn…

Unlearning is about challenging the established, and questioning the accepted.

It’s not about ignoring what you already know, but it’s about being brave enough to question it and break down old rules so we can write new ones. It’s about looking at things in the context of today, and tomorrow.

Because who needs tradition? And who wants history, that ugly place full of hate and crusty rules?

Following this are banalites about “the future of work” and cell phones, presumably the two subjects which most interest potential students. Also a video whose splash image is of three women in hijabs holding skate boards. Because nothing shots “Australia!” better.

All this leads to a link called “The Sydney Undergraduate Experience“. Here are the promised experiences:

– gain a deep understanding of your chosen disciplines of study and learn from those who are leaders in their fields

– set yourself up to go anywhere in the world by gaining the skills and understanding to work effectively across cultural boundaries

– study across or work with other disciplines to build your skills and tackle some of the most complex challenges of our time

– bridge the gap between theory and application by working on real-world industry, community, research and entrepreneurship projects.

These eighty words are almost entirely empty of content, and thus were probably typed out by a graduate in “Communications”, that ubiquitous amorphous major. You can’t only fault Sydney here, as these bullet points are found on many university sites.


  1. brian (bulaoren)

    Is unlearning like getting toothpaste back into the tube? That gay couple, mentioned at the start of this post, just might be the perfect poster image; going ‘in’ the ‘out’ door.
    Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, our antipodial cousins teach us that there are still fresh thresholds of imbecility to be conquored.

  2. Gary

    Now I know why there are no more Monty Python-type comedy troupes around. There’s nothing serious left to parody.

  3. Sheri

    Brian and Gary: Excellent comments! Nothing to add to that!

  4. Gary

    Sheri, how about “Those who deny the truth are doomed to getting smacked upside the head”?

  5. What was Oscar Wilde’s comment about life imitating art? So we have a burlesque, a parody of life. What’s next? I think the problem is that academia is a preserve, where you can’t shoot or incarcerate the crazies. All in the goal of seeking greater knowledge.

  6. bat8

    Universities just managed to go below zero in terms of how much you can learn there. I suppose that now they burn books and papers rather than write them, and make students unemployable rather than qualified for a job.

  7. Ken

    Great example of cherry-picking!

    The whole point of “unlearning truth” is to learn “how to identify bullshit” — per the University of Sydney website and article, “Linguistics professor dissects language to unlearn truth,” 11 September 2017. That’s available on-line.

    The substance of the article begins with this quote:

    “The essence of unlearning is to unlock our confident beliefs and subject them to scrutiny.” -Professor Nick Enfield

    In other words, the idea of “unlearning truth” is to subject closely held “truths” to scrutiny … because they might not be true after all. Take nothing for granted — even what you take for granted. Double-check, to be sure.

    Here’s how the professor describes it:

    “Human cognition is full of biases. For example, there is the confirmation bias. When we already hold a certain belief, we will readily and unquestioningly accept evidence and arguments in favour of that belief. But we will treat evidence against that belief with a great deal of scepticism. A range of other biases similarly result in something called ‘lock-off’. This is the process of closing off further consideration of a problem once we have decided what we think, or what we should do. Lock-off is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reduces the complexity and cost of our decision-making. On the other, it causes us to stop thinking further about a problem, and therefore to become less flexible and less able to learn and adapt. The essence of unlearning is to unlock our confident beliefs and subject them to scrutiny.”

    Does anybody really have an issue with that???

    Further along, the professor sums up some current work: “we are looking at today’s crisis of rational discourse and the range of post-truth phenomena known by names such as alternative facts, fake news, propaganda, and bullshit.”

    That presents a nice segway to a section in the same article entitled, “Why is it important to identify bullshit?”

    The response has such profound ramifications it is presented, below, in its entirety:

    “Bullshit is awful. It is poison. Human nature is such that we mostly take others’ statements in good faith, and when we speak without concern for the truth we are abusing that good faith. Good decision-making depends on having reliable starting assumptions, and the spread of misinformation, myths, lies, and deceit not only compromises good thinking, it devalues the coin of rational discourse. We need to confront bullshit wherever it is found, especially in public discourse, and we need to strive to make sure that it is regarded as the pollutant that it truly is. In our SREI 2020 project, we are looking at a range of ways to understand and confront the problem, drawing on philosophy, communications, political science, linguistics, and more. In the ‘bullshit detector’ project, we are using tools from linguistics and information technologies to develop a tool that automatically alerts us to the signals of deceptive talk. It’s a hard problem!”

    Again, who among us has any problems with that???

    What never ceases to amaze us, here at this blog, is how many people read the blogger’s essay, and then seem to mindlessly accept the statements and proceed to comment without fact-checking first.

    Readers should, by now (no thanks to Briggs), realize that it is Prof Enfield that is espousing “unlearning truth” as a means of ensuring one does, in fact, have a hold on bona fide truth, and not BS masquerading as truth. That some others didn’t hesitate to pounce on the catchy theme, “unlearn truth” and in the process corrupt it — adding to the ever growing BS — should come as no surprise.

    After all, as Harry G. Frankfurt noted in his tour de force, “On Bullshit,” (“Bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”) “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.”

    Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” is available from the Princeton University Press, or, online in PDF without mech searching. Frankfurt is the 2017 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecturer, American Council of Learned Societies, Winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy, The Book Standard. With credentials like that you know he’s got things to say.

    As James Fredal (Ohio State University) notes in his, “Rhetoric and Bullshit,” (also available on-line in PDF format) the study of BS has splurged to a philosophical niche research topic unto its own, even earning a suitably opaque label — “taurascatics” –…and none too soon, with much room to spread. And spread it has:

    Consider, “On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the
    British case,” by Eleonora Belfiore, Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, University of Warwick, Millburn House, Science Park, Coventry, CV4 7HS, UK; published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy. The article aims to show that many of the key actors in the cultural policy debate indeed display the ‘indifference to how things really are’ and the cultivation of vested interests, which Frankfurt attributes to the activity of bullshitting.

    If one is tired of pondering the implications of the profusion of BS, take a whimsical on-line journey to the New Age Bullshit Generator (an idea inspired from watching philosophy debates involving Deepak Chopra), click on the “Reionize Electrons” button at the top, and generate and enjoy “a full page of New Age poppycock” (says the site; as to whether “poppycock,” New Age or otherwise, qualifies as “bullshit” is left as an open question for further research).

  8. Sander van der Wal

    Given that Australia started as a convict colony, it is no surprise that they want to unlearn crime. The surprise is that it took them so long to realize that.

  9. Gina

    Unlearn truth or learn untruth? This is the question.

  10. per


    The author’s political objective is obvious. In this scholarly essay about finding the truth through an algorithm, system, or computer program, he is looking not for untruths, but for bullshit. Is bullshit a lie? A partial truth? A distasteful opinion? He can call almost anything bullshit and never be held liable for the statement. Unless it is pulled through a stock yard, I have a huge problem with a bullshit detector.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    Unlearning is about challenging the established, and questioning the accepted.

    But the establishment nowadays favors “diversity” and opposes “fascism,” and the accepted is inter alia that non-marriage is marriage. Now what?

    What happens when the computer algorithm detects BS in their own material? [Easy-peasy: they will rewrite the algorithm.]

    When the Usual Suspects talk about questioning the official line, they always mean to question the line of their designated target. They never mean to question their own line.* As Ken reminds us, folks seldom question their own assumptions.

    But what happens when the established value is to question established values?

    *Apparently, no one reads Thucydides any more. Perhaps they have unlearned the classics.

    “For the usual thing among men is that when they want something they will, without any reflection, leave that to hope, while they will employ the full force of reason in rejecting what they find unpalatable.”
    — Thucydides IV, 108

  12. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

    Just wondering, what does this university think students are “learning” in high school to begin with?

  13. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

    And by the way, I must hasten to add that I went to a very good, public high school, in my home town. My question should have included the qualifier “in general, overall.”

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