American society ignores learning how to think critically – it’s hardly surprising where we ended up

Several pieces have come out in the media since the election regarding the real people behind fake news. They say they didn’t affect the election, they don’t support Trump, they did it to show how easy it was to fool people, they don’t feel responsible or badly about it.

Sure, they don’t. They are greedy, unethical people who made a ton of money off of people’s naïveté and strong emotions and are now justifying it to themselves. I have no sympathy for such scum. I liken them to drug dealers – those who make poison and market it to the people who eat it up. If there were no drug dealers, it would be far more difficult to get drugs and people generally would be less likely to suffer from that. So, yes, you, fake-news dealers, you bear some responsibility for peppering the online communities with this blight.

But it’s not that simple, obviously. The deeper blame lies with the education system, American values, and parents who fail to teach their kids about how the real world works.

Many factors came into play to get us to the state of misinformation (and the current president-elect) we have now. It will be difficult to fix the problem that about half of the public can’t readily tell fact from fiction and they may not care. The problem seems far worse for those who identify with the political “right” but it is bad across the board. Liberals, too, fall for nonsense that “feels” good and perpetuate dross.

A piece came out today on a large study of students of various ages and incomes in the US intended to evaluate reactions to internet content – tweets, web articles, and comments – for credibility. The results were appalling.

“Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real” 

I looked at the report that came with it. [PDF]  It’s a snapshot of how kids fail at thinking. THINKING: something that, as a parent, I know is taught very poorly, if at all, in public schools. The researchers are “shocked” at the results. How can kids be so oblivious? I’m not surprised at all. This result was inevitable. Kids are raised on fiction and no where along the line were they told how to judge veracity. HOW CAN THEY NOT BE OBLIVIOUS?

But the report released to the public is missing context. There was no reference to students in past generations who received their information from television. Were those kids better at telling the difference between real and fake “news”? Could they tell the difference between factual documentary shows and fictional? Did they think that stories in the National Enquirer were real? I’d like to know this because I don’t think kids are much different with regards to judging veracity now than they were in my school years. One social difference is that children now have incredible access to content across the spectrum – good, bad, satirical, and utter bilge. (They are also shielded from real explanations about the world from parents who don’t talk to their kids objectively about events in the world and how to make sound decisions informed by reliable knowledge.) With limited time to evaluate what they read, see and hear, and the social pressure to go with the information flow, kids mess up all the time (and so do adults). We could have forecast these results.

The solution proposed by the educators is to deliberately focus on teaching kids how to evaluate information sources. Fine, but that doesn’t go far enough. I would propose all schools REQUIRE a class (or classes) in critical thinking. Evaluations from college-level classes specific to learning about pseudoscience and why it’s faulty show this approach can be effective, at least somewhat. Students learn to recognize why some claims common in society are woo-woo by being shown how to dissect them and think more scientifically. Confronting bogus claims, including misleading information passed off as news or opinion, is a big topic and we encounter the beast every day. This is not just a problem with “fake news”, it’s lack of everyday practical skepticism, which entails employing critical thinking to fix.

The “skepticals”1 in the crowd have been aware of this for decades, even centuries. Sensational tales, fake news, gossip, and urban legends have been around forever! And people always fall for them. I grew up with tabloids and terrible “true” stories on television. I wasn’t always sure what was factual and there was no internet around to fact check. Today, we are pressured more than ever to be aware of what’s hot in world chatter. We hear not just what our immediate family, friends, and neighbors tell us, but we have a global and huge network of people and sources who shoot information at us every single minute, all day and night. It’s an information free-for-all like never before. Everything is news, everyone can be news, anyone can create news. No rules, no editors, no standards, no limits. None of us are prepared to adequately deal with this situation.

Kids of the past generations were not prepared to properly deal with evaluating news or any other kinds of claims, either. There was a good chance they didn’t learn how to think through claims as they got older and grew up to be adults who were uncritical thinkers. They had kids who never learned practical skepticism for themselves and it remained unemphasized and ignored, even discouraged, in schools. Now we are flooded with information and we are “shocked” that kids can’t properly navigate it? It’s no shock, most adults can’t either. Critical thinking is a learned skill. If a person is not taught how to do it, she can’t do it well.

The modern origin of organized skepticism was sparked by belief in astrology, psychics, ghosts and UFOs. We’re in far more treacherous waters these days because society hasn’t emphasized learning how to think about everything, all the information we are presented with as facts, and so news and information about political candidates and global affairs are full of lies and manufactured tales. This inevitably leads to poor decision-making and is a threat to democracy. We’re in deep trouble. 

There are few mechanisms out there to help teachers, school boards, state education agencies and parents teach kids how to think. It should have been a top goal for skeptical organizations to focus on education but aims were inward instead towards those who were already on board with the importance of critical thinking. The general public was ill-served by an entire society who failed to opt-in to thinking about the future.


  1. I am moving away from using the term “skeptics” because of the common different meaning. “Skepticals” means those who have some understanding about applying scientific and practical skepticism to questionable claims.

10 thoughts on “American society ignores learning how to think critically – it’s hardly surprising where we ended up

  1. I don’t mean to be critical but the last paragraph of this post is actually at the end of the second to last paragraph as well. Although, I think that last paragraph certainly bears repeating so you might want to leave it the way it is.

  2. I have been doing a small survey of my mostly first-year community college students for the past 3 years. The results are invariably appalling on the 25-item list of out-and-out conspiracies, ranging from Bigfoot to “Aliens Built the Pyramids.” Top vote-getters usually are Roswell, Area 51, Alien Abductions, Obama “Birther,” 9/11 deniers and Chemtrails. What’s most alarming though, in my opinion, is the fact that at least one student in every class believes the Holocaust never happened. That could be attributed to noise, perhaps — that is, the student mis-read the statement or maybe was just pranking. But this year, out of 63 students who took the survey, 6 agreed with that statement…that is, about 10%.

    I make the survey anonymous but one student volunteered that he got his info on that from the “dark web.”

    On a somewhat positive note, only two students (out of the 63 this semester) agreed with the statement that “dairy products are associated with autism.”

  3. I don’t know yet what I think of your skepticals vs skeptics term change proposal, having only just read it. Some terms become too loaded to be efficacious. “Evil” comes to mind, as does “theory”.

    I wish the scientific community would abandon the use of theory as a synonym for idea, notion, hypothesis, speculation, conjecture, musing, etc., and instead limit its use to (copied from a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity (Synonyms: principle, law, doctrine).

    Hundreds of thousands, if not some millions, of scientists is a large number to persuade to abandon an accepted word usage with centuries of historical application. But the anti-science crowd, particularly religious anti-evolution Creationists, are handed a heavy hammer with the sloppy, water cooler casual conversation usage (Aunt Bee, have you heard people in town repeating that wild theory Barney has about the Governor up in Raleigh bein’ a space alien or somethin’ else weird?) of theory, and there are hundreds of millions of them who won’t or can’t accept the complete definition of the word. Easier for the scientists to use synonyms where they fit, and take that hammer right out of the hands of the nuts on the school board. Not that this will stop the push under Trump/de Vos to replace public schools with religious charter schools.

    The GOP is a party of theocracy now, and they will not be supportive of critical thinking in any school in the country, including at the collegiate level. Still, we gotta persevere in an effort to implement the idea. If the country does not succumb to authoritarian theocracy in the next four years, maybe critical thinking can be introduced universally in the 20’s. i was not formally taught it until an instructor in a 300 level English class at college made it a half-semester class, perhaps the most valuable and easily the most long-lasting positive effect course in college I ever took. This was in 1970.

    There were only 4 tv stations then, of course. NPR and PBS had just been created and was far more independent and objective, as ithey would remain until things there began to slide late in the following decade, a check to tabloid and partisan media of all sorts. Newspapers were seldom corporate holdings ownership valued solely for their bottom line, as the six ownership behemoths currently do, and those in larger cities did not conceal editorial slant while competing with both the New York and LA Times, the Post, the Tribune, and another dozen or so major dailies as reliable news purveyors. Only a few still do, and of course can’t afford these days to do much more than barely avoid total financial collapse, let alone pay investigative staff.

    Fairness in Broadcasting prevented 3 hour propaganda radio or tv host followed by 3 hour propaganda host, around the clock, all on the same side of the ideological spectrum. It is gone, and right wing radio/tv gone wild are joined by hundreds (thousands?) of internet sites with zero truth standards while corporate media abdicates truth and fact for salacious viewer enticement.

    I wish I had encouraging news to close with.

  4. I generally agree but a few thoughts:

    A) I am not sure if the goals of skepticism (rationalist, free-thinkers, science advocates and the ‘skeptical’) were off. A component of skeptical out reach was education. However, instead of finding the means to communicate rationalism and critical thinking and the desire to learn those skills the above noted the advocates of science, reason, and good scholarship went tribal. The tribe turned too much in on itself. Too much of the remaining time and energy spent on “outreach” consisted of trying to prove and show the world they were right. (Lists of logical fallacies. Lots of snarky work rediculing ideas and people as if this was efficient at winning friends and allies.) In short skeptics are all too human.

    B) Skeptics need to learn how to be inviting. We need to learn how to be interesting. We need to learn how to not come across as pretentious or superior. We need to show the practical everyday benefits of critical thinking. Skeptics need to SHOW we care about people. We need to learn how to embrace not only someone who enjoys reading Middle English text, comic books, Star Wars, computer tech, in this comfortable ‘nerdy’ realm but embrace folks who watch football, NASCAR, enjoy cars, motorcycles and spend the first Monday after Thanksgiving hunting deer. Every time I read or hear someone make a joke about ‘sports ball’ or mock the use camouflage as clothing choice I cringe. In short we need to stop being asses.

    C) I think education is important. It is very important. Although, I don’t think it will be successful unless we can get more “B” and less “A” too. If we want our educational system to add more classes on critical thinking then we have to get in the political muck and lobby. I mean really lobby. Upon refection the million dollar challenge money might have been better served giving a louder voice to skeptics in D.C., Dallas, or Harrisburg than in a contest that probably nobody was going to win.

    D) “American Values” is pretty vague. If one takes it all the way back to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and that’s considered a problem. Well then we’re just f—d.

  5. It’s very interesting to think about the Fairness in Broadcasting being lifted, bringing us the partisan glop they call “news”. I can’t even watch CNN anymore, after their despicable election idiocy (though they’ve been sliding down for many years). I’m hard pressed to imagine an American theocracy. Certainly not under Trump since he’s NO man of any god but money. Religion continues to fade. The evangelicals are not the leaders anymore. I can only hope that there is a resurgence of emphasis on fact checking and that the dip into denialism with this administration results in a backlash. I can only hope… and try my best. I made two kids that I hope will try their best to be informed responsible citizens as well.

  6. No skeptical org emphasizes educating the public. The JREF was the only one that tried. And they didn’t hit the mark, at least not in a sustained way. No spokespeople, no media outreach, no aide to teachers.

    I’m moving away from “skepticism”. But we still have to reclaim the term. I did cut out a bit more “inside skepticism” stuff. It’s pointless to go there anymore.

    Lobbying may be necessary. But giving help to teachers is easier and more direct as is providing a presence in media to reach the public.

    I see today’s American values as football above academics in colleges, trendy over brainy, fast cash over long term gain, playing the lottery over investing for retirement, spoon-fed ideas over figuring out the problem, YouTube over books, headlines over nuanced discussion. Cynical? Yes, but I hope we can gain back some portion of the population to be reasonable most of the time, people who pause instead of scream, to at least value and appreciate science, art, history, and diplomacy a little bit.

  7. I hope you are right, and my trepidation is overblown, re theocracy concern. Trump and his family members, and Bannon, are not active proponents. But Pence is, Trump appears to be nominating a very non-secular cabinet, and the GOP leadership ranks (and a huge majority of cabinet/agency nominees) are almost exclusively the same sort of Christian Dominion ideologues as (with the exception of Trump and Bush) the entirety of the 2016 Presidential candidate slate.

    These people fervently believe there is a Divine mandate to legally enshrine the Christian America the Founders (they erroneously claim) established, and that the fate of the country literally depends on accomplishing this pdq. The GOP is only six states shy of encacting any Constitutional amendment it desires, and they know the next 4-8 years is likely their last opportunity ever to make this happen.

    I’m not saying they absolutely can accomplish this, but I am saying they may decide to take a shot at it before changing U.S. demographics permanently close this window of opportunity. The number of self-reporting “nones” (of which maybe a fourth, at best, is non-theistic) will have little if any impact on GOP national leadership, or on all but a few (at best) of the Red states. I hope I am wrong about all of this, of course. And I may well be.

  8. I agree or perhaps empathize….somewhat….with Idoubtit’s idea of moving away from the term “skeptic” since it seems to be co-opted by groups abusing the term. The most prominent case in point was the attempt by the Australian Vaccination Network to become the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, Inc. (‘AVN’), (I think they were warned or reprimanded by the New South Wales government Health Care agency but not sure if that stopped them.)

    But replacing “skeptic” with “skepticals” probably doesn’t help, because there’s nothing stopping the faux skeptics from simply co-opting that term also, not to mention it’s not the most, uh, mellifluous term.

    But the term “skeptic” probably does need some rehabilitation. As when a friend earnestly queried me recently as to whether skeptics deny everything or just don’t believe anything. It took a few minutes of ‘splaining to convince the friend that it’s more like requiring or asking for a certain level of evidence for claims.

    (On a side note, I was overseeing a student writing a research paper on “existentialism” in class yesterday and asked why she had capitalized “atheist.” She (and her peer-reviewing classmate) both insisted that “Atheism” is a religion. They went on to say that atheists have a body of accepted beliefs and established groups. It took me a few minutes to point out that there are no churches, no pope or governing council, no scriptures (per se)….in fact nothing other than perhaps Meetup groups and humanist societies. I got the student to agree to un-cap the term because she knows I’ll catch it on the final paper, but I’m not entirely sure she really believed me. We could say she was . . .um . . .skeptical. No! Let’s not say that.

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