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.

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  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.

Reinforcing bad info: The side effect of debunking

imageIt’s not the best job in the world to bust people’s clouds. How often have you been thanked for providing the Snopes link to debunk that urban legend? The typical reaction to Snopes-type debunking is to ignore it or reject it. In the former, people will continue to promote the falsehood when it’s advantageous to them. In the latter, they will double down on their original belief in the falsehood in what is called the Backfire Effect.

Snopes has a tendency to write headlines that reinforce the myth. Here are the top two stories from a screen cap today as examples.Read More »

Education gap: How much does this have to do with today’s messed up politics?

I read this article today in the Washington Post about a family man in Oregon who rather suddenly became so disillusioned with America that he formed a “patriot” militia group, just in case the government, their own government, moves against them.

There are so many questions I’d like to ask the guy featured in this article. He seems like a family man, passionate, and concerned. But he also seems extremely misguided in how government works or is supposed to work. While I can understand his worry, he’s been heavily influenced by propaganda from conspiratorial fear-mongers and people I consider criminals for stealing from the government.

I wish I could ask him dozens of questions about how he thinks things should work in order to be fair for everyone in the entire country. But, I suspect our differing assumptions (and maybe different values entirely) wouldn’t allow us to find much common ground.

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John Oliver f**king skewers media science

John Oliver skewered pop media “science” coverage on his recent show. It wasn’t all that funny but it was true. And depressing. What has our society become? So smart, we get stupid.

As an observer of the relationship between science and the public, he’s totally right for pointing out disturbing trends of morning news shows hyping one bad study, news orgs blowing a single study out of proportion, press releases jazzing up a study to get coverage, and headlines that don’t reflect at all what the study is even about. This sets us up for a whole lot more trouble than we already have when it comes to science literacy in the U.S. Take a look…Read More »

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If Trumpers take over, we’re doomed as doomed could be

The daily news is a parade of absurd and thoughtless things Trump said and did. It’s awful stuff. Today, as I was perusing the latest Trump-Hitler comparison, I saw this article on Huffington Post in news results labeled “in depth” and was surprised to find that it was hard-hitting and possibly, scarily, true. (Note, it was based on this piece by Amanda Taub on Vox.) The premise of the article is that it’s not the person that’s the problem, it’s that people accept the twisted rhetoric he delivers and will vote for him. How did we go so low?  There will always be big-mouthed, narcissistic, sexist, racist, very rich white guys, but it’s concerning that a large part of the population will support such a person for one of the most critical and demanding jobs on earth. President. And it may be just the beginning. Or the End.

The article by Jeff Schweitzer lists all the really disturbing things Trump promotes that causes 40 to 70% of the audience to cringe or swear while the remaining portion loudly cheers and agrees:Read More »

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Don’t skip the bats!

At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you can skip the bat display. There is a sign that directs you past the enclosure of Malayan flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) should you, for some incomprehensible reason, wish to not see them. These large fruit bats are impressive and utterly lovely; I could not wait to catch a glimpse.

The woman in front of me split from her husband and toddler and pushed a stroller past the exhibit with an audible intention of avoiding the bats. She was afraid.

I’m at a loss.

She was afraid of this:

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