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Protecting students from fake facts

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“When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” -- Benjamin Franklin

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” -- Albert Einstein

Ensuring our young people obtain a quality education has always been a challenge, but every generation seems to encounter new struggles requiring new solutions, and these days an increasing problem is that of fake news.

There’s a natural human tendency to prefer information that agrees with our opinions and feelings. Thanks to the Internet, however, we now have the ability to spread information among our friends, drowning out differing views, while computer algorithms, originally designed to personalize our Internet experience, deliver up information that’s already being filtered before we even see it. This is called the “filter bubble,” and it ensures that most of us are only seeing a narrow range of information, and a growing percentage of that information is simply false. The two quotes at the top of this article, for instance, although both went viral on social media in recent memory, are fake; neither man said the words ascribed to him.

The filter bubble and fake news have combined to have a strong effect on political debate, and this is the topic of many a discussion on politics. Less acknowledged is the impact it’s having on education. A recent study [NOTE: PDF document] found that huge numbers of students of all ages, from middle school to college, are unable to distinguish between false information (and images) and falsehoods. These young people live a significant percentage of their lives online, and the digital world is witnessing a rising tide of false information on every subject, particularly history and science. What can be done to protect young people from the lies? How can youngsters be expected to spot falsehoods when grownups fall for them so easily?

1. Emphasize book learning

Yes, books can be just as biased and false as those Facebook quote images. However for most of human history, books were difficult and expensive to produce, so market forces meant there was less motivation to jam them with nonsense. Track down well-researched and properly-edited books on history and science, read them thoroughly -- while relying on a number of sources, not just one or two -- and make sure you and your youngster have a solid foundation of knowledge. Yes, try to read them and discuss them together, because all will benefit from this process. The greater your level of knowledge the greater your odds of spotting falsehoods.


2. Learn how to spot opinion disguised as fact

People have very strong opinions these days, and a certain number of your fellow citizens feel the need to create articles and images to bolster those opinions. In truth, however, these attempts are often very clumsy and easy to spot if you’re looking out for them. The first step is being able to say, “that doesn’t sound right.” From there, you can do a web search that will let you know in very short time whether the “fact” is real or not. Always remember the power of opinion. Pretty soon you’ll start to see them everywhere.


3. Question everything

It would be nice to just sit back, relax and read. But the truth is, the explosion of false information means it’s necessary to maintain a sense of suspicion and doubt at all times. In the above-referenced Stanford study, even undergrads at that highly-respected university were unable to identify questionable sources of information, or simply didn’t bother trying to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources. And even web searching may not pave the way to truth, because false information can sometimes spread so widely that it permanently ranks high in search results. Even alleged fact-checking sources can be suspect, displaying biases even as they claim to emphasize fact. Snopes is still reliable, but it can be hard to find truly reliable sources.

4. Be prepared for arguments

Because the filter bubble gives people information that matches their feelings and preexisting opinions, they can get very upset when that information is questioned. So it can be difficult to decide whether or not to challenge information one’s friends are gleefully sharing. One opinion might be that lies should be fought wherever they’re encountered; another might be that too much challenging may quickly make one friendless. Choose carefully.


5. Don’t hate opposing opinions

Opinions are valuable, and we should assume that everyone has them. But opinions are only a small part of a human being. Beyond our opinions we have thoughts, feelings, experiences and a spiritual and physical reality that is unique to all of us. It is inevitable that we will encounter people with different opinions. Yes, it is sad that a discussion of facts ends up being about opinions, but it’s the power of opinion that’s driving this false facts phenomenon. People aren’t stupid for believing different things, nor are they evil or subhuman.


Perhaps by connecting with one another, we can chip away at the filter bubble and start shaping our opinions based on facts, rather than the other way round. Most importantly, we need to recognize the threat posed to education by this phenomenon -- we need to tackle it before it starts to cause real damage.

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