Searching for the Truth

Continuing my thoughts and writing about fake news, fake web pages, teaching search skills, and ultimately, trying to find the Truth of a matter, this post brings together for your consideration two web articles which are not new, but which work well together.

The first is Why Students Can’t Google their Way to the Truth, by Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, published 1 November 2016.  The authors describe their research at Stamford University: “Over the past 18 months, we administered assessments that tap young people’s ability to judge online information. We analyzed over 7,804 responses from students in middle school through college. At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.”

Students were asked to determine the trustworthiness of material on two organizations’ websites, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Pediatricians. 25 undergraduates at Stanford were asked to spend up to 10 minutes examining content on both sites.  “More than half concluded that the article from the American College of Pediatricians, an organization that ties homosexuality to pedophilia and which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, was “more reliable.” Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics never uncovered the differences between the two groups. Instead, they saw the two organizations as equivalent and focused their evaluations on surface features of the websites.”

When Wineberg and McGrew gave their task to professional fact-checkers, it became clear that these professionals used three strategies that are often unknown to, or not used by average readers:

  1. Landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing checkers did was to leave it. Fact-checkers use the vast resources of the Internet to determine where information is coming from BEFORE they read it.
  2. Fact-checkers know it’s not about “About.” They don’t evaluate a site based solely on the description it provides about itself.
  3. Fact-checkers look past the order of search results. Google does not sort pages by their reliability. (GoogleSearch presents results in an order it judges to be most relevant. (see How Google Search Works)

Read the full article on Education Week, and read more about Wineberg and McGrew’s research at this page from Stamford. An executive summary of the report (Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning) is available here.

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander. Before you read this caption, did the image make you think that Sagan had been on Mars with the lander? (Photo in the Public Domain) ( /missions/past/viking/)

In an article on Open Culture, Josh Jones posted Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detection Kit”: 8 Tools for Skeptical Thinking on 11 April 2016. “Sagan… did not hesitate to defend reason against “society’s most shameless untruths and outrageous propaganda.” These undertakings best come together in Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, a book in which he very patiently explains how and why to think scientifically, against the very human compulsion to do anything but.” (The full text is available on the Internet Archive. An 4-hour reading of Sagan’s book can be heard here. )

In The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Chapter 12 of the book (p. 189 of the Internet Archive text), Sagan describes his tools for skeptical thinking: “…What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and—especially important—to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument.” The video embedded below gives a quick overview of the tools; Read them all in  Sagan’s full chapter, where he writes:

“…A deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, sometimes with cynical premeditation. Usually the victim is caught up in a powerful emotion—wonder, fear, greed, grief. Credulous acceptance of baloney can cost you money; that’s what P. T. Barnum meant when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic—however sympathetic we may be to those who have bought the baloney.”

“In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions…Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world—not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others. “

The Rational Wiki has a page about The Fine Art of Baloney Detection which includes a table of  the fallacies listed by Sagan, giving with examples and definitions.  If one were teaching search strategies, or how to sort the “fake” from the “real”, or scientific methods, or reading for content, etc., this might be a very useful addition to the class library.

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