Sunday, May 10, 2015

On Misinformation

What do we do when people build their beliefs on misinformation?

At least some of the people protesting the new sex ed curriculum have some shocking ideas of what Wynne expects teachers to do.  An article in The Star reported these bizarre claims bandying about:
In Grade 1 they will learn to reveal their private parts (not just name), they will see posters and flash cards of private parts, they will learn to touch the private area and identify it on themselves and others....Grade 6 is about the promotion of self-discovery through masturbation. Our 12-year-old daughter or son, who is not even a teenager yet, will be asked in class to explore his or her own body by touching their private parts, masturbating and pleasuring their body....Anal Play 101 class in Grade 8 would actually provide instruction on anal sex play.
So it's really no wonder parents are losing their shit about it all.  But why would anyone actually believe that the Premier would support and encourage child nudity in the classroom?  Now, there are other reasons parents who understand the curriculum are protesting, but I'll get to that in another post.  Here I'm concerned with how quickly misinformation spreads and takes hold of a population.

It's nothing new, really.  We've always had snake-oil salesmen sucker in enough people to make a living. Now we have Dr. Oz and Jenny McCarthy making dubious claims that are being followed by millions.  And tabloid haven't lost their appeal.

But the snake-oil salesmen of today have a larger platform and a much wider reach that's frightening in its scope.

I'm still having arguments in class about Islam being the reason for all the evildoers in the world.  And that belief is so strong, that I think I can only shut it down with, "No bigotry in my classroom, please."  The fact that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists just provokes further arguments, which also make little sense, but they slay me with their sheer volume.  I can't keep arguing, and it's not part of the curriculum of my class anyway, yet it keeps coming up wherever the few class pundits see an opportunity to raise the issue again.

When the internet started, I used to have to debunk claims like KFC is breeding chickens without heads, and you can actually buy ManBeef online.  I took up the greater part of some classes explaining how to tell the information is wrong.  Now I've beefed up my research lessons and insist on at least three varied, reputable, peer-reviewed, primary sources all pointing in the same direction to be able to make a claim in a paper.  It doesn't work as well during conversations.  Here are some from just this week:

There's someone living today who will live to be 1,000.

Okay, Aubrey de Grey thinks there's a person alive today who will live to 150, and within 20 years, we might hit 1000, so the misinformation was slightly misquoted. Grey did a TEDTalk, which, to many, is the same as publishing research in a peer-reviewed journal.  My advice is the standard, "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary supports," but it falls on deaf ears.  This paper, written by a group of scientists studying aging, molecular biology, genome studies, etc., suggests that Grey's work is pseudoscience as it...
is based on the scientifically unsupported speculations...which are camouflaged by the legitimate science of others....bears only a superficial resemblance to science or engineering....writings in support of it are riddled with jargon-filled misunderstandings and misrepresentations....notoriety is due almost entirely to its emotional appeal.

Solar panels emit more GHGs than coal-fired plants. 

According to this paper (p. 6), including the creation of the panel/plant, coal emits 58 times more than solar.  Now, in that paper nuclear emits less than solar, but it's published by the World Nuclear Association, so we have to watch out for bias as well - which is why it's necessary to have a variety of research with different funding sources.  This paper suggests solar emits slightly less than nuclear (still far less than coal).  If I were writing a paper on it, I'd find a few more sources before drawing a conclusion.  I found one source that substantiates the student's claim, on a site called "No Tricks Zone," but that writer's cited research include one piece that only looks at e-waste, and another that makes use of significant hyperbole with little in the way of actual data.

It takes ten times the energy to sit up straight as it does to slouch.

I couldn't find this claim anywhere on-line, but I did find proof that it's hard on your spine to sit up straight in a chair for 8 hours/day, and, for optimal back health, you should vary your sitting position - including slouching.  But there is some evidence that sitting up straight makes people more productive, which could be argued is linked to energy levels.

In Finland, nobody has to go to school; kids just go when they feel like it. And they have the best educational system in the world!

This claim got a round of applause from the class that couldn't be affected by my counter-arguments.  People believe what they want to believe and will shout down contrary claims regardless the quality (or existence) of research presented.  According to this site, completing school is mandatory, but, like here, students may be home-schooled.  The wording of the piece could be misinterpreted if they just read a sentence out of context.  That's something else many students struggle to understand - context.  They skim and grab short pieces completely ignoring the broader position of the piece.  Anyway, our schooling is from 6-18, theirs is from 7-19.  It's a great school system, but not because it's optional.  It might have more to do with these factors: teachers all have masters degrees; there are no standardized tests; grades are optional up to grade 8 (just pass/fail) to get students to focus on a love of learning rather than competing for grades; they don't have sports teams; academically-challenged students go to a specialized school (something we used to do, but now we're into integration); differentiated instruction is taken to its full potential; the culture respects teachers; the culture expects children to be completely independent from their parents at a much younger age; and university is free.

These claims weren't made by grade school children; many of these students are about to finish high school and go to university, and they generally get very good marks - our best and brightest. I'd hate to think they'll be in the next round of protesters arguing against claims that nobody ever actually said.  But the big stuff: climate change, TPP and TPIP, rampant inequality?  The government and technology will save the day.  We'll all be living on Mars soon anyway, amiright?

I can only demand sources (which I've yet to have a student provide - not even one horribly biased source - nothin'!), express my skepticism on the claim, and carry on.  I sometimes put counter-arguments on our class website, and some of the topics are never mentioned again - but some never die.  My courses are jam-packed with curriculum to cover.  There's no room for extended discussion on anything off-topic regardless student interest in the subject.  But I'd hate for students to walk away having learned from the dubious claims of their peers because of the appeal of the intensity of their positions.  It's exciting to discount ideas we all think are true!!  New information trumps everything even if it's crap.  There's a power-play there for the students to be able to get one over on the teacher, and I'm all for students teaching me something - except when their research is lacking or questionable.

For a while there, we had an "English Across the Curriculum" movement, and we had to evaluate English abilities in all subject areas in order to improve literacy.  Gym teachers and tech teachers suddenly had to add essay-writing to their lessons.  Then AER happened, and I was specifically told by an administrator that I couldn't evaluate grammar on an essay in a history course because it's not in the curriculum for my course, and evaluation must be tied directly to the curriculum.  I ignored that guidance, and I still take off marks for grammar so I don't end up reading text-speak in essays.  Curriculum police be damned!

But what we really need now is an "Anti-bullshit Across the Curriculum" movement.  We need every teacher to demand a variety of reputable, primary sources for every claim made.  It means kids will have to read more than just headlines, and there's a danger that they'll just stop expressing the claims in class rather than actually learn how to fact-check them.

Maybe that's just as well.


Lorne said...

I enjoyed your post, Marie, as always. Like you, I tried to inculcate critical thinking skills when I was in the classroom, and I often lamented the fact that when passionate discussions got underway, I had to put some time limits on them owing to the demands of the curriculum. Surely instilling the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff has to be one of the highest purposes of education, yet I always had the sneaking suspicion that that was not really what the powers-that-be really wanted. (Sorry if I sound like a bit of a conspiracy theorist here.)

Keep fighting the good fight!

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks Lorne. I just listened to a podcast with Chris Hedges, and I really fear that this generation doesn't have it in them to understand the need to rally against the system. Too many of them don't have the ability to discern crap from research, and we have a very small window to act. Denial and rationalizations are making them continue carrying on unwilling to be remotely concerned with the future of the world. They're worried about paying for school and getting jobs, which is part and parcel of the problem, but a very narrowly-focused part. Some are so quick to jump on bullshit as gospel truth, and spread it to the masses, that I'm at a loss as to what to do to counter the ignorance.

But I'll hang in there. And I'm seeing Hedges Tuesday night. Maybe I'll be able to get in a question!