A diminishing respect for the truth

Have we become nostalgic for a time when it was simpler to discern what information possesses credibility?

Yes, I think so, but at the same time with so many different forms of information out there it has become more of a challenge to judge what represents a trustworthy source. There is no rulebook here. No one is going to guide you through the miasma of fake news.

These trends along with changes in the media environment such as the diminished role of gatekeepers and vastly expanded opportunities for circulation of both information and misinformation in the Digital Age make exposure to inaccurate information both more common and more difficult to detect.

Can you honestly say that what you read is credible? What the person next to you reads is trustworthy?

Barzilai & Chinn (2020) characterizes the new post-truth world as one with a diminishing respect for the truth. People give up trying to uncover the truth when confronted by overwhelming waves of information. In some cases, the truth becomes secondary to one’s political or social beliefs (Buckingham, 2019).

Maybe we can all hold to our own truths now.

The infamous alternative facts interview with Kellyann Conway

The task of investigating the elements of post-truth stretches back well before the term was first used in 2016 (Buckingham, 2019). At the beginning of the millennium, Wineburg (2001) studied the responses of high school students and academics to a series of primary and secondary sources chronicling the Battle of Lexington. In ranking eight documents, the academics placed eye-witness accounts written at the time of the battle as the most credible. The textbook included as one source of information was ranked last

The students viewed the text as the most credible source of information on the incident (2001). According to one student, the credibility of the text came from its reliance on “straight information”. The text, one student explained, was “just reporting the facts – ‘The rebels were ordered to disperse. They stood their ground.’ Just concise, journalistic in a way, just saying what happened” (p. 68, 2001).

The difference between the students and the academics came down to their “sense-making abilities”, in other words, their ability to source or look at where the document came from, make efforts to place each document into context and compare the various documents with one another (Wineburg, 1991, p.77 ). For these students, authority came from the established text – it was the one source for accurate information. Unlike the academics in this study, they lacked the discernment skills that would allow them to ask important questions about their evidence (Wineburg, 2001).

These results are reflected in other studies that show students incapable of judging legitimate digital information from sites designed to confuse or deliver a particular partisan message (Chinn et al., 2021; Kahne & Bowyer, 2017; Macedo-Rouet et al., 2019; McGrew et al., 2017; McGrew et al., 2018; Pérez et al., 2018).

I am a teacher, I am not (or ever will be) an academic. Studying the problem without offering a concrete plan or path out of the swamp is not good enough.

Researchers suggest that students and teachers need to be taugh explicitly how to discern what is credible. McGrew et al. (2018) suggest that what is needed is civic online reasoning instruction. The components of this instruction include:

  • determining who is supporting or sponsoring the author of an article
  • investigating possible conflict of interest on the part of the writer or source
  • practice on how to evaluate evidence
  • learning to discern if a claim is supported by the evidence

I have not yet seen a program that actually does all these things for students and teachers. With even a hint of encouragement, this would have been a really interesting area to research. Traditional media literacy methods do not seem to be up to the challenges of the post-truth era. We need something else to develop teachers and students capable of identifying credible sources of information.

Without a new tool chest, the democratic values that underpin our society will increasingly be threatened. The freedom convoy and the January 6 assault on Washington are just two examples of where this leads.

So if we understand the problem – where do we go from here?

What is credible? How do you know?

In an increasingly complex post-truth world, people in general – students and teachers in particular – struggle to discern credible sources of online information. Their ability to judge multiple sources of information has and will have a major impact on their collective ability to make decisions in a modern, democratic society.

This is the area of research I have been working through over the past month.

We need to better understand the challenges presented by a post-truth. As a term, post-truth is relatively new. Most of us probably became aware of post-truth with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. He didn’t invent post-truth but Trump and other politicians have used alternative facts as an every day tool with impunity.

What strategies and techniques can be developed to provide educators and students with appropriate tools to effectively evaluate what is credible and what is baseless information? Is this even possible to do?

In a world that possesses an abundance of information, more readily available than at any other time in history, we swim in a sea of disinformation, suspicion, and confusion (Chinn et al., 2021). Accordingly, our ability to make decisions that affect our everyday life is severely hampered (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020). This is the world of post-truth; here, the forum of political debate can be filled with half-truths and outright lies. What is ‘true’ is up for debate on every news channel (Buckingham, 2019). The challenge of acquiring information has been complicated by several factors including the increased prevalence of misinformation; the outright rejection of established claims; the discrediting of facts over personal beliefs; a declining trust in the institutions that provide us with information and the fragmentation of that information (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020). 

 

This is not a new situation. Many generations have had to contend with information sources designed to distract and misinform. Thomas Jefferson witnessed the increased flow of political pamphlets brought about by the advent of movable type. While this technical innovation allowed for the spread of cheaply produced rhetoric and opinion, it also opened the door to a more questionable collection of reading material. Jefferson’s solution then is as relevant today. Rather than ban the half-truths and false claims of the pamphlet, Jefferson argued that people needed to be taught to discern truth from fiction (Wineburg & McGrew, 2019).

What are some features of a post-truth world? One common theme focuses on the inability of people to spot unreliable information. They may rely on a single source for their information or have little experience with fact-checking sources (Chinn et al., 2021). The widespread availability of digital information can also make it a challenge for people to decide who possesses expert information (2021). It cannot be taken for granted that the public has the skill set required to assess the trustworthiness of the experts they are reading. There exists the tendency for people to ‘choose’ their own expert opinion, especially when the information confirms previously held beliefs (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020).

This is an area that I would love to learn more about. Authors like Sam Weinburg and Jason Steinhauer who recently wrote History Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past are writing for a non-academic audience. Both, I think, would call themselves Internet entrepreneurs (Weinburg, p. 8, 2018). Both write for a general audience because it is this audience that needs to acquire the tools to assess what is credible information and what is a potentially dangerous fantasy. This is not an academic debate.

These few paragraphs were written as part of a doctoral paper. The more time I spend with academics, the more I am convinced that we need to have this debate outside of the academy. Over the next few posts, I will include more from this paper in the hope that someone finds this discussion important. Maybe this will encourage more discussion. Otherwise, what value does this piece really have?

This is a problem for everyone, but for educators how we develop 21st-century critical thinking skills is becoming an essential feature of their professional lives. How well do we understand this?

Researcher’s Journal: Living in a post-truth world

Finding a research topic that is really meaningful is hard work. It should be if you plan to spend five years working on it.

Maybe I am getting closer. I have abandoned anything about historical thinking concepts – this is an academic field that doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a pick-up in the school system. Lots of writers, questionable impact.

Searching for something new one of my advisors suggested that I start looking at Canadian historical websites to develop tools to test for validity.

I had forgotten how important this type of work was to me. I remember sitting on the school board’s tech advisory committee. One of the members (who actually knows a fair amount about education technology) suggested at one of our sessions that there was little point in using curated web tools when you could Google anything. Curated web material usually is expensive mainly because you have to pay someone to make sure the material you put out there has been reviewed for validity. This scene sticks with me to this day and I really wonder what advice school boards are giving to teachers now about how to access digital information.

A few weeks ago, I entered the world of post-truth. Post-truth is a new environment where confusion reigns. In this world, there are no shared facts on which to base decisions. There is widespread disagreement over what is known, how to know, and who to trust. Research as current as 2022 confirms this is a widespread problem that has not yet been dealt with by educators (see – Education for a “Post-Truth” World: New Directions for Research and Practice Clark A. Chinn, Sarit Barzilai, and Ravit Golan Duncan 2021)

This is an ad for the New York Times, but the message is important.

I am citing only one reference here, but there is a vast body of research that backs up this claim. The research on digital information sources goes back over 20 years and begins in earnest with the work of Sam Wineburg, the wonderful writer of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001).

I am going back and reading everything I can by Sam Wineburg. Next – Why Read History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)
Sam Wineburg, 2018

We can reach back further. Every generation has its own media that confound teachers and students. In 1991, Wineburg produced a study indicating that students tended to rely on textbook material even though they were presented with more credible primary historical evidence. The textbooks were preferred because students believed that they were just telling the facts. They adopted the story even though analysis showed that the textbooks didn’t get into much detail, were overly patriotic and political and were designed to offer information that could be answered on a multiple-choice exam (see Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence, Wineburg, 1991)

The current rapid reach of information is unprecedented and with that reach comes a diminishing ability to discern what is actually true.

I remember a presenter at one of the schools I worked at who specialized in the dangers of social media. He was really popular with parents and educators because he focused on creating fear. Students should not be allowed on Facebook etc (the social media at the time) because of the dangers that lurked behind the screen. There was no question that he was right about the abuses of social media, but the solution of just taking it away was misplaced.

avoiding a problem is never the solution

As far back as the invention of movable type pamphleteers in 18th century America were free to print anything that would fit on the page. Thomas Jefferson watched the increasing availability of printed material along with the associated increase in baseless claims and stories. His conclusion however was not to stop the publishing of leaflets and books but to educate the public to be wary of what they read.

If we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.

(quoted in Wineburg, McGrew, 2019)

Researchers have been very good at presenting the dangers that exist in the post-truth world. They would agree with Jefferson, that education is the key – but what kind of education?

At the end of every research paper I am reading these days is the declaration by academics that something must be done about the post-truth world:

Any successful approach will likely need to go beyond modest tweaks to current instruction, which will inevitably increase the demands on teachers and educational designers. Part of the research agenda should therefore include work on how to implement and scale up proposals for ambitious instruction. Our call is for rapid, intensive research and design to develop these (and other) paths of promoting students’ capacities to engage in apt epistemic performance.

Education for a “Post-Truth” World: New Directions for Research and Practice Clark A. Chinn , Sarit Barzilai, and Ravit Golan Duncan, 2020, p. 58

So, I am asking.

How have different writers sought to critically address the ability of students and teachers to make sense of multiple information sources in a Post-Truth World?

What is Post-Truth? What are some post-truth reasoning challenges? 

What is the current ability of educators and students to accurately assess multiple forms of information?

What can we do to teach complex sensemaking skills to educators and students?

Future Directions and Ideas: What are the ways forward? 

Along with all these questions, there is a vast array of material I need to read to catch up on what researchers are saying. Maybe someone has an answer – this is what we need to do with our curriculum – but I haven’t seen this yet.

This is a screenshot of some of the material I have collected over the past few weeks

If you have any ideas, please let me know. There is no question that this is something we need to get right. The consequences of losing a grasp on the truth can be seen around us, will we respond?

Here in Ottawa, we witnessed one of the consequences of post-truth

What Wikipedia teaches us about balancing truth and beliefs

I am adding this piece about Wikipedia. One of my professors has suggested some really interesting material on Wikipedia and how this could be a good tool to help us adapt to a post-truth world. Worth watch.

Really interesting interview – how long will it take us to manage misinformation?

New professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice, Claire Wardle, is not a health professional. She is, however, considered one of the leading experts on misinformation. Co-founder of First Draft, a non-profit dedicated to supporting organizations fighting misinformation, Wardle talks to Megan Hall MPH’15, about her plans for collaborative work at Brown that aims not only to understand mis- and disinformation, but to create tools for more effective public health communication.

misinformationpublic healthfirst draftinformation futures lab