Fighting Fake News: The Critical Thinking Rabbit Hol‪e

PUBLISHED: Mar 30, 2021

In This Episode.

A recent article in The New York Times argued that critical thinking is a dangerous “rabbit hole” and isn’t the right tool for fighting “fake news.” Dave and Steve discuss the article’s alternative, and, of course, advocate for stronger critical thinking in media literacy.


Episode Archive

Fighting Fake News: The Critical Thinking Rabbit Hol‪e

March 30, 2021

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts, Steve Perlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: And welcome back! After a long hiatus to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, I’m Steve.

Dave Carillo: I’m Dave.

Steve Pearlman: And we got a couple of things to say before we get going on this. The first is that we certainly hope everyone out there in the Critical Thinking Initiative universe is safe and doing well in this difficult time of COVID, obviously in terms of your wellness and your family’s wellness, but also in terms of the challenges so many educators are facing now with respect to teaching online and contending with students who are contending with the stress of COVID and so on and so forth. So we just want to really wish everyone out there all the best that we’ve been thinking about everyone as we’re setting up this new podcast here. The second thing that we want to mention and we’re excited to announce is that our listenership has really gone up over the last couple of months, even though we haven’t been podcasting. I don’t know Dave what that says about us, that more people are listening when we stop podcasting. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Dave Carillo: I don’t even I don’t even want to try to graph out whatever that means. I don’t think my mind is ready to be blown away. It probably would. To be honest, it’s

Steve Pearlman: Kind of hypercube or something to really.

Dave Carillo: Exactly. I would assume that there would be sort of more rejoicing as we podcast did less. But I guess Lipson doesn’t really measure the amount of rejoicing. So I don’t know. That’s a tough one.

Steve Pearlman: But we are gratified nevertheless to see the listenership going up. Notably, and please continue to mention us to your peers and among your professional organizations. We’re also most excited to announce that available within the next few weeks, probably from this podcast will be our initial online program from the Critical Thinking Initiative Board that you can if you’re in high school and up. Certainly higher education can assign to your students. There is a fee for it, of course, because because we’re funding this out of pocket, but that you can assign to your students, it’s about a two to two and a half hour program. It takes them through our initial concepts and process for critical thinking. And what’s most exciting about this is that the culmination of that online experience has been a very carefully designed process whereby the students will actually be guided through writing an essay featuring their critical thinking, offering proof of the pudding of the critical thinking that they learned through the program itself. And again, we’re just on the verge of launching that, but we’re very excited about it because we realize what a challenge it has been for many educators to bring critical thinking into their own teaching process from the ground up. And what this does is not replace the need for anyone’s presence as an educator within their field and continuing to develop their students critical thinking through your expertise, which is vital, but certainly give you an extraordinary tool and give your students a leg up and a start into the critical thinking process that we’ve developed here out of a lot of research and practice, so that it takes some of the burden off of you to get that ball rolling and puts it on the students and puts it on us instead. Dave, I do a decent job of capturing that. Or did I screw that up?

Dave Carillo: No, you didn’t screw that up at all. In fact, I just you said a couple of things that I want to add to. You know, like you said, we’re really excited about that third module at third. That major feature in this program, which is that we’ve developed a way to walk students through this process and produce a short piece of writing that reflects their critical thinking. And one of the reasons why we’re so happy about this is that as much as we love research, we’ve come at this critical thinking problem from the classroom, and we’ve always been about making sure that what we develop can be used in every classroom, in every situation. Once your students can get their heads around the process using this program, you can apply the program to literally any content you want.

Steve Pearlman: We have taken the full preview down off the site because we had some understanding that it was being exploited. But if you do want to take a look at the program, please just email us at info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. Org That’s info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. Org And we will be happy to get you a preview of the program so that you can understand the experience that students are going to have as they go through it and the product that comes out of it. Outcomes that you can also see and measure that will be directly emailed to you about your students so you can integrate it right into your class in terms of part of the course grade, if you want to, as well all kinds of possibilities. Last but not least, we’re excited to announce the public. Nation of my new book, This is Steve, here. America’s critical thinking crisis, the failure and Promise of Education, similar to the podcast, but going in some different directions. The book offers my more personal viewpoint on the scope, density and root of the critical thinking problem in America, the extent to which it is affecting students and educators, as well as what we can do to change the construct.

Steve Pearlman: It’s probably in publication by the time you’re hearing this podcast. If not, it’s certainly available for pre-order in paperback or digitally across whichever e-book platform so you typically like. So please check it out. America’s critical thinking crisis The failure and promise of education If you like it, please do give it five stars on Amazon. Does that help sales a lot? And most of all, I’m excited to announce that the foreword is by one David Chiarello. So today, though, we’re perhaps in an untimely way because it’s just post-election or in a timely way, because it’s just post-election. I would say we are we are getting into the terrible question of fake news and critical thinking. And I think if you haven’t been paying attention to America over the last four years or so or more, the best way to introduce the scope of this problem comes from a study by the Stanford History Education Group, which is actually a follow up to an earlier study they did. It is the best way to sum up what the problem is that we’re trying to help you tackle and our country tackle in this return to podcasting by the critical thinking initiative.

Dave Carillo: If you’ve heard us talk about the initial study that the Stanford History Education Group did back in 2016, you’ll know that we often quote a line from their executive summary, which essentially summed up the American students ability to reason about online information that they come across as bleak. And so bear with me here as I just read a little bit from the executive summary from their follow up 2019 study. In November 2016, the Stanford History Education Group released a study showing that young people lacked basic skills of digital evaluation. Since then, a whole host of efforts, including legislative initiatives in 18 states, have sought to address this problem. From June 20 18 to May 2019, we administered an assessment to three thousand four hundred and forty six students, a national sample that matches the demographic profile of high school students in the United States. The six exercises in our assessment gave students ability to evaluate digital sources on the open internet. The results, if they can be summarized in a word, are troubling. Fifty two percent of students believed a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries. The video was actually shot in Russia, constituted strong evidence of voter fraud in the United States. Among more than 3000 responses, only three students tracked down the source of the video, even though a quick search turns up a variety of articles exposing the ruse. Two thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news, stories and ads set off by the word sponsored content on Slate’s homepage. 96 percent of students did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility instead of investigating who is behind the site. Students focused on superficial markers of credibility, the site’s aesthetics, its top level domain, or how it portrayed itself on the about page. Nearly all students floundered. 90 percent received no credit on four of six tasks. That’s from the executive summary from the follow up study that they did. And yes, it does set the stage for what we’re up against here.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, if anyone out there was under the impression that the fake news phenomenon and more importantly, young people’s and even old people’s capacity to razor out the distinction between fake news and actual news wasn’t a problem. Well, then I hope that study has clarified the nature of the issue here and put an exclamation point on it. And that’s why we’ve decided that this was the perfect place to pick up again with the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast to start talking about this challenge of fake news and what we can do in terms of actual interventions in order to start to stem the problem. Interestingly enough, Dave, and this might shock you because we didn’t fully discuss this before the podcast. But would you like to know that critical thinking is, in fact, one of the ways that we can separate fake news from actual news?

Dave Carillo: I suspected as much, but I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

Steve Pearlman: Well, no, you would be safe in making that determination. The question then? Becomes how do we do that and what do we mean by it and those you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while know a lot about how we’ve defined critical thinking. We’re not going to go through that again. But what we do want to do here is reference first, an article called Critical Thinking, Efficacy and Transfer Skills, Defend against Fake News and an International School in Finland by Shane Warne and Cohen, Vermont. Our apologies. Yeah, for butchering all the names there. Shane is from Jordan and Cohen is from Finland. And anyone who’s been following education internationally certainly knows that Finland is basically kicking ass and taking names in terms of all their educational outcomes and is really setting some great standards and practices for what the world can look to in terms of how to approach education. Don’t know if they have all the answers, but they’re certainly doing some good things over there. But what this study did, that’s fascinating and germane to what we’re talking about here is compare some Finnish students who are actually getting critical thinking training with respect to fake news and American students who are maybe purportedly getting critical thinking, training with respect to news and compared their capacities to reason through the news that they’re seeing. And the outcomes probably will not surprise you based on how we’ve set it up at this point and the troubles we’ve pointed out in the past with respect to purported critical thinking education in the country.

Dave Carillo: So props to Warren and Vermont for doing this study. Their results are instructive in a lot of different ways for our mission in the United States. Essentially, the study breaks down like this. Students were given five different tasks argument analysis, news on Facebook, Facebook argument, evaluating evidence, comparing articles and in each. They were essentially asked to evaluate evidence to decide which article was stronger or more reliable to locate either fake or sponsored or biased content. And then from those five tasks, a fairly reliable measure of students ability to think critically was produced. So overall, the results of the study are that the Finnish students scored much higher in every category than the U.S. students. So an argument analysis. We had 24 percent of Finnish students mastering that task, as opposed to nine percent of U.S. students. In news on Facebook, we had 52 percent of the Finnish students mastering that task, as opposed to 20 percent of U.S. students. Facebook argument 56 percent, as opposed to 11 percent evaluating evidence 52 percent, as opposed to 18 percent comparing articles 28 percent as opposed to 11 percent. So in every category, the Finns scored much better than us, and it’s not surprising as to why, Steve, because they’re doing things differently in their country.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, they certainly are. And without getting into too much detail about it, basically what they talk about is the Finnish national core curriculum and how there are compulsory courses in critical thinking that are separate and dedicated to critical thinking in that core curriculum where we don’t find that in the United States. These are students from California sort of specifically examine the California Common Core State standards where they write the term critical thinking does not appear in the common core state standards, nor is there a separate course within the curriculum which aims to facilitate critical thinking skill sets in isolation of the subject areas. As per the general approach, they do go on to say, however, there is evidence of CT skills development being implicitly embedded into the curricular frameworks as per the immersion approach and what they’re referencing. There is something we’ve referenced many times in the past, which is the difference between what our immersion approaches or indirect approaches to teaching critical thinking, where it’s assumed to be developed as part of other learning experiences and other pedagogies. And then there’s direct teaching of critical thinking, and the direct teaching of critical thinking is where we are actually spending time teaching students critical thinking. And then there are some mixed ways to mix some of that within the discipline or external from a particular discipline and ultimately merge it all together. But what they’re referencing there and what they’re basically saying is this to sum it up again.

Steve Pearlman: Finnish schools spend courses teaching students how to think critically. American schools use the immersion or indirect approach, don’t actually directly teach it. And the contrast that we see in terms of the students capacity to raise or out fake news from real news is now evident as a result. And what it’s also showing that is so critical for us here at the critical thinking initiative. And what we keep harping on is that critical thinking can be taught, but it has to be taught through some of those direct. Means we’re actually devoting time in our classes to critical thinking instruction and not hoping or assuming that critical thinking skills are being acquired and developed by our students merely because we’re engaging them in interesting discussions or interesting subject matter or thoughtful intellectual work that’s different from actually teaching them how to think critically better. And this study is so important because it’s demonstrating that Finland, which devotes time to direct critical thinking instruction, is actually getting better outcomes as a result of it. So it affirms the need for that. And it also suggests again that this immersion implicit approach that we see in much of our education here in the United States isn’t accomplishing the same ends. And really, I think, is a call to attention for us, for the fact that the California state common core standards do not even explicitly mention critical thinking.

Dave Carillo: Other people are taking note of this, and I’m not going to quote from this article, but it exists and you can find it. It’s by Read Standish published in Foreign Policy on March 1st, 2017, and it’s entitled Why Is Finland Able to Fend Off Putin’s Information War? And the subtitle There Is Helsinki has emerged as a resilient front against Kremlin spin. But can it successes be translated to the rest of Europe and so other people recognize the strength that Finnish students and Finnish citizens have in terms of this very important matter, and I don’t think it’s necessarily irresponsible of us, Steve, to point that out that this is something that obviously has import outside of school and other individuals and other places are starting to notice this as well.

Steve Pearlman: That’s a critical point. Dave David, I’m glad you brought up, but not only that, our students are going to have to compete and we as a country, economically and so forth, even though we’re in a more global situation and that we all want to work together and kumbaya as much as possible. We’re still in a competitive world community in a lot of economic respects, and our students will be increasingly competing for jobs against students from Finland and other countries. And if we continue to fall behind in our capacities for critical reasoning with respect to what we’re cultivating in our students, we’re not doing them sufficient service with respect to how they’re going to have to compete against the rest of the world. We’re simply falling behind in it in the United States. But that’s why the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast is here to help with that very thing, and we are here to offer a couple of exercises that you can bring to your classroom to contend with fake news, and that can work regardless of which subject matter you’re in. Because in any field, we know that there is good quality news published or poor quality news published, even if we’re in the sciences now with respect to COVID in the United States and the real news and the fake news surrounding that, there are always opportunities to bring this into our subject matter to make sure that it’s relevant to what we’re teaching. And so we want to give you a couple of exercises that you can integrate.

Steve Pearlman: The first one is simply to train students, to read, to evaluate instead of training students to read, to understand. And one of the big problems in the United States all the way from K through master’s level is the emphasis on understanding text instead of the emphasis on evaluating text. And we’ve referenced studies before that demonstrate that not only our students typically taught to read to understand, but that if they are taught instead to read, to evaluate, which means to scrutinize that text, to think critically about the text as they read it, that their comprehension of the text and recall of the text increases as well. So it serves that understanding purpose better, but also gets them to be able to learn to scrutinize text for information. We’ve gone through before our core critical thinking process for that and the cycle that we use for critical thinking, which is a cognate of the neurobiological survival mechanisms in our brain for thinking. And we’re not going to go through that one again today. You can find it on the earlier podcast. What we will recommend today for a first exercise is using a simple acronym and applying it to text that they read or news that they read. And that’s to keep it real. And that means to look for the reasoning, evidence, assumptions and limits of a given text as they start to read these texts to evaluate it.

Steve Pearlman: We asked them to find claims, and any claim we tell them very simply, is any assertion of what might be true? Any assertion of truth is a claim. Some of them are very simple and are clear and are factual that we might all agree on. Many claims, however, need much further interrogation or in fact, most of them do. And the way to interrogate those claims, as we just said, is to keep them real, which again, is to look for the reasoning, evidence, assumptions and limits. So ask the students to recognize what reasoning is behind a claim, the rationale that the author is using and doesn’t. Makes sense. Obviously, we can get into discussions of logical fallacies there and so on and so forth, but we can leave that aside and just ask them at a more basic level to start saying, is that reasoning sane? But then look for the evidence and particularly in this case, especially as we’re looking at news, don’t just look for internal evidence within a given text, but look for corroborating evidence in other texts and teaching them to seek out whether or not this evidence that’s offered here or a lack of evidence that offers here, is nevertheless corroborated through other evidence that they can find through other sources. Look for assumptions that might be assumptions made by the author that are fairly explicit assumptions about who the audience is, assumptions about the nature of reality, assumptions about the nature of politics or history, or what have you.

Steve Pearlman: What assumptions are being made, assumptions about race, assumptions about gender. And finally, what are the limits? And this is often where students really have some great insights because any text, even if it’s offering valid news, has limits as to what conclusions can be drawn or what implications should be made from that. And students can very often see that sometimes there’s a disconnect between the strength of the claim and sort of the conclusions being made by the author as a result, and they find that there might be a degree of merit to what the author is saying, but it’s much more limited than the extent to which the author is relying on it to draw a bigger conclusion. So again, that first exercise to have them read, to evaluate, to have them read critically and not just read, to understand what the text is saying is to look for the claims, whatever it is, an assertion of truth and then keep them real. What’s the reasoning being used? What’s the evidence in text and corroborating evidence? What assumptions are being made and where are the limits? And as they get in the habit of doing that, they start to see that all text is permeable, that we can start to see through it into the author’s intentions and into biases and questions of validity and usefulness questions of real versus fake.

Dave Carillo: The second exercise relies entirely on what Steve just explained instead of having students evaluate texts. This exercise aims to help students develop a metacognitive framework. And by that, we mean simply that they’re able to think about their thinking. And so after you teach them to evaluate a text, ask them to either review their notes or start to write out short paragraphs per real category and then look over what they’ve written and apply those real categories to their own work. So after students write a paragraphs or two’s worth of evaluation, the questions become, well, what reasoning am I using to come to these conclusions? Do I see any reasoning in what I’ve written? Where is the evidence that I’m using to come to these conclusions? Do I include it? Am I specific about it? Do I not have any evidence? Where is that evidence? What assumptions might I be making?

Steve Pearlman: And those are you who don’t think students are capable of doing that? Believe us, they are very capable of starting to reflect on their own work. But if they have a moment of struggle there, you can also do as a primer to this experience is simply have them apply those same standards to their peers from trade evaluative paragraphs and then have them apply the real standard to someone else’s before they go back and apply it to their own. And that will get them up to speed pretty fast.

Dave Carillo: I’m glad that you you mentioned that after they’re able to keep texts real, they can start to keep their own ideas real. And the combination of those two intellectual skills will greatly increase your student’s ability to not only actively evaluate the material they come across online or elsewhere, but be able to slow down and evaluate their initial judgments or reflect on the conclusions they’ve drawn. And that adds a whole new dimension to their ability to evaluate information online.

Steve Pearlman: So two additional exercises that we also want to bring to you on this and these can be done in different orders. We don’t know if there’s a particular order that’s better or not for any of them. So start where you want to begin or choose the ones that you find most effective. Another exercise is simply to have them compare to articles that you bring to them that you feel are both valid news, largely speaking. But let them look at the way that the language being used in the two articles, even if both of the articles are relatively fair and accurate, nevertheless characterizes what’s happening differently. Even if we take two news stories and both of them are sort of fair minded to what’s occurring. They’re going to use different language to describe it, and that lexicon difference is going to provide a different conception of what’s happening if you read one versus the other, carefully having them understand that, yeah, we can separate the fake news out. But even. Sources that are trying to represent things fairly, nevertheless have their own degree of noise or their degree of distortion about what’s occurring simply because we have to choose some language over other choices in language. So let them look at two news articles about the exact same event from two different sources that you’ve determined are fairly valid and let them become sensitive to how the differences in lexicon choices make. Even what are essentially valid articles nevertheless give different impressions of things. Finally, the last exercise that we’re offering you today is to have the students generate fake news so that they can see into the process of how that’s done and what it’s like.

Steve Pearlman: So ask them first to generate something that’s obviously fake. You know, for an assignment for a class, come in with a paragraph or paper or essay whatever you want to do and make it clearly fake and let them get experience in how easy, in a sense, it is to create something that’s just patently false. But then as a secondary step in a more important step to that, let them come into class. Having generated a fake article and a real article on the same issue and see if their peers can start to use these other skill sets that we’ve discussed here to start to differentiate, I guess we should footnote that by saying maybe they have to stop short of if they’re not going to have access to additional information of just outright lying about things, but nevertheless they could produce these sources that are making grander claims that don’t really emerge from the evidence well or big assumptions relative to humble ones or careful ones. Let them generate the fake and the real, let them be closer together and then let their peers try to sleuth out the differences between the two and see how well they can do it. And that teaches them something that we think is very important, which is to have a skeptical eye so that we are thinking critically about it and it never just accepting it as rote truth, but always investigating it and think critically.

Dave Carillo: And it’s important to note that all of these exercises continually reinforce the same kinds of things that we’ve been talking about since we’ve started this podcast. Make your teaching of critical thinking explicit that critical thinking abilities are transferable. You can think critically about an article in the same way that you think critically about your ideas in the same way that you can think critically about any material out there. It’s the same process, and that’s important that students know that they can apply their ability to think critically in any situation, rather than just for this assignment in your class. On this Tuesday, in order to show them that it can be done

Steve Pearlman: And it is being done, it’s being done in Finland, and there’s no reason we can’t be doing it here. And I think we’re preaching to the choir here, but we really believe that we’re doing a disservice to our students if we’re not doing it here. If you’re interested in learning more about our online training program and critical thinking for your students, please email us at info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. Org Check out America’s critical thinking crisis on Amazon. Of course, vote multiple times to give it five star reviews. Obviously, that’s fair. Like us many times, if you can recommend us and check out also the smarter our podcast for better, critical thinking in daily life.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, we’re excited to be back. I guess we went on hiatus a little bit and

Steve Pearlman: That’s the show where he goes, I’m back, baby. What is that?

Dave Carillo: Oh God, it’s right on the tip of my tongue.

Steve Pearlman: It’s that. Was it Costanza in Seinfeld, right? There’s a moment where he goes, I’m back, baby. Something had happened. I’m going to play the Costanza one, I think, and the podcast, or I’m going to find it perfect.

Dave Carillo: That’s great.

Steve Pearlman: Do that piece out everyone. I’m back, baby.


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