War on Information

Dave blogs about the transformation from wars of information to a war on information.

I was meeting with a group of Head of Schools recently when one mentioned that as a culture we have transformed from wars of information to a war on information. As a result, it is no longer enough to teach students how to use information to reach conclusions, we now have to teach them how to determine what is credible information. We are in the midst of an era where information—fact—is becoming increasingly difficult to determine and often considered unimportant. In 2005, Stephen Colbert described this phenomenon with his brilliant coining of the word “truthiness.”  The bourgeoning issue captured by Colbert is more relevant today. The epidemic of “fake news” may or may not have affected the election, but it certainly inspired the shooting at Comet Ping Pong pizzeriaFalse information also comes in through e-mail scams and is inserted into many debates at all levels of discourse. For instance, the president-elect claimed that the popular vote count was rigged with no factual basis and is demeaning data collected by intelligence agencies about Russian election hacking. 

As “truthiness” becomes more prevalent, schools have two new curricular imperatives: (1) ensure that our students know that good arguments are steeped in facts and (2) ensure that our students can discern fact from fiction. 

The first of these imperatives would have seemed absurd just a few years ago. Clearly, arguments must depend on facts; however, such a case may not be obvious.  Science may be the best way to reassert facts’ primacy. For instance, predicting a dropped ball will hover in the air and hoping for it to do so is a fool’s errand. The ball will drop. Combining baking soda and vinegar always causes a bubbly reaction (that will make a paper mâché mountain look like a volcano). In science, there is no doubt about facts and students should be taught to use them to interrupt the world. Once students understand the permanence of scientific facts, we can then help them understand that equally unassailable facts exist in other disciplines. The world is round, George Washington was the first president of the United States, and 2+2 = 4 (at least in base ten). In all disciplines we ignore basic facts at our own risk. 

We must then teach our students how to argue based on facts, not on biases or wishes. We must teach them to listen carefully to the other side and try to understand how they are drawing conclusions. If they are based on facts, can those facts be re-interpreted? If so, what is the most realistic way? What are the most logical conclusions? If the advocate bases an argument on fallacies, the argument is not worth pursuing.   

We also must help our students distinguish between facts and falsehoods parading as facts. In other words, we must teach students to be critical consumers of information. Students must be able to check sources for veracity. They must be able to understand the agenda of the speaker, author or producer of the work and they must be able to ascertain the truth of the underlying facts. These skills are not instinctive; they must be taught and modeled. Further, as the producers of fake news and fake other things become more sophisticated, our students’ ability to ferret out fact from fiction becomes more important and more difficult to do. 

At its base, the need to be even a more critical consumer of facts is somewhat ironic. It was claimed that the Internet would obviate the need for experts; all knowledge would be available to all. Instead, the Internet has provided an avenue for charlatans and frauds to confuse fact and fiction. For the country to thrive, our students and other citizens must be able to distinguish between the two.  
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