Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Tool for Fighting Fake News & Conspiracy Theories: Teach Critical Thinking in American Classrooms

One might consider the below essay off-topic for a history website, but I don't think so: as a professional historian I rely heavily on Critical Thinking skills, and I do so on a daily basis. And so does, and must, the historical profession in general. (It is no coincidence that a leading proponent of Critical Thinking education is the below-mentioned Stanford History Education Group, which among other publications offers an essay titled "Why Historical Thinking is Not about History.") I learned "to think critically" in both undergraduate- and graduate-level history courses (Historiography, Research & Writing, and so on), as well as in a formal Critical Thinking course offered by a good old Department of Philosophy.*

Ought to be required reading
for all future historians.

I regard that Philosophy course as the single most useful class I ever took. It has allowed me not only to gauge the merits of various historical sources (is a claim true? how do I know it's true? is the source reliable? etc.), but to navigate my way through an increasingly complex world that floods me constantly with information, much of it questionable if not downright false. (My advice: never believe any claim, particularly an extraordinary one, at first blush.)

I offer the below essay as a critique of how this crucial subject is taught in America. Which is to say, insufficiently. This is to the detriment of our nation, whose founding relied on a firm bedrock strata of reason and knowledge, imparted to the Founding Fathers by the Enlightenment. Critical Thinking should not be a religion, however, much less should it be a cult; it is in fact merely a tool, and one with limitations that nonetheless can, when used in good faith, help to lead its users toward the truth.

Here is my essay on the subject. . . .

Search the Internet for the phrase "The Age of Fake News" and you will find no shortage of sources, reliable and otherwise, claiming we live smack-dab in the middle of that epoch. A search for "The Age of Conspiracy Theories" yields similar results. Granted, conspiracy theories and fake news are nothing new: think, for example, of the grand conspiracy theories of nineteenth-century America involving eastern and southern European immigrants, Roman Catholics, and freemasonry. As for fake news, think of the "yellow journalism" of later that same century, when the American print media helped to spark the Spanish-American War over the alleged sabotage of the U.S. battleship Maine — a tragedy whose cause, most historians now agree, can be blamed on an accident, not a Spanish mine.

An example of late-19th century "yellow journalism."
(I mean the paper's content, not its color!)

What is new, however, is the 24-hour news cycle coupled with the dynamism of the Internet and social media. Fakes news and conspiracy theories are now harnessed to 21st-century technology, enabling canards to proliferate not only across the nation, but around the world, in a matter of seconds.

Amid its nonstop bombardment with facts and factoids, the American citizenry is left to sort out for itself what is fake news and what is real news — as well as what is sometimes legitimate, informed speculation and what is conspiratorial nonsense. Clearly, the citizenry is not up to the task. Earlier this summer, for example, the Pew Research Center found that "Many Americans say the creation and spread of made-up news and information is causing significant harm to the nation and needs to be stopped." Worse, noted Pew, "made-up news and information greatly impact Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and . . . [exert] a major impact on our confidence in each other."

Even the nation’s most skilled Internet and social media navigators fall short when it comes to separating truth from fiction, and facts from lies. I refer to our purportedly skeptic-minded millennials. A 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University found that "young people's ability to reason about the information . . . can be summed up in one word: bleak." Stanford described this particular lack of Critical Thinking skills as nothing less than a "threat to democracy."

Critical Thinking poster issued
by the Stanford History Education Group.
Source: SHEG website

But what exactly can government, public institutions, and average, ordinary citizens do to counter the dangers of fake news and conspiracy theories?

Fortunately, there is a solution, and a rather obvious one: teach Critical Thinking.

"We already teach Critical Thinking!" would no doubt be the knee-jerk reaction of many educational functionaries. Indeed, it is fashionable in education circles to affirm the primacy of Critical Thinking in our nation’s education system (or systems, since every state runs its own public schools, and every private school is a system unto itself).

The educational functionary.
Source: familyguyfanon.fandom.com

But a tremendous gap exists between the touting of Critical Thinking and the actual teaching of it in an effective, substantive way. After all, how many American college students ever actually enroll in a Critical Thinking course? MindEdge, a private firm that teaches Critical Thinking skills, is often cited as stating that three in five respondents [61 percent] report having studied Critical Thinking in college. I find this a highly suspect statistic. As MindEdge has itself noted, respondents might have claimed Critical Thinking experience after only a passing, superficial exposure to the subject. A professor of Philosophy at a state university thus comments, "I even occasionally get students who think that they have studied Critical Thinking in high school. The evidence suggests that they did not learn too much, based on how they actually perform in a college-level class."

What I mean by learning Critical Thinking is for college students to sign up for a good old survey of basic logic (often called "informal logic" because of its application to everyday life) — a subject for over two thousand years part of the Western core curriculum, otherwise known as the liberal education (a term having nothing to do, of course, with politics).

"A good old survey of basic logic . . . for over
two thousand years part of the Western core curriculum."
Raphael's The School of Athens (ca. 1510).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Again, a knee-jerk reaction by education administrators is likely to be that students already learn Critical Thinking in math, science, and other much-vaunted STEM courses. But how much sense does it make to study Critical Thinking solely through the lens of another subject, like algebra, calculus, or physics? Why not study Critical Thinking directly, as the subject of its own dedicated, core-curriculum course?

That is how to fight fake news and conspiracy theories (and unreason in general). And it sits waiting in the much-neglected Departments of Philosophy throughout American academe: the solution that would if not cure, then at least curtail the plague that beleaguers our nation. I say this because it is Critical Thinking that teaches us, as the hackneyed but still laudable axiom goes, "Not what to think, but how to think."

Almost as an afterthought I myself, as an undergraduate back in the mid-1980s, took a 100-level (Freshman) course in Critical Thinking. I went on to obtain a doctorate in History, and I work today as a historian (and writer) for a world-renowned company. And I can honestly say that during my twelve grueling years as a college student I never took a class so useful as that basic survey of Logic.

My trusty Critical Thinking 
textbook from college.

Frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone navigates today’s complex world, particularly after the explosion of fake news and conspiracy theories, without a basic grasp of Critical Thinking — without being able to identify, for example, when a politician, commercial pitchman, preacher, lifestyle guru, or others with a vested interest in convincing an audience of something, resort to fallacies like the Ad Hominem, the Vicious Circle, the Slippery Slope, the False Dilemma, the Straw Man, and various other ruses meant (consciously or not) to deceive their listeners.

While Critical Thinking courses already exist, they are not generally required courses. And that is what I suggest we change: American universities should stop lionizing the concept of Critical Thinking in the abstract and instead make it a mandatory course for students of all majors. Students should not learn the skill through the filter of a math or science course where Critical Thinking lingers in the background, subservient. (One might as well try to instill Critical Thinking skills through the prism of Music Appreciation, or German, or Readings in American Literature: it could be attempted, but would it be effective?)

There are, however, skeptics, such as the Newsweek journalist who quipped, "I somehow managed to snag a desk in a newsroom without ever flashing my critical-thinking abilities. . . ." I strongly suspect, however, the journalist in question underrated his own reasoning skills: he did indeed flash his critical-thinking abilities through the very act of analyzing the concept of Critical Thinking, and with a healthy dose of skepticism, too.) What most critics seem to be complaining about, even if they themselves are unaware of it, is not the value of Critical Thinking, or the value of teaching Critical Thinking, but rather the logorrhea, the nauseating, vacuous lip service, paid to the subject that rarely if ever translates into real action.

"Just teach the class!"
Source: Centre for Medieval Studies,
University of Toronto

The solution, however, is simple. Require every college student in every major to take at least one dedicated Critical Thinking course. And teach those courses in that most endangered of academic species, the Departments of Philosophy. Teach those students how to spot the major fallacies, how to construct a sound and valid argument, how to determine if we really know what we think we know — not only for their own betterment, but for the betterment of our country. 

Just teach the class!


*By "critical" I mean "skeptical," which in turn means to me the quality or trait of demanding sufficient proof before believing something — even if that belief is merely provisional. I define "skeptical" here because I have noticed many people confuse it, for some reason, with the word "cynical." The latter, however, has an entirely different, and wholly negative, meaning — namely, the quality or trait of assuming the worst about human behavior (or about things in general). Granted, my definition of "skeptical" depends considerably on the meaning of the vague phrase "sufficient proof." For pragmatism's sake, I'll just ignore that issue for the moment! Similarly, I purposely avoid the pitfall of discussing the (alleged) differences between "truth" and "fact," and regard them here as synonymous. 


Istvan S. N. Berkeley, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, to Shane K. Bernard, 10 July 2019, email communication.

Frank Connolly, Director of Communications and Research, MindEdge, to Shane K. Bernard, 10 July 2019, email communication.

Amy Mitchell et al., "Many Americans Say Made-Up News Is a Critical Problem That Needs To Be Fixed," Pew Research Center, 5 June 2019, https://www.journalism.org/2019/06/05/many-americans-say-made-up-news-is-a-critical-problem-that-needs-to-be-fixed/, accessed 31 July 2019.

Alexander Nazaryan, "You're 100 Percent Wrong about Critical Thinking," Newsweek, 14 August 2015, https://www.newsweek.com/youre-100-percent-wrong-about-critical-thinking-362334, accessed 10 July 2019.

Stanford History Education Group, "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning," 22 November 2016, Stanford University, https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:fv751yt5934/SHEG%20Evaluating%20Information%20Online.pdf, accessed 10 July 2019.

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