The other day, I asked my newly minted fifth grader how she would know if something she read was real or fake. She stopped for a second and then told me what she’d learned in her previous class.
“Well, at first, I think about my own knowledge. Do I know anything like that? Do I believe it? Then I go back into the text to look for clues that might tell me if something is good — or maybe it doesn’t work out. Or I will ask people if they think it’s true. And then I’ll go to a really good website and verify if it’s true.”
I love that, at least in theory, she knows that you can’t believe everything you read — and she has a game plan for things that seem a little off to her. But as her mother, I will attest that it rarely goes down like that. Most of the time, if I question something she read or heard, she balks. Mom, I just know. And for many of the other parents I queried for this article, the answers are similar. They know because they just know. It’s true because of course it’s true. It’s exactly the kind of thinking that fuels the tornado of fake news we see on social media.
For me, the notion that we could equip the next generation to really discern real information from fake is huge. And so I set out to see what people in the know have to say about it.
At the college level, at least, there’s real hope. Earlier this year, two North Carolina State University professors — one psychologist, one historian — published a study in which they showed that students who were explicitly taught critical thinking skills in one class were more likely to use those skills when it comes to other subjects. And all it took was one class to see a difference.
A key part of the research came out of a history course called, “Frauds and Mysteries in History,” led by assistant professor Alicia McGill. In it, she taught students to analyze and evaluate material with a critical eye, employing tools such as Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, a set of ideas outlined his final book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Sagan, one of the most notable scientists of the late 20th century, wrote the book to give non-scientists a way to fortify themselves against falsehoods and pseudoscience using scientific-style inquiry.
In one assignment, McGill has students evaluate a potentially questionable website. “We’re getting them to ask, ‘Who is the author?’ ‘Where is this claim coming from?’ ‘What’s their motive in making this claim?’ ‘Does this make sense with the knowledge I already have?’”
This type of rigorous questioning is key — and, as her research shows, it can extend beyond the history classroom to other areas of life, which is exactly what we want. “It instills [in students] the idea that just because you’re not a historian or political scientist or psychologist it doesn’t mean you can’t think critically about something and call it out for what it is,” says McGill. “It’s a valuable thing — to know that you can use the knowledge that you have about the way the world works to question something.”
At heart, the confidence to question what you’re reading — plus the tools to push and prod at “facts” to see if they hold up — is as applicable to middle and high school students as it is to undergrads. It’s a process, becoming a critical thinker. And it takes practice.
To bolster your own baloney detection kit, or that of your child, here are a few of Sagan’s principles, simplified a bit for the tween and teen set.
- When in doubt, verify! “Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts.’”
- Make sure you consider all points of view.
- Remember, even “authorities” can make mistakes.
- Come up with more than one hypothesis, theory, or answer — and then test it.
- “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”
- If you can, measure it.
- “If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work…”
- Occam’s Razor — in other words, the simplest explanation is usually the right explanation.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be made false.
For the full Sagan excerpt, click here.
What are your strategies for helping your children, or students, think carefully and critically about what they read?