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Geoff Johnson: Full digital literacy will help us cut through the falsehoods

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” said Winston Churchill.
Researchers have been examining the influence of social media apps such as Instagram.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” said Winston Churchill. Not even Churchill could have foreseen the tsunami of lies, dishonesty, deceits, falsehoods, fabrications, mendacities, deceptions, defamations, misrepresentations that assail our kids, daily, on social media and elsewhere.

An extensive study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed news stories from a selection of media sources during the time of Twitter’s existence.

The examination of 126,000 stories, tweeted by three million users, over more than 10 years found that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumour.

Fake news and false rumours, the study found, reach more people, access deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.

Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who led this study concluded “it might have something to do with human nature.”

A false story, says Vosoughi, reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. False stories outperform the truth on every subject — including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment — fake news about politics regularly does best.

The growth in interactive media platforms and their rapid adoption by young people is one indication of the compelling nature of social media tools, such as Instagram and Snapchat. Other research has examined the influence of Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, on youth development.

Although a majority of adolescents report that social media are a positive contribution to their lives, more negative associations with social media have also been documented in the research literature. These include cyber bullying, depression, social anxiety, and exposure to developmentally inappropriate content.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and we all hunker down over our screens, Canada’s top scientist says everyone — media, scientists and the public — has an increasing role in pushing back against misinformation.

Dr. Mona Nemer, chief science adviser to Canada’s prime minister, minister of science, and cabinet says she sees an urgent need to expand science literacy in Canada’s schools.

That doesn’t just mean learning more about physics, chemistry, biology or any of the other myriad branches of science, it means understanding how science detects half-truth and deception.

In his book, The Demon Haunted World, published just before his death in 1996, American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan shared his secret to upholding the function of reason, even in the face of society’s most shameless untruths and outrageous propaganda.

In a chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” Sagan reflected on the many types of deception to which we, and more importantly, our kids, are susceptible.

Sagan pointed out that through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods.

Sagan shares some of these everyday BS detectors:

1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

2. Arguments from authority carry little weight since “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric.

Heading that list would be that any argument made “ad hominem” — Latin for “to the man” – attacking the arguer and not the argument has no value.

Then there is the appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa, i.e.: “There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore, UFOs exist.”

A commonly employed misleading rhetorical device, says Sagan, is begging the question, also called assuming the answer, e.g.: ”This granola bar is the healthiest thing you can eat because it’s made with all natural ingredients.”

Finally, there is that perennial favourite of some politicians: post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.” It is often shortened simply to “post hoc fallacy.”

Beyond all this, child psychologists recommend that parents and teachers talk to kids about media use, including mobile phones and social media, the purpose being to build awareness of social-media practices and their influence and potential outcomes.

And maybe, in 2020, it is time that the K-12 curriculum includes content that teaches full digital literacy all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade.

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.