Monday, February 4, 2013

Equipping Students with a Baloney-Detection Kit in the Information Age

According to Michael Shermer, "Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims." He also points out that skeptics aren't "closeminded or cynical;" they are "curious and cautious," and their beliefs are open to revision when the facts change.

In an information-rich world where we are bombarded with all manner of fantastic claims and ideas, one would do well to adopt some degree of skepticism. For our students, being able to evaluate extraordinary claims, and be skeptical, is a vital skill in the 21st century. 

In January, I posted "8 Must-Have Skills for Spotting Misinformation for 21st Century Students" in which I pointed out a starter list of "baloney-detection skills" based on Loren Collins' book Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation. In a more recent post, entitled "What Is Skepticism, Anyway?" author Michael Shermer reviewed a "Baloney-Detection Kit" produced by Skeptic magazine.This kit captures some additional important "baloney-detection skills" our 21st century students need. Below, I have taken the liberty to adapt this "Baloney-Detection Skills Kit"  for educational use and teaching.

When students encounter any claim made by someone either in or out of cyberspace, here's a list of questions they might ask:
  • Does the source of the claim often make similar claims? According to Sherrmer, "Pseudo-scientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts." They also tend make numerous fantastic claims. It is important to recognize when an individual makes a habit of making radical claims, because that is perhaps a good sign their claims are bogus or suspect.
  • Have the claims been verified by other sources? Pseudo-scientists and others often make statements that are unverified or only verified by those within their own belief circle. It is important to teach our students how to "check on those who are checking the claims" being made.
  • Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought? In other words, have efforts only been made to seek out evidence that confirms the claim, not dis-confirm?  Our students need to be able to recognize when a claimant is caught up in confirmation bias. They need to understand that science emphasizes checking and rechecking the evidence. Verification and replication are vital. Being able to recognize when someone is trying to falsify a claim is the key to detecting misinformation.
  • Has the person making the claim given a different explanation for what is happening, or are they simply denying the existing explanation? Those engaged in misinformation often resort to criticizing the claim they oppose and the arguments, but not affirm what they believe. Students need to be able to recognize when someone is only attacking at explanation but not offering any alternative. This is a sign that a person's claims are possibly suspect.
  • Does the person's personal beliefs and biases drive their conclusions or vice versa? It is important for our students to understand how biases and personal beliefs slant interpretations of data. Also, students need to understand the importance of engaging in a "peer-review" process in order to detect those biases and beliefs, and to determine how those have affected the claims being made.
When it comes to teaching our students to be skeptical, I like the aphorism Shermer offers. It is an excellent guide for ourselves and our students in an age of misinformation. He writes:

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

In the 21st century, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching our students to demand extraordinary evidence when they are faced with fantastic claims. Critical evaluation of information is a 21st century survival tool our students can't live without.

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