Monday, February 6, 2017

The Value of Reasoning in an Era of Fake News and Alternative Facts

       What do you believe?  Why do you believe it?  How do you decide what you believe?  Is there a difference between your perception of something and the actual truth?  Have you ever thought something was true for a long time only to discover what you thought was true (for months or years) turned out to be false the whole time?

       The old adage is "Don't believe everything you read."  This is valuable advice today just as much as it was in the past.  The Information Age not only increased the volume of information coming at us on a daily basis, it also increased the sources that create and publish this information.  Ordinary individuals can write blogs (case in point: me [!]) as easily as large institutions.  Information may or may not be vetted and fact-checked before being published.

       Another common source of information is friends and family; people you trust.  But what if your circle of friends and family is composed of lots of people that are just like you?  They look like you; they talk like you; they think like you.  You go through your life talking to these people and hearing the same things all of the time and eventually you believe that all people believe this.  But when you reference "all people", what you really mean is "all of the people that I know"--which is probably a subset of (say) all of the people in your town or all of the people in your country.  This phenomenon is knows as the Echo Chamber.

       Wikipedia defines Echo Chamber as a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.  Although the free flow of ideas via the internet might have lessened this effect, some have found that the internet has only amplified the Echo Chamber effect.

       Hence, we now live in an age in which the ability to weed out truth and facts may be harder than ever before.  Students, perhaps particularly teenagers, can become easy victims of believing in partial truths, fake news, and so called alternative facts.  This is why we need to teach students to question the things they read; to consider the source of their information; and to seek other points of views or at least other sources to confirm or to deny what they hear, see, or read.  Reasoning (the action of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way) is a skill that is more important today than ever before.  Our openness to consider other views influences our openness to people, places, foods, and experiences.

       We can't move forward and solve problems as a people or as a country, if we aren't able to fully understand the issues that we face.  Reasoning is a valuable skill.  Like any other skill, reasoning requires opportunities for practice to get good at it.  Schools should be able to provide these opportunities.

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