Teaching critical thought in the age of fake news

In a world where Alex Jones is famous, teaching kids to filter out the bullshit is a challenge

Over the Christmas holidays I asked my young son to go get my camera. Rather than grabbing my traditional Nikon camera (which is what I had intended) he returned with my cell phone. He can be forgiven for not knowing the difference. In the world he has grown up in the two are very often one and the same.

The world in which they will grow up in will be so different from the one I — not so long ago — grew up in. Once, cellphones were prohibitively expensive and cameras were clearly distinct devices. And that world was so different from the one my parents grew up in before me.

But while my son’s confusion about cameras might serve as an interesting anecdote to illustrate the technological leaps that have occurred in our lifespans, it is of little practical consequence. It led my thoughts to more substantive new challenges they might face and specifically growing up in a world dominated by the internet and the information — and misinformation — contained on it. How will they learn to know the difference? This wasn’t a problem I had to deal with until young adulthood.

My children are still too young to really know what the web is. My oldest is just wrapping his mind around the idea that he can’t access streaming episodes of Paw Patrol or whatever is on Netflix whenever we don’t have access to Wi-Fi.

This means I have time to consider how to equip them for this fast-changing digital world — a vexing challenge when we adults are only getting a grasp upon it ourselves. You could argue many of us are failing.

The answer, I think, is to teach rudimentary critical thought from as early an age as possible.

I must confess a certain distaste for the expression “critical thought.” It is too often used condescendingly in the context of a debate to assert the superiority of one’s own beliefs over those of others. “You would see it my way if only you thought critically about it.” This is condescending.

Yet despite its widespread misuse as shorthand for “whatever fits my own preconceived notions,” critical thought is not something we can afford to jettison from the lexicon. There is a lot of bullshit in the world. Therefore, honing the skills and techniques to separate truth from misinformation is, and will continue to be, an indispensable to being a thoughtful, engaged citizen.

And I think in this new world where truth and fiction are more difficult to separate it is something we will need to work on at an even younger age. Sure, it was always helpful during our younger years to know when someone was pulling the wool over our eyes, or that anything contained in the pages of the National Enquirer or similar publications was suspect. But you could get by. Editors and publishers acted as gatekeepers to filter out the most egregious forms of misinformation.

Critical thought was something we barely touched upon until high school or even university. When we did need to start thinking about it the exercise was different.

You were taught to be on the lookout for when a particular narrative might be shaping the facts that were presented and those that were omitted. Back then, the concern was about those in positions of power who used the privilege of their megaphone to defend and enhance their own power.

Fox News was in its infancy when I started out in university, and it was a ripe target when in second year I was charged with writing a paper about the use of propaganda.

But Fox News is the tame stuff these days in comparison to some of the nonsense being peddled as information. We have become even more unapologetic about blurring opinion and fact, and more willing to put boldfaced lies out there as truth.

One well known example with real world consequences, occurred in December 2016 when Edgar Welch shot up a Washington D.C. pizzeria because widely followed websites like Alex Jones’ Infowars were peddling a far-fetched conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta were involved in a pedophilia ring ran out of the basement. This is how low we have sunk.

We opened Pandora’s Box when we all took to the web for information. Lies and half-truths are now in their heyday. Any control over what is put out there, even if it was desirable, is probably not even possible. All we can really do is try to equip the next generation to think critically and to separate real information from fake news in an era when anyone can create a professional looking website and attract the kind of wide following that lends an air of credibility.

As we wrap up the holiday season and resolve to better our lives, our health, and our world in 2018, I am going to resolve to do my best to raise my children not to be — as we like to joke in our house — gull-a-bulls.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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