An article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week commented on a study done at Stanford University on just over 7,800 students from middle school through college. 82% of the middle-schoolers could not distinguish fake news (or “sponsored content”) from real news online. For all their savvy with smartphones and the internet, their critical reasoning was nearly non-existent. Their criteria for judgement is particularly cringe-worthy at times, for instance, some were convinced an article was authentic if there was a large photo in it.
Google and Facebook have promised to ban or censor fake news stories, but that is not enough. Critical thinking skills are absolutely essential in this world where we are being constantly bombarded with information from multiple forms of media. Evaluating the sources for the information we are presented with, and regarding all claims with skepticism, is necessary.
Rescuing critical thinking and skepticism from the brink will require effort. If you think you need help with your own critical reasoning skills then consider resources like this free collection of lectures from Oxford’s Critical Reasoning for Beginners course.
If you are familiar with the tools of critical reasoning then be vocal about its applied use. If you see someone on social media sharing bogus news, criticize it. If you are speaking with someone who makes a claim, ask them for their source and evaluate it. Teach critical thinking to your children. Without critical thinking skills we leave ourselves open to being taken advantage of by anyone who successfully appeals to our emotions instead of logic (Donald Trump, for example).
We can all play a role in bringing critical thinking back into fashion. Our future could depend on it.