Saturday, February 18, 2017

Facts? We Don't Need No Stinking Facts by Dr. Michael Flanagan

I recently read an article on the ways that teachers are trying to combat  "fake news" and it directly related to what I have been teaching in my government and economics classes. Research and cite your sources before you debate an issue. As a society our discussions on current events, controversial political issues and economic policies are all too often muddied by political talking points and agenda serving sound bites.

Politicians can say whatever they want true or not, and when fact checked they scoff it off as fake news. The current presidential administration has recently referred to the mainstream news media (except for Fox news) as the "enemy of the American people". This country is in the midst of a struggle between fake news and alternative facts on one side versus research and analysis on the other. Unfortunately, it is quite apparent which side is winning.

Far too many people base their worldview on what they hear on tv and radio talk shows. Our entire ability to verify information has withered on the vine. It is a skill that is evolving out of humans. Survival of the least informed. Instead of a journey towards enlightenment many are complacently wandering in ignorance. People have embraced being told what to think by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Joe Scarborough. It is the collateral damage of the TV generation; limited attention spans and the reliance on spoon fed info graphics. So many people will believe what they hear at face value, as long as there is an American Flag waving in the background of the tv screen.  

Fake News, alternative facts, and corporate owned cable talk shows have circumvented critical thought. Facts are no longer verified, a talk show host makes a claim and a “panel” of experts give their opinions. Usually the loudest panelist appears the winner. That system of split screen theatrics has replaced investigative journalism. This is what happens when we as a society relinquish the responsibility to think for ourselves, and rely on the mainstream news media to do our analysis for us. Why should people waste time with pesky research, and corroborate facts from verifiable sources, when there are video’s of cats and people’s dinner streaming by our news feeds. In an age where information is at our fingertips, and the world around us is facing one crisis after another, the students in our classrooms are using their cell phones, arguably the most powerful informational tool ever created, to play video pool, angry birds or to livestream their latests arguments and fights.

I have never been the strictest person when it comes to cellphones in classrooms. I think it comes from all the years that I was a dean, and I had to confiscate electronics from students. I never felt right about taking a child’s property, especially since 9/11 showed us how truly important the ability to contact our loved ones was. I also feel that trying to restrict the use of cell phones by taking them, is like trying to sweep back the tide with a broom. Like trying to herd a bunch of cats. We must find a better way to channel our students use of technology, by showing them the power they carry with them every day. Think of what the giants of history like Einstein, Edison, or Tesla would have accomplished with a fraction of the information our students have at their fingertips.

It is by no means our students who are the only ones underutilizing the accurate information available to them. There are many, many...many of us that are not only inundated by misinformation, but pride themselves on it, with a nationalistic fervor. Those who do adhere to facts and scientific research are often derided as elitists, libtards or snowflakes when engaged in discussion. This is especially true in online forums where anonymity and lack of proximity exacerbate trolling.

Fake news doesn't mean that any news source that is not mainstream media is fake. Facts are facts whether they are in the Washington Post, Fox News, Al Jazeera or Wikileaks. All sources of information should be corroborated, verified and cited in any discussion or news article. There should also be a thoughtful analysis accompanying that information. Properly reviewing a news source, and doing a simple Google search to substantiate that source is crucial. The need for accurate information has most recently been evident as a result of the increased ICE raids on immigrants in this country. People on social media want to support immigrants and warn them to stay away from ICE raids, so they share often inaccurate information. This wrong information only perpetuates fear, and creates a ”boy who cried wolf” syndrome that will cause people to disregard valid warnings. The sharing of false online posts is the result of poor research and online posting skills.

Lastly, we should all understand that no matter how much we have researched a particular piece of information, we can still be wrong in our analysis, or the facts could be misconstrued. Therefore we should not dismiss other fact based opinions without vetting them. I am not talking about pure racism, hatred or profound stupidity, but someone who is politically opposed to everything you stand for, yet has done their research should not be summarily dismissed. Our students need to be taught sound research skills. But those skills must also be modeled by society at large. We will never be able to change the political shills that have sold out the middle class if we do not hold ourselves to a higher standard. We need to teach our students (and ourselves) to think before we post, corroborate before sharing online, and fact check what we hear. When processing any news report we should “believe only half of what you hear and nothing of what you see”. We all need to think and act as citizen journalists, check our facts and cite our sources. Knowledge is power.

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