In search of an antidote for misinformation.
By Arlo Eisenberg
The greatest threat facing American democracy is not Russian interference. It is not even fake news. It is our own credulity.
When I was a professional rollerblader, over twenty years ago, traveling the world to perform in demos, exhibitions and competitions, I was all-in on the crazy conspiracy bandwagon. I owned Behold a Pale Horse, the dense, schizophrenic tome that touched on every conspiracy of the time (no matter how obscure), from aliens to AIDS to JFK to the Illuminati. It was a must-have book for anyone who seriously believed that the truth was out there. This was the early-to-mid nineties.
The undisputed manufacturer of the best wheels in rollerblading back then was an independent company out of Australia called, Cozmo Wheels. This is not merely idle praise, considering that at the time, I owned my own competing wheel company, Senate. Cozmo's owner was an eccentric, reclusive man, with a receding hairline, named Tim Dawe, who was also a devout conspiracist—the iconic Cozmo Wheels logo was an alien (fashioned to look like Tim) holding a Cozmo wheel beneath a fleet of UFOs.
Tim had a collection of cryptic VHS tapes that he would share, from time to time, with inquisitive skaters traveling through Australia. This was before the Internet was what it is today, so the kind of content that was on Tim’s tapes would have been very hard to come across otherwise. The secretiveness and the obscurity of Tim’s collection made their revelations feel all the more important. And more forbidden. Tim’s vault included tapes of alien autopsies and top-secret footage of the JFK assassination among many other curiosities.
A small stack of secretive government papers made their way back to the States after one fateful trip to Australia. The papers arrived Xeroxed, stapled together and heavily redacted. They numbered probably fifteen to twenty pages in total. And just like the VHS viewings, the low-tech production value made the content of the papers feel even more clandestine. And credible.
Back in California we devoured the leaked government papers. Voraciously. We couldn’t get enough of the revelations of UFO crashes and alien races and secret governmental agencies. We tried to decipher the redacted sections. And we searched for hidden meanings. We made copies and handed them out to our friends. And they shared them with their friends. YouTube didn’t exist yet, but for the mid-nineties this was about as viral as you could get.
I was working with my skate sponsor at the time, Roces, to develop the first inline skate designed specifically for the kind of stunt skating that we were doing. When it came time to name the skate, the decision was obvious. We called the world’s first aggressive skate the “Majestic 12,” after one of the secret organizations profiled in the leaked papers.
Roces was based in a small town in Italy called, Montebelluna. I traveled back and forth from Southern California to Italy while we were working on the skate (from Venice to Venice!). I loved to read on international flights. I especially loved reading about things that seemed to push the boundaries of human knowledge. This is partly what fueled my appetite for UFOs and aliens and secret organizations.
I always purchased the latest issues of Discover Magazine and Scientific American to take on the flights with me, because, as science magazines, many of their stories seemed to be on the cutting-edge of discovery. On one occasion, while scouring the newsstands for additional reading material, I spotted a magazine touting UFO crashes and cryptids right on the cover. I grabbed it.
It wasn’t until I was on the flight, reading it, that I came to understand that the provocative magazine, with the titillating headlines on the cover, was not just another sensationalist rag, pedaling fantastic tales. The magazine read more like an investigative journal, with articles scrutinizing their subjects mercilessly. Evidence (or the lack thereof) was thoroughly examined (or exposed). Alternate explanations were explored. This was the first time that I’d ever been exposed to the concept of critical thinking. That I became aware that there were tools for vetting extraordinary claims. The name of the magazine was, Skeptic. This was my introduction to Skepticism.
I’ve learned a lot in the intervening decades since then. I no longer believe in aliens, for starters. In fact, since Skepticism introduced me to the scientific method and logical fallacies and Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit, I no longer accept any claims uncritically or without evidence. Skepticism woke me up to an evidence-based reality.
We all like to think that we get wiser as we get older. And while it is true that I was much younger when I was into aliens, and before I discovered Skepticism, I don’t think it would be fair, or accurate, to say that I was stupid. In the same way I don’t think that it’s fair, or particularly useful, to say that Trump supporters are stupid. Or that people who fall for fake news are stupid.
There is a presumption that if people were better educated they wouldn’t fall for fake news. That education provides a kind of prophylactic to bunkum. But you don’t hear that argument being made about the people who shop for their homeopathic remedies at Whole Foods or about the millions of people who accept the baseless schlock pushed uncritically by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz. The education argument implies a bias against rural and working class people and denies all of the evidence that suggests that highly educated people are just as likely to be duped by extraordinary claims.
Measles and mumps cases are on the rise in the U.S. Not because people in the U.S. are becoming more stupid, but because well meaning, often times, well-educated parents have been exposed to hysterical anti-vaccine news stories and lack the resources to evaluate the claims critically. Solving the problem of fake news is not simply a matter of better education, or more education. It is about the right kind of education. We need to teach people how to consume media critically.
As an example, scientist Emily Willingham has proposed using, “the scientific method approach for telling real from fake news.” Willingham suggests beginning with the hypothesis that a given news item is true and then taking steps to try to disprove it, like checking the source's URL and checking the publication date. "It may seem counterintuitive," she says, "but the goal when devising a hypothesis is to then develop tests that will crush it. If your hypothesis survives your tests, chances are, it’s valid."
This year, in a nod to the changing dynamics of the connected world, my daughter’s high school issued every student their own Chromebook. Teachers can post their assignments online. Students read their course material, watch instructional videos, collaborate with other students and download and fill out their assignments. All online. All without ever having to put pen to paper.
At every student’s fingertips, really, in nearly every person’s pocket, lies access to practically everything you could ever want to know about almost anything. Now that a quick search on a Chromebook (or any smart device) can provide nearly any fact instantaneously, it is no longer necessary (or appropriate) to ask students to waste hours committing trivial knowledge to memory.
There is a reason no one remembers birthdays or phone numbers anymore. We don’t need to. Our knowledge is augmented by our smart devices and the need to retain trivial information has become obsolete. And yet our students are still being trained as if they were human rolodexes, simply filing away information to be recalled later.
I have watched my daughter devote countless hours to memorizing things like the periodic table and all of the names, dates and locations associated with the American Revolutionary War. And for what. This is a completely useless skill. The world does not need human rolodexes.
What a free and democratic society depends on are thoughtful, educated citizens who are capable of understanding context and complex concepts and who know how to discriminate between competing ideas. Students should be able to tell a bogus story from a real one. A reliable source from an unreliable one.
My daughter is sixteen years old. Not only does she have a Chromebook now, she also has Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. Not a week goes by that she doesn’t ask me about an article that she saw on Facebook or some video that was posted on Twitter. She is exposed to a constant barrage of information. Not just trivial, and mostly uncontroversial facts, like she is exposed to at school, but often wild, thought provoking headlines that strain credulity.
For all of the hours that my daughter spends memorizing facts that Google could just as easily return to her at the push of a button (or in response to a voice command), she has not had a single class to teach her about critical thinking. Her schooling has not provided her with any of the tools necessary to help her navigate the hundreds of insane ideas that she is bombarded with every day.
My daughter’s school-issued Chromebook is a tacit acknowledgment of our new reality. Of the dramatically changing informational and cultural landscapes. But the curriculum has not caught up to the technology. Now that information has become completely ubiquitous—constantly streaming or on-demand and accessible from anywhere at any time—the most indispensable service that our schools can provide to our students is no longer simply access to information, it is the ability to navigate it. As Michael Lynch, a Professor at the University of Connecticut observed, the internet is “both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer.” And our schools are not doing anything to make sure that our students know the difference.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon. History is replete with examples of con artists, snake oil salesmen and otherwise well-meaning people who have taken up with bad ideas. There is no shortage of Bernie Madoffs, Sylvia Brownes, Pat Robertsons, Sean Hannitys, Jenny McCarthys, Alex Joneses and Donald Trumps to go around. But the rise of the internet and social media has significantly exacerbated the fake news problem. It has also obfuscated the solution.
The impact that technology has had on the proliferation of fake news has been so dramatic that the temptation has been to focus on the technology as the culprit. So much of the conversation about the fake news crisis has been focused on the gatekeepers, as if better filters or better Facebook algorithms could fix the problem. This approach is problematic on two fronts.
First of all, tweaking the filters is really just kicking the can down the road. Even if Facebook and Twitter could come up with better filters for blocking fake news, it wouldn’t render users any better equipped for dealing with the fake news items that would still invariably make it across their screens. Less fake news is still fake news.
The second problem is one of interpretation and enforcement. And on this front things get a bit thornier. Because what really is fake news and who gets to decide? On the surface it should be simple. Fake news is anything asserted as fact that is unsupported by the evidence or that is demonstrably false. The problem is that by this standard, you would not just be filtering out fabricated news items generated from nefarious Russian accounts, but you would also end up filtering partisan news sources like Fox News, alternative health promoters like Dr. Oz, religious outlets and organizations and even compulsive liars like our own current president.
While an internet free of bullshit might sound attractive, the thought of any company, committee or governmental agency controlling these filters should strike fear into the heart of every freedom loving citizen. Censorship is a slippery slope, and aside from being anathema to a free democracy, it also remains an inferior alternative to education. To training critical thinkers.
The best antidote to fake news, the only meaningful antidote, really, is to prepare ordinary citizens to think like fact-checkers. "The kinds of duties that used to be the responsibility of editors, of librarians,” says, Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, “now fall on the shoulders of anyone who uses a screen to become informed about the world."
We don’t need to be protected from Russian bad actors on the Internet. We don’t need to be shielded from fake news. In the information age the greatest thing that we can hope for, in a free and democratic society, is not that we should be protected from fake news, but that we should be empowered to reject it.