In an earlier blog On Critical Thinking, I lamented the dearth of analytical skills among the public, and I suggested that as K-12 educators, we have not produced generations of sophisticated adults who can find the truth in the media swamp surrounding them. On Sunday, March 3, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, professors of science communication at U Wisconsin, Madison, wrote “This Story Stinks” in the New York Times. It’s a disturbing account of problems with the Internet as an information resource, and a demonstration of why critical thinking is so important.
The authors asked 1183 folks to read a news post on a fictitious blog. It discussed a new technology product–nanosilver–with potential benefits like antibacterial properties and risks like water contamination. Then the readers were exposed to comments written supposedly by other readers. Half the comments were “civil reader comments and the other half [were] rude ones.” The actual contents of the comments was designed to be equally supportive or opposed to the technology, but the rude comments “contained epithets or curse words.” To the researchers, “the results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”
Based on a preliminary survey of attitudes toward technology, there was no change in pro- or anti-tech views after reading the civil comments. Among those who read the rude comments, the readers became more polarized in their views of the technology, and made “study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”
So what are we seeing here? This feels like an explanation for the loss of civility so evident in media everywhere–cable TV news and commentary, the extreme polarization of public political discourse–such media trends parallel the findings of these researchers. As I click through various web links searching for information, I often linger on the comments that follow articles. I’m frequently taken aback by the nastiness of many who leave comments. I find political garbage tossed into comment boxes where it doesn’t belong or blather that doesn’t contribute anything factually related to the news post, and I’m often offended that the comment wasn’t moderated and eliminated from the site. It’s like junk email and it’s irritating. Apparently, it also unconsciously alters my ability to make the best and most objective use of the information contained in the article–I might just think those who don’t agree with my opinion of the article are simply ignorant idiots, as the rude commentators have so cleverly stated in their posts.
Combine this finding with what we’ve been told about search engines. Search engines carefully assemble a profile of our individual interests so well that they begin to match our search results to the assembled profile about us. We begin to get results that are prioritized to match what we’ve been looking at already. If we don’t go to the last pages of the search results, we will only see hits that mimic what we’ve been reading most frequently. So, when the engines see we’ve been following Fox news or reading biographies of Paul Ryan, we get conservative results first. If we follow Jon Stewart, we’ll get more liberal results. If we read about Michelle Rhee and the Kipp Schools, we’ll get more results favorable to charters and fewer results that might be critical. Unless we work very hard to defeat the engines, we don’t get the chance to make up our own minds–we are fed confirmations of our prior results.
If the loud noises and rude protests in web chatter interfere with our ability to make proper judgments about news sources, it’s further evidence of critical thinking failures. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as all teachers know. For example, most people think we wind power is more expensive than coal and natural gas, since those energy industries have been working very hard to convince us that investing in wind power is a waste of money. But, the truth is that wind power, once you take away all the currently existing government subsidies to the energy industry so that you compare costs on a level playing field, is cheaper per kilowatt hour than coal or oil or natural gas production. So why don’t we know that with some confidence? Perhaps it’s because of the background noise and rude chatter that permeates any alternative web discussion board that allows open posts, in addition to media outlets who fail totally at fact checking. Without dispassionate analysis, Truth is damned–nonsense and misinformation and shouting down the truth sells, and critical thinking is mired in the slough of despond.