July 18, 2019

Critical thinking – our ability to differentiate valid information from BS – is rapidly dwindling into a lost art. Today’s digital media makes it harder than ever to weed through the masses of “information” – every blogger, tweeter and influencer is presenting as an expert and creating or sharing information at a rate unlike ever before; our feeds echo information that we seem to like, whether or not it’s complete; and sharing information, regardless of accuracy, is as easy as the click of a button.

Disturbingly, we know that misinformation impacts everything from voting to vaccines. In order to make the best decisions, we must regain our ability to raise an eyebrow and call BS.

In response to the prevalence of this nonsense, University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West created a course aptly titled “Calling Bullshit.” The course teaches college students to recognize and call out misinformation. They’ve made the syllabus available to other teachers and students, and more than 70 universities have asked about using their materials. (Ben Guarino, The Washington Post, June 24, 2019).

Bergstrom and West teach critical thinking skills:

  • how to identify misinformation that is disguised in data and statistics, which feel solid and reliable but are often manipulated;
  • knowing when correlations are presented as connected but are, in fact, random and irrelevant;
  • how charts and graphs should include a zero mark for relevance; and
  • the difference between a scientific paper and a published, peer-reviewed study.

While we want to believe that people are sharing honest, valid information, the reality is we need to remain skeptical and vigilant in dissecting what we read and hear, how we process it, and what we choose to pass along to others. Perhaps Bergstrom and West’s course should be a part of our adult continuing education plans. At a minimum, let’s remember that candor is not the voice of choice for today’s tech-savvy exploiters, and refuse to contribute to or perpetuate the cycle of misinformation.