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Why Do People Swallow Whole Fake News?
By   Shlomo Maital

 
   Why do so many people swallow whole fake news?  Why do we believe things that are patently false (like the 2016 rumor that Hillary Clinton was somehow molesting or kidnapping children in a fast food restaurant?)
     Today’s Global New York Times has an Op-Ed that has some strong answers. It is written by Prof. Gordon Pennycook, from my hometown Regina, Saskatchewan,  and co-author David Rand, MIT.*
      The bottom line:  Education is not the answer.  More educated people fall for fake news, too, especially fake news that agrees with their views.
       We fall for fake news, because we are unable or unwilling to engage in critical thinking – to challenge everythng we read critically, and subject it to the laws of reason and logic.
        Critical thinking is a key skill that is taught far too little in schools and universities.  At Queen’s University, long ago, I took a compulsory course in Philosophy, in the days when all university students were required to know some literature, philosophy and history.  It was the best course I ever took.  I learned about logic, about ethics, and about metaphysics.  And I learned about critical thinking.
       A critical thinker asks,  is this true?  Is it based on strong facts?  What are the facts?  Is it logical? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? What are the sources? 
        The enemy of critical thinking is the Internet news mania.  Internet news has a news cycle of seconds.  Everything is instant.  There is no time for reflection or challenging thought.  So – let’s slow it down.

     Build yourself a news microscope.  Focus it.  Zero it in on news.  Think critically.  Reserve judgment as you do so.  Just because Buzzfeed is in a big hurry does not mean that we all have to be.

•  “Why do people fall for fake news?”    Gordon Pennycook and David Rand.  New York Times, Tuesday January 22 2019.

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The Era of False News: Why We All Must Think Critically
By Shlomo  Maital  
 
       Today’s New York Times (“False News Really Does Spread Like Wildfire”, by Steve Lohr)  asks a tough question:  “What if the scourge of false news …is not …[Russians or bots]?   What if the main problem is us?”
        People are the principle culprits. You and me.  This is the result of extensive MIT research of false news (they prefer that term to Trump’s ‘fake news’).   “True stories were rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top 1 % of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people. And it took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people”. 
       We humans are responsible.  Because false news is almost always more sensational, more livid, than true.  So we rush to share it.  The research of Sinan Aral, MIT Sloan School of Management, appeared in Science magazine.
        So what can you and I,  what MUST you and I, do?  I think it is simple.  Back to basics. Back to John Dewey.  Back to Einstein.   We have to learn again how to think.
          I have been a college professor for over 50 years.   In that time, did I teach my students, facts, concepts, tools?  Or did I teach them how to think critically, including about what I am telling them?   I don’t think I did a very job in training them in one of today’s most crucial skills, knowing to tell truth from falsehood. 
        Knowledge today has a short half-life.  And in any case, knowledge can be found quickly, by anyone, using digital tools.  But the ability to think, to sort fact from fiction, truth from lies —  that has a very long half life.   And that skill is the pillar of any democratic system.  Because otherwise , scoundrels can get elected by telling us lies – and they do it all the time now.   
        Increasingly, people watch media, conventional and social, only when they agree with what it tells them.  Critical thinking is anesthetized.   This has to stop.  We have to teach our kids to analyze, weigh, criticize, critique, challenge.  We have to teach ourselves.  In a world where this skill is more widespread, the Russians will simply draw a blank – and give up.   And in a world where Trump says to Canada’s PM:  “US has a trade deficit with Canada” (false),  and later gloats that he just made it up  (US has an overall trade surplus with Canada, it takes 3 seconds to check this),   when the leader of the Free World doesn’t care if what he says is true or false, not does his base,  it is incumbent upon us, every human being, to care a whole lot more.      

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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