Dr. Grauer's Column - Mad Magazine and the Next Basic Skill in School
Mad Magazine and the Next Basic Skill in School
You probably wonder sometimes about the challenges of being a teacher today. Here are a few things that have helped me face those challenges, told in this story, or history, of the fourth “R,” research. Let me know if any of it is helpful to you. And enjoy the story.
When I was a kid, if you wanted the truth you could go to the World Book Encyclopedia and it gave you the basics. But if you wanted the deeper, more technical truth, that was hands down: Encyclopedia Britannica. Those were our fact checkers. They were 100% trusted. We also had news in Mad Magazine, a satirical comic monthly which relished in claiming, “This is a true story but the facts are changed.” But it was Mad Magazine! We knew that!
When Wikipedia started gaining traction, it seemed unbelievable that you could get your information from the general public, but the fact checking there ramped up enormously and we were developing collective intelligence. It was the people’s truth, a consensus reality often consisting of whatever is most agreed upon. And this, of course, is a less stable truth that could fall apart in the wrong hands. It was foreshadowing.
Then there is Google. By the late 1990s and throughout the 2000’s, fighting the good fight as a teacher meant teaching kids that cutting and pasting the first thing they found on Google was NOT the same thing as “getting references.” The nature of plagiary changed overnight and, let me tell you, getting kids to cite the sources they found on their inevitable Google search, simple as it might seem, was monstrously difficult. “Don’t you understand,” I remember exasperatingly pleading with student after student, “that you got an F on this paper for plagiary when all you needed to do was put quotes around it and say where it was from and you might have gotten an A! For the same paper!”
But even that did not last long, because over the near years Google became so inundated with postings about everything you could possibly search for that the game became, “Okay, you cited the reference, you used the quotes, but how do we know that pVloG свинья Citation Farm is a legitimate, reliable source of evidence to back up your paper on Humboldt County farming?”
There were so many sources, and these kids had never even HEARD of Encyclopedia Britannica, and they did not know a real source from a Ponzi scheme, and how could they? Source validity was becoming the new basic skill.
And then there was Facebook. Just for a little while there, it was just a place to look up acquaintances you hadn’t thought about since high school and, in some cases, when we looked them up, we remembered why we hadn’t done so. But it was okay. But steadily it grew into the race for followers, and gradually people gained in followers by posting outrageous information, and gradually that information was growing so indiscriminately that it was a sort of a cesspool where kids could not possibly discriminate between real news and, well, other news. Breathless anecdotes and cherry-picked slivers of the truth, and demagoguery filled in the (virtual) pages more and more. Self-citation and then extreme self-citation and source manipulation began overrunning Facebook and the other social media motivated by vast financial and political stakes. To us Britannica fans, we could hardly believe what we were seeing—but we hadn’t seen the half of it.
Today, social media trackers cite how headlining and viral stories with blatant biases or stuff that is, well, kinda true but so out of context or distorted that it would make Mad Magazine jealous. Even Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” satires have trouble keeping up with the distortion level of the everyday news many people ingest as gospel.
Just this week, a story about the death of an elderly person who took a coronavirus vaccine got tens of thousands of followers and is growing viral across social media as I write. It is irresistibly righteous! Trusted Social media tracking services are 2021’s version of Encyclopedia Britannica, and these services show anyone, clear as day, that the story was put out by Russians, who love messing with United States mentality towards destabilizing democracy. True, a guy died a few days after a vaccine. And, oh, he also had accompanying medical conditions. And, oh, the death rate after almost 500,000 vaccines worldwide is actually .0018% (18 thousandths of one percent), teeny tiny compared to the death rate of unvaccinated people. And most of those who died had accompanying conditions.
Facebook misinformation often includes credible sounding jargon that people who don’t do any research love to read, even when coming from outside of credible medical sources—it you check your sources. Crazy theories and rumors about “mRNA rewriting DNA” or about “coronavirus spike proteins that create synectin”—crazy stuff, that sounds just jargony and smartypants enough to be real science. WebMD, an actual credible source, has a great rundown on some of these theories. Misinformation undermines education.
Baseball great Hank Aaron died a few months after being vaccinated. Students!: Aaron was in his 80s and had a stroke. Anecdotal “cause and effect” rumors scare people by tying unfortunate events back to a vaccine they don’t want or a politician they don’t like.
We are trying to teach our children well. And breathless anecdotes and cherry-picked slivers of the truth, and demagoguery are filling in the pages they read. Never has great education been more important. Knowing your source is the new basic skill.
I hate to say it, but so is a healthy skepticism. Social media platforms like Facebook repeatedly use so-called dark patterns to nudge you toward giving away more of your data, which lets them feed you stories from increasingly isolated sources, until we are all going deeper and deeper down into our own rabbit holes. Social media uses spectacularly well-developed algorithms to selectively guess what information YOU would like to see—information that will confirm almost anything you happen to want to believe. This is called a filter bubble.
The human mind is generally subject to what psychologists call confirmation bias: we interpret new evidence as confirmation of whatever beliefs and theories we already hold. It is as if we want to be in a filter bubble, and we seek it out!
The great educational antidote to all this weak and distorted thinking is called “multiple perspectives,” and great teachers help (and insist that) students consider diverse perspectives and factors before drawing conclusions. All this is why I read not just The New Yorker, but Al Jazeera, and The Epoch Times, and Quora, and National Geographic, and various others I sort of hop around to, just to get out of my own filter bubble. It ain’t easy. And all this is also why I literally spend more time thinking about the quality and verity of the sources my students use than even the information they find. Kids!: Don’t “turn on your notifications”! Even if you are told to do so.
One of my “Encyclopedia Britannicas” today is the Wall Street Journal (WSJ)—it’s a source I trust pretty well. (Although, I don’t trust any source unequivocally—sources all have to be triangulated.) The WSJ notes that Russian disinformation campaigns are spending millions to undermine confidence in Pfizer, and other Covid-19 vaccines. Their websites and social media posts are masterful in falsely playing up or exaggerating the vaccines’ risk of side effects and efficacy, and in wrongly explaining how the U.S. rammed vaccines through the approval process, among other false or misleading claims. It is easy to triangulate these falsehoods. If you are reading this and you have credible sources explaining how I am wrong about this, I urge you to send me your sources and why you trust them.
Facebook is complicit—deceptive social media groups can have a field day on Facebook (and Instagram, and others). Last year Facebook paid a $5 billion fine for making “deceptive claims about consumers’ ability to control their own privacy and personal data.” But millions of people treat this chaotic, Mad Magazine of a news source as though it were the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Our students are floating in a three-dimensional world of information all around: truth, lies, theories, commercialism, attractive disinformation, everywhere, floating, indiscriminate, greedy, and hardly a way to know which way is up. Great education helps students find that way and search for the meaning of trust. Never has great education been more important.
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We're trying to teach our children while they're bombarded by anecdotes, slivers of the truth, and demagoguery. Never has great education been more important.