Critical thinking has ALWAYS been an important part of a high quality education. A case can be made in our information-awash society today, however, that critical faculties are needed NOW more than ever. The May 2010 issue of NewScientist magazine includes a special report section titled, “Age of Denial: Why so many people refuse to believe the truth.” Article authors highlight many reasons for the success of today’s “deniers” focusing on subjects like climate change, evolution, the Holocaust, vaccines, tobacco impacts and other subjects. Prominent among these reasons are the ease with which falsehoods are shared online and the relative infrequency with which people tend to verify and validate statements / claims. We need to make critical thinking a centerpiece of learning at all levels, to maintain the ideals of the Enlightenment and hold at bay those manipulators who would seed confusion by obfuscating “scientific research” and alleged “evidence supported” claims. Why do you think or believe that? How do you know that is true? These are critical questions to ask ourselves and our students, and this article series from NewScientist drives this point home.

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According to the English Wiktionary, one definition of “obsfucate” is:

To deliberately make more confusing in order to conceal the truth.

The etemology of “obsfucate” is from the Latin word obfuscare, from ob- + fuscare (“darken”). The “dark ages” was the era in European history following the fall of the Roman Empire, described in Wikipedia as the “period of intellectual darkness between the extinguishing of the light of Rome, and the Renaissance or rebirth from the 14th century onwards.” The Enlightenment should continue today as digital communication technologies fundamentally change the access we enjoy to information, and our abilities to share information ourselves. The advance of enlightened thinking relies principally on our abilities and willingness to think critically however, as well as the access we enjoy to varied sources of information and opinion.

Critical thinking and problem solving are not a new skills, even though they are often included in frameworks for “21st century skills” like those espoused by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Corporations as well as groups of individuals have intentionally shared falsehoods and obsfucating “research” findings for many years before Internet technologies arrived on the information scene. As an example, Richard Littlemore writes in his article “Manufacturing Doubt” in this NewScientist series:

You can’t beat doubt as a corporate strategy– especially if your product is life-threatening when used as directed. These days we don’t have to speculate as to whether industries have manufactured doubt. They have admitted it too many times. In 1972, Tobacco Institute vice-president Fred Panzer outlined his industry’s ‘brilliantly executed’ defence strategy. A key tactic was ‘creating doubt about the health charge [that tobacco use increased chances of getting cancer] without actually denying it’ while ‘encouraging objective scientific research.’… Where tobacco led the way, coal and chemicals followed. And, of course, the fossil fuel industry has been working overtime– and with shocking success– creating doubt about climate change.

While groups like “Big Tobacco” have conducted organized campaigns to obsfucate societal perceptions about medical risks for years preceding the Internet information revolution, digital communication technologies are now used to rapidly repeat and therefore disseminate false messages which can gain cultural currency through repetition. In many cases, thanks to the indexing schemes of search engines like Google, these messages can also gain acceptance in the digital info-sphere much sooner than they might have in earlier eras of history. In his NewScientist article “Giving Life to a Lie,” Jim Giles details the history of a falsely attributed quotation to John Houghton. Houghton was falsely quoted as saying, “Unless we announce disasters no one will listen,” and this quotation has been used repeatedly since its initial publication in November 2006 by those seeking to debunk climate change. Giles explains how an “informational cascade” online today can rapidly cause quotations or ideas to gain popular currency much faster than they could in the past. Giles writes:

The process [of informational cascade] is amplified by the ‘echo chamber’ of the internet, which has made it easier than ever to encounter and generate falsehoods. It also makes it easier to start them. Propagators are often aware of what they are doing, according to [Cass] Sustein. Some act out of self-interest, such as the desire for money or fame. Others are defending an ideology or faith. Some are simply malicious.

Giles explains how repetition of messages can lead to the “illusion of truth.”

‘Hearing something 10 times does not mean there there are 10 different pieces of information,’ says [David] Hirshleifer. ‘But the more you hear something the more likely you are to believe it is true.’ And so it is with denial: if everybody appears to be saying that climate science is corrupt, or that the MMR vaccine causes autism, it takes on the appears of fact.

Although it is not mentioned in this article series on “deniers,” I was reminded of the common perception today that all interactive chat environments on the Internet are evil and can only be used for nefarious purposes. I think dynamics similar to those identified by Littlemore and Giles are at play with these discussions of “Internet Safety.” After hearing multiple references to “predator danger” news specials, a common perception has been reinforced in many U.S. communities that the interactive Internet overall is a dangerous place which should be avoided by young people. While there are increasingly popular online destinations like Webkins, Club Penguin, etc. which might logically help to refute this perception, when it comes to many school-based discussions of Internet safety it’s clear the fear message and perception continues to predominate. Too often, even as adults, we FAIL to critically analyze and validate messages we hear in the media and within our environment. It’s not just students who need encouragement to be critical thinkers: We do as adults as well.

On the topic of safe chat environments for students at school, I recommend you check out the relatively new site The Seedlings interviewed teacher Cherrie MacInnes about the website and its genesis in their June 3, 2010 webcast. Getting involved in an interactive class project using a site like Classchats may be one of the best ways we can individually help overcome overblown perceptions about the dangers of interactive digital technologies.

Few technology topics seem to bring the need for a focus on critical thinking to the forefront as much as WikiPedia. Like many other school districts in the United States, the public district where my two youngest children now attend elementary school simply bans WikiPedia use outright by students rather than talking about its value and the importance of validating information. When school leaders ban an important and relevant information resource like WikiPedia instead of helping learners of all ages understand how to use it effectively, they do an educational disservice to the entire community. We should not only be using WikiPedia regularly in our schools and homes, we should also be talking about the process through which we validate and trust information. Banning WikiPedia outright because it can (and often does) include erroneous information ducks vital conversations which we need to be having regularly as expert and novice learners. As teachers, we hopefully never tell our students to only use a single source for their research projects, and take everything that source says or has written at face value without any verification or corroboration. In practice, however, I find there is remarkably little QUESTIONING about sources, perspectives, and bias in many classrooms conducting research projects. This needs to change.

It’s certainly easier to teach in an environment where facts are not contested and conclusions are not disputed. The real world outside of classrooms, however, is filled with situations which have ill-defined outcomes. Decisions must be made based on limited and imperfect information, and critical thinking is essential.

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How can we encourage more critical thinking inside and outside our classrooms? Discussions of and practice with the scientific method, utilization of frameworks like The Big 6, and simply adopting an inquiry-based approach to learning are all ways to encourage more critical analysis. Conversations with students during and about their process of creating a knowledge product should include lots of open ended questions which challenge students’ thinking.

The Revised Bloom's Taxonomy

This mode of teaching is certainly “messier” than traditional, teacher-directed instruction, but this is exactly the sort of dialog we need to prepare students to be engaged and educated citizens in the 21st century. Our need for critical thinking is greater today than ever before. Are you living in an echo chamber? Are your students? We need to find ways to regularly step outside our bubbles of normalcy and question both our assumptions and our sources of information. This inquiry-based process should allow us to act as true “sceptics” guided by a scientific way of thinking rather than “deniers” driven primarily by ideologies or other biases. Our digitally connected learning landscape makes this need even more apparent than it was a decade ago, last year, or last week.

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  • Clay Boggess

    I completely agree that we automatically assume that what we hear is fact without asking important questions like ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ Critical thinking must be taught as early as possible and then has to remain imbedded in the curriculum in order for it to become a part of us.

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