Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Deflating "Pizzagate"

A question I get asked a lot is why, here in Skeptophilia, I take time away from serious matters to look at the lunatic fringe, as I did yesterday with my piece on the reappearance of Mothman.  Let the weirdos be weird, seems to be the gist.  You're not going to convince them, you're not going to expunge all weirdos from the world, so it really is kind of pointless.  One friend said it was a little like masturbation; it makes you feel good for a little while, but in the end it doesn't really accomplish anything.

Well, I obviously disagree, because I keep at it on a daily basis.  (Writing Skeptophilia, I mean, not masturbating.)  And I do think there's a point to highlighting the activities of the loonies -- two, in fact.  First, there is the unfortunate tendency that once you've accepted one crazy idea, you're more likely to fall for others, because you've abandoned evidence and logic as the sine qua non of understanding.  Second, there's the even more unfortunate tendency that given enough encouragement, the wingnuts sometimes act on their beliefs.

This all comes up because of a Skeptophilia frequent flier, namely Alex Jones, who in the last few weeks has been ranting about something called "Pizzagate."  Which brings something else up, namely the fact that the media's tendency to turn anything into a scandal by adding "-gate" to the end of it really grinds my gears.  This annoys me almost as much as Alex Jones does himself, which is saying something, because if I had to choose between a root canal and listening to an entire episode of InfoWars, I'd choose the root canal because at least then I'd get some good drugs to help me through the experience.

But I digress.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, "Pizzagate" is the insane idea that Hillary and Bill Clinton and various other influential people in the Democratic Party are using the Washington D. C. pizza joint "Comet Ping Pong" as a front for pedophilia and satanic rituals.  At first, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis, tried to go online and defend himself from the allegations, but I'm sure you can predict how successful that was.  The message "Don't let up.  #PIZZAGATE Everywhere!" was posted on Twitter and got thousands of likes and reposts.  "It was like trying to shoot a swarm of bees with a gun," said Bryce Reh, Comet's general manager, who was nearly pushed into quitting his job because of harassment and death threats.

Then Alex Jones got involved.  He posted a "special message" on his website about how serious Pizzagate was, and the horrible the things they were covering up.  "InfoWars and the Pizzagate investigators are just trying to uncover the truth," he said.

Jones, of course, gets not thousands but millions of views, so suddenly the whole thing exploded.  And a couple of days ago, a guy showed up at Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle, saying he was there to "do some investigating of Pizzagate" for himself.  He fired off at least one, possibly more, shots, but thankfully no one was injured.

The attacker, Edgar Maddison Welch, said that he heard about the pedophilia ring from Alex Jones and decided he needed to do something about it.

Poor James Alefantis, of course, is just trying to keep a business he's sunk ten years of his life into building from tanking.  "I really hope that all of these people fanning the flames of this conspiracy would take a moment to contemplate what has gone on here today and maybe to stop," he said.  I hope so too, but from experience, I can tell you that once conspiracy theorists latch on to an idea, they never give up.

So a lot of wacky beliefs are harmless, but they establish a pattern.  You stop asking questions, you start trusting purveyors of bullshit like Alex Jones, and all of a sudden you move from "odd but not a problem" to "possible incitement to do some serious damage."  And that's why I spend so much time railing against the woo-woos -- even those who, on the surface, seem pretty innocuous.

I'll keep after the big stuff, too.  As you know if you have read this blog for any length of time, I'm not one to suffer in silence.  But the small stuff and the low-hanging fruit deserves some attention too, from time to time.  As the adage goes, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  And that applies whether you're headed to someplace nice, or CloudCuckooLand.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Mothman returneth

A loyal reader of Skeptophilia commented a few days ago that given the uproar currently happening in the United States and elsewhere, it'd been a while since I had the opportunity to comment upon important matters such as recent sightings of aliens and Bigfoot.  So just to show that I am not shirking in my duties in the wacko news department, today we have: a sighting of Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

What is interesting about this, besides the immediate "what the hell?  Mothman?" factor, is that Point Pleasant is the place where there was a rash of Mothman sightings exactly fifty years ago.  And I do mean exactly; the peak of sightings was in November and December of 1966, although sporadic reports did continue to occur until the following December, when the Point Pleasant Bridge collapsed, resulting in 46 deaths.  Structural engineers say that the bridge collapse was caused by the failure of an eyebar in the suspension chain, but those who are in the know about such matters tell us that it was clearly Mothman's final hurrah.

From there, the Man went into seclusion, with only widely scattered sightings over the following decades.  But it looks like things may be ramping up again, because just last week, a Point Pleasant man took a video from which the following still is excerpted:

The man claims that he had only "recently moved to Point Pleasant" and "didn't even know about the legend."  So that's all I need.  I think this constitutes what those of us in the Science Business call "airtight proof."

Yeah, yeah, okay, so maybe not so much.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, Photoshop these days probably comes equipped with an "add UFO" button.  And most serious analysts think that the original reports were the result of a combination of hoaxes, sightings of large birds (such as barn owls), and liberal amounts of alcohol.  But still, you should go to the original link (which is to Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News) and take a look at the video.  The video not only shows you the entire clip from the anonymous man who shot it, but some interviews with true believers in Point Pleasant, of which there are apparently quite a few, including Carolin Harris, who owns the "Mothman Diner" and Jeff Wamsley, who runs the "Mothman Museum."

So of course, I'm sure that this has nothing to do with tourism and publicity and attracting crowds to Point Pleasant on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Mothman craze.  Nothing whatsoever.  Nope.

Anway, other than this, I haven't been hearing much from the cryptozoological crowd.  My guess is that given the current political situation, Bigfoot might well be packing his bags and leaving the country to join his cousins in Nepal.  After all, given how precarious things are for actual people in the United States these days, I wouldn't want to be a hairy proto-hominid.  Even the plain old humans are worried enough about their rights.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Government retweets

Remember what I said about how every time I think things in our government have reached the absolute nadir, someone just raises the nadir-bar?

Witness the fact that the official Twitter account for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology just two days ago retweeted a slanted, cherry-picked, and otherwise fallacy-filled climate denialism piece called "Global Temperatures Plunge, Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists" that appeared in...

... Breitbart.

Yes, Breitbart, the "news" source that astronomer and blogger Phil Plait calls a "racist, misogynistic ├╝ber-right-wing site that calls itself a voice for the 'alt-right' movement" and Slate senior editor Jeremy Stahl said is composed of "neo-Nazis in suits and ties."

Needless to say, the Breitbart article is full of half-truths and outright lies.  Its author, James Delingpole, is one of the worst of the climate change deniers, and apparently will say or do anything up to and including manipulating data to convince people that what we're doing isn't endangering the long-term habitability of the Earth.  Plait has taken on Delingpole before, and sums up his argument (if I can dignify it by that name) that scientists have no idea why the climate is undergoing wild swings as being "like seeing a corpse with a bullet wound to the head and saying 'Except for the bullet wound to the head, you cannot come up with a convincing explanation why this person is dead.'"

This bit isn't anything new, of course.  No matter how sound the science is, there will always be people who will cover their eyes and pretend the evidence doesn't exist.  (Explaining why we still have people who claim that there's no good evidence for evolution.)  But this has taken on a new and sinister twist, now that we have elected officials -- hell, an entire committee -- that see fit to distribute this horseshit as if it has any scientific validity at all.

[image courtesy of NASA]

It would be appalling enough if it was any congressional committee, but the fact that it is the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology moves it out past "appalling" into that rarified stratum that can only be labeled "horrifying."  The people in government who are overseeing funding and regulation for science research are not only denying the actual science, they are contributing to the general misunderstanding of science by the citizenry by sending out links on social media from fringe websites with no credibility whatsoever.

Or, as Plait put it, "The stakes here are as high as they can get.  Climate denialism by Breitbart now gets the imprimatur of the federal government."

So once again, let me reiterate: the scientists themselves are in no doubt whatsoever that climate change is real, and is anthropogenic in origin.  Any doubt about that was laid to rest over ten years ago.  What they are still unsure about is how high the temperatures could get, how quickly they'll get there, and when the predicted outcomes (such as the collapse of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland) will happen.

But in doubt about the warm-up itself?  No.  You only hear that from people like the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Lamar Smith, who as of 2015, had received over $600,000 in donations from the fossil fuels industry.

So I encourage you to get in touch with the members of the committee, especially those of you who live in the districts they represent.  They are:

Republican Members (22)
Democratic Members (17)
Lamar Smith, Texas*
Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma**
F. James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin+
Dana Rohrabacher, California
Randy Neugebauer, Texas
Michael T. McCaul, Texas
Mo Brooks, Alabama
Randy Hultgren, Illinois
Bill Posey, Florida
Thomas Massie, Kentucky
Jim Bridenstine, Oklahoma
Randy Weber, Texas
John R. Moolenaar, Michigan
Steve Knight, California
Brian Babin, Texas
Bruce Westerman, Arkansas
Barbara Comstock, Virginia
Gary Palmer, Alabama
Barry Loudermilk, Georgia
Ralph Lee Abraham, Louisiana
Darin LaHood, Illinois
Warren Davidson, Ohio

*Full Committee Chair
+Chairman Emeritus
**Vice Chair/Committee
Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas++
Zoe Lofgren, California
Daniel Lipinski, Illinois
Donna Edwards, Maryland
Suzanne Bonamici, Oregon
Eric Swalwell, California
Alan Grayson, Florida
Ami Bera, California
Elizabeth Esty, Connecticut
Marc Veasey, Texas
Katherine Clark, Massachusetts
Don Beyer, Virginia
Ed Perlmutter, Colorado
Paul Tonko, New York
Mark Takano, California
Bill Foster, Illinois

++Full Committee

If you do, keep it brief, keep it science-related, and keep it polite.  But let them know that it is unequivocally wrong to persist in this denial of accepted, evidence-based science, especially given the potential consequences.  I don't expect you to convince Lamar -- money talks, after all -- but maybe if a little pressure is brought to bear, at least they'll stop retweeting Breitbart.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Moving past the facts

Because we all need something more to be pessimistic about regarding the incoming administration's choices for leadership roles, we have: a nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services of an anti-LGBT ideologue who sided with BP when the Deepwater Horizon well blew out, fouling the Gulf of Mexico with 210 million gallons of crude oil.  He referred to the White House's drive to secure funds to recompense businesses and homeowners whose property was damaged by the spill a "Chicago-style political shakedown."  Worse still, considering the job he's been nominated for, he belongs to a group that is not only virulently anti-vaxx, but believes that President Obama used hypnosis and mind-control techniques to win the 2008 and 2012 elections.

It's hard to imagine a worse choice for HHS than Tom Price.  (Yes, I know, I've been saying that sort of thing a lot lately.  Each time I think, "Okay, that's the worst choice I've heard yet," the bar keeps getting raised.)  Dana Liebelson of Huffington Post writes:
Over the years, Price co-sponsored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.  He voted against a bill that banned employers from discriminating against gay people and a bill that fought anti-gay hate crimes.  He called the Obama administration’s guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, “absurd.” 
Price went out of his way to back Kelvin Cochran, an Atlanta fire chief who was terminated in January 2015 after employees received copies of his self-published book, which equated homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality.  The city’s mayor claimed Cochran was fired for his “judgment and management.”  But Price, along with five other Georgia lawmakers, signed onto a letter asking the mayor to reinstate him.
Price belongs to the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, which sounds pretty innocuous, but is a fringe group whose beliefs border on lunacy.  Over at Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer writes:
Yet despite the lab coats and the official-sounding name, the docs of the AAPS are hardly part of mainstream medical society.  Think Glenn Beck with an MD.  The group (which did not return calls for comment for this story) has been around since 1943.  Some of its former leaders were John Birchers, and its political philosophy comes straight out of Ayn Rand.  Its general counsel is Andrew Schlafly, son of the legendary conservative activist Phyllis.  The AAPS statement of principles declares that it is “evil” and “immoral” for physicians to participate in Medicare and Medicaid, and its journal is a repository for quackery.  Its website features claims that tobacco taxes harm public health and electronic medical records are a form of “data control” like that employed by the East German secret police.  An article on the AAPS website speculated that Barack Obama may have won the presidency by hypnotizing voters, especially cohorts known to be susceptible to “neurolinguistic programming”—that is, according to the writer, young people, educated people, and possibly Jews.
Of course, I suppose this is the kind of thing you get when you have a President-elect whose spokespeople think -- and this is close to a direct quote -- "there's no such thing as facts."  Trump spokesperson Scottie Nell Hughes, who appeared three days ago on the Diane Rehm Show, made the following astonishing statement when asked about the President-elect's penchant for making statements that are outright lies (and I'm including her entire statement, so you can see that I didn't take it out of context):
Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion.  And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true.  And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. 
There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.  And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth.  When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.  Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.
No.  No, no, no.  For fuck's sake, there are facts, and they matter.  When Trump claims that there were "millions of illegal votes" that cost him the popular vote, it is simply untrue.  So are his statements that there was "serious voter fraud" in Virginia, California, and New Hampshire -- coincidentally, all states where he lost.  So was his claim that President Obama "screamed at a protester" at a Clinton rally.  So was his claim that "14% of resident non-citizens are registered to vote."  So was his statement that under Hillary Clinton, the State Department had six billion dollars "lost or stolen."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

These are not ideas or opinions.  These are statements that are demonstrably false, and that since he continues to defend them even after they were debunked, are actual outright lies.  Despite what Ms. Hughes claims, there is no such thing as a statement that is truth for "a large part of the population" and false for the rest of us.

The problem is, once you start to doubt the facts -- hell, to doubt that facts exist -- you can be convinced of literally anything.  You are set up to fall for any sufficiently convincing demagogue who makes statements that "seem reasonable," by which I mean "conform to your preconceived notions."  You are set up to buy that vaccines don't work, that LGBT individuals are more likely to be pedophiles, that Obama hypnotized people into voting for him, and that the people who live along the Gulf Coast deserve to pay for the damage of an oil spill from a multi-million dollar petroleum corporation out of their own pockets.

You are also, apparently, set up to believe that a candidate whose platform was "Drain the Swamp" is still living up to his word when every single leadership appointee he picks is either a donor or an establishment insider -- for example, the wife of a prominent conservative senator (Secretary of Transportation), a hedge fund manager for Goldman-Sachs (Secretary of the Treasury), a billionaire investor nicknamed "the king of bankruptcy" (Secretary of Commerce), a long-time senator with distinct racist leanings (Attorney General), and a pro-privatization multi-millionaire with zero experience (Secretary of Education).

The whole thing is profoundly terrifying, mostly because it's so hard to combat.  Once you've adopted this viewpoint -- that facts don't matter, or that facts are what you say they are -- you're stuck, and no amount of evidence will persuade you.  And after that, scary things can happen.  As Voltaire put it: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Impact coverup

Over the last few weeks, with the sudden explosion of anger, partisan politics, and fake news, I fear we are moving into a period where our actions are no longer governed by facts, but by kneejerk reactions to media who are telling people what they want to hear and covering up what they'd prefer we don't know.

And of course, once such a tendency becomes widespread, there arise people who will deliberately and cynically engage in this kind of thing in order to manipulate what information gets out to the public.  As a particularly egregious example of this, look at the Environmental Protection Agency's last report on the danger of hydrofracking to drinking water.

The report, which was issued in June 2015, was revealed two days ago to have amendments that were made immediately before release, thus preventing anyone who worked on it from having the opportunity to fix them.  These amendments did only one thing: they downplayed the risks of fracking.  The summary concluded that fracking did not have "widespread systemic impacts" on drinking water, despite there being 250 documented cases of drinking water contamination from fracking -- in the state of Pennsylvania alone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But such a result runs against the agenda of using natural gas as a replacement for coal.  You even hear this from the pro-renewables folks; gas, they say (correctly) is cleaner burning than coal, and could provide a stopgap bridge between coal and renewables like wind and solar.  This, however, looks at only one feature of natural gas as a resource -- its capacity for creating air pollution -- conveniently ignoring the potential problems from gas extraction, especially by fracking.

And of course, it also pretends that anthropogenic climate change doesn't exist, that it's safe for the long-term habitability of the planet to go on using fossil fuels, despite the fact that scientists have concluded that to do anything substantive about climate change would require immediate drastic cutbacks on fossil fuel use now, stopgaps be damned.

Things are only set to get worse under the new administration, which has pledged to return us to coal use.  "Clean coal" (there's no such thing) was one of Donald Trump's clarion calls in his stump speeches, which was music to the ears of people in West Virginia and Pennsylvania who have seen widespread job losses as coal mining and processing jobs have been lost.  (Not to downplay the economic devastation in these communities; clearly we have done a piss-poor job of making sure that lost jobs and crumbling infrastructure are replaced by sustainable employment.  But returning to coal mining and burning is not the way to do it, for multiple rather pressing reasons.)

Michael Halperin, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is one of the people that uncovered the changes to the EPA document, was grim about the future.  "Given the names that are circulating for key positions in the Trump administration, who are oil and gas industry insiders and lobbyists," Halperin said, "I’m very concerned that science that is critical to protecting public health and safety will be more vulnerable to spin and suppression."

So am I, Dr. Halperin.  A lot of us are worried, given the incoming administration's outspoken support for weakening environmentally-based restrictive laws such as the Clean Power Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, not to mention suggestions that the handover of the EPA to Myron Ebell (who referred to climate scientists and their supporters as "climate criminals") might be a prelude to dismantling it altogether.  We seem poised to cede unprecedented power to the oil lobby and anti-environmentalists, with potentially devastating consequences not only to our own ecosystems, but the whole Earth's.

So the coverup of the truth about fracking and drinking water is only the tip of the iceberg.  We're being steered to believe that a business as usual (or worse, a "drill, baby, drill") approach to fossil fuel use is the way to go, despite incontrovertible evidence that such a policy amounts to a slow-motion train wreck -- and the media is the one with its hands on the steering wheel.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Accidentally active

In today's contribution from the Unintentional Irony Department, we have: a New Jersey pharmaceuticals company has issued a recall of some homeopathic "remedies" last week because they contain actual active ingredients.

I wish I was kidding about this. "CVS Homeopathic Infants' Teething Tablets", "Kids Relief Homeopathic Ear Relief Oral Liquid" and "CVS Homeopathic Kids' Ear Relief Liquid," all produced by Raritan Pharmaceuticals and marketed nationwide, are being recalled because they contain "varying levels of belladonna," better known as deadly nightshade.

"The recall is a precautionary action," said Sushant Pradhan, a Raritan Pharmaceuticals representative. "The products contain only about a nanogram of belladonna, which is not toxic to anybody."

But wait a minute.  I thought the whole point of homeopathy was that the less of the original ingredients were, the more potent it becomes.  In that case, shouldn't a nanogram be a fatal dose?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In any case, the company wants everyone to know that there haven't been any reports of adverse effects, that the recall was purely to prevent any problems.  And the most amusing thing about all of this is that it's not the first time it's happened; two years ago, a different company had to recall some homeopathic products that were labeled "Penicillum" because they actually contained Penicillum, the mold that produces penicillin, and there was a chance a person with a penicillin allergy could have a reaction, instead of simply consuming a sugar pill, which was apparently their intent.

What pisses me off about all of this is the kid-gloves approach that CNN used in its report (linked above).  Here's an actual quote:
Pradhan acknowledged that there can be a wide range of belladonna levels across homeopathic treatments outside of the recalled products.  Belladonna is used in several alternative medicines: it can be found in homeopathic eye drops and as a cure for upset stomach, he said. 
"This is not your typical medicine," and homeopathic treatments should be used with caution, Pradhan said.  People who use homeopathic treatments may be seeking a healthier, more natural remedy than with modern medicine, he explained, but alternative cures risk being less regulated than standard medications.
No, this is "not your typical medicine" because it's not a medicine at all.  It's a completely useless hyper-diluted bottle of water or sugar pills.  So they may be "seeking a healthier, more natural remedy," but what they're getting is completely worthless except insofar as it might trigger the placebo effect.

Appalling, then, that places like CVS still stock the stuff.  Taking homeopathic "remedies" can stop people from seeking medical care when they need it, and the profit motive still keeps it on the shelves.  (And people accuse "Big Pharma" of being motivated by money.)  If you doubt that homeopathic "remedies" are a fraud and cause damage, take a look at the site What's the Harm?, that documents 437 cases (and counting) of people who have been seriously injured or killed by taking homeopathic "remedies" instead of seeking competent medical attention.

So this started out being funny, and ended up being not so funny after all.  In any case, if the CNN story doesn't put people on notice that they're been hoodwinked, hopefully What's the Harm? will.  I live in hope that the public will start making decisions based on science, facts, and rationality rather than superstitious hocus-pocus, but it's evident from this that we still have a ways to go.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Educating more than the sheep

I have had frequent cause to bemoan the fact that we in the educational establishment are teaching 21st century students using a 19th century model.

Let me explain what I mean.  Back in the 19th and early 20th century, it was critical for a well-educated person to know lots of facts.  If you were conversing with a doctor about your health, and you didn't know the names of basic human organs and tissues, you were likely to be entirely lost, and unless you had a medical text handy, there was no way to figure it all out.  On a less dire level, even when I was a kid (1960s and 70s) if you didn't know something -- perhaps even a simple fact, like what is the name of the cellular structure that provides cells with energy -- you had to go and look it up in an encyclopedia or textbook, if you were lucky enough to own them.  Failing that, you took a lengthy trip to a library to see if you could dig it up.

Or you just decided that it wasn't worth the time and stopped worrying about it.

(Nota bene: it's the mitochondria.)

Now?  Most students have access either to cellphones or to other internet-connective devices.  Access to facts and terminology is trivial.  Sometimes a student will ask me something I don't know the answer to -- such as yesterday, when someone wanted to know the gestation period of a sheep -- and within seconds, answers are being shouted out from all over the room.

(Nota bene: it's 152 days.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Far more important than simple facts are two things, one of which is taught less often than mere terminology, and the other of which is hardly taught at all.  The more common one is process.  Not just the name "mitochondria," but how it goes about breaking down glucose to release energy for cellular function.  Not just the names of Mendel's four laws of genetics, but why they work (and why there are cases where they don't -- thus, "non-Mendelian inheritance").

Process, though, is hard to teach.  It requires not only that the teacher thoroughly understand it, but that (s)he finds ways to make the subject accessible to students.  It's much easier simply to teach laundry lists of disconnected facts and terms -- but I would question if such a thing is actually "education."

Teaching process, though, is downright common when compared to the other more important skill, which is how to tell false claims from true ones.  Okay, fine, you can look something up on your cellphone, tell us the gestation period of a sheep in five seconds flat.  How do you know if it's right?  How could you tell if it were false?  What does it mean if the source of the information has a bias or an agenda -- admittedly unlikely in the case of pregnant sheep, but a huge deal with respect to science, current events, or politics?

The sad truth that today's students are not being taught to sift fact from fiction was highlighted by a study released last week by some researchers at Stanford University that came to the rather horrifying conclusion that middle, high school, and college students, when presented with various combinations of news articles, opinions, outright falsehoods, biased stories, "sponsored content" (i.e., advertisements), and unsupported claims, couldn't tell one from the other.  Across the board, students scored very poorly on their ability to question source validity, discern bias, and tell real news from fake news.

"Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there," said Sam Wineburg, lead author of the study.  "Our work shows the opposite... What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking.  And we really can't blame young people because we've never taught them to do otherwise."

To combat this, however, would take a major overhaul of the way we teach.  Unlikely, given the increasing reliance on easy-to-measure "learning standards" -- most of which are taught and assessed using shallow, vocabulary-based factoids, not deep understanding (which is hard to quantify, and therefore to the policy wonks at the state and federal Departments of Education, doesn't seem to matter).  Couple this with the ongoing slicing of funding from public schools, and you can easily see why there's a significant incentive to keep doing things the old way.

But as the study by Wineburg et al. shows, what we're doing is inadequate for preparing young people to be smart consumers of media in the 21st century.  It's no wonder "fake news" has gotten such traction; the consumers can't tell it from the real thing.  Unsurprising, too, that our tendency to place ourselves in echo chambers where we only hear opinions we already believed, and therefore are unlikely to question them, makes for increasing political polarization and people making decisions based on what they think they understand rather than the actual facts.

If this is going to change, we'll need a bottom-up revamping of how teaching is done, and a rethinking of what it means to educate children in the 21st century.  Otherwise, we'll fall victim to the old adage -- "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."