Why Fake News Can Be Great News for Universities

by Phillip G. Clampitt

How does society defend itself from falsehoods, fabrications, and sensationalistic claims? Universities should play a primary role, by protecting citizens from self-deceptions and mass delusions.

Relatively benign self-deceptions, such as overconfidence in one’s ability to read Tolstoy’s War & Peace in six months, are as human as they are motivating. However, pernicious self-deceptions, such as believing that a new vitamin supplement cures cancer, may well prove fatal. Researchers trained at universities separate factual health claims from those with sometimes dubious aims.  University students, regardless of their discipline, should learn to respect this process and become less prone to outrageous claims that are not backed by facts.

Mass delusions, fueled by peer-inspired passions, may well overwhelm the sensibilities of even the most thoughtful professionals. Historians, sharing lessons about widespread but mistaken beliefs, temper, if not completely ward off, the mass delusions of the crowd. If every college student studied the lessons from the book The Ghost Map, they would learn that the widely held public beliefs about the origins of the insidious cholera epidemic were dead wrong. A parallel theme emerges from the story of how Dr. Semmelweis battled against the medical protocols of the 1800s when he implored physicians to wash their hands. Knowing that there was a time when surgeons took fewer sanitary precautions than typical treadmill enthusiasts at the local gym should jolt the mind into a more profound sensibility about the nature of prevailing wisdom. Stacking these historical stories, one atop the other, should temper thoughtful college students’ willingness to hop aboard the latest bandwagon.

Fake News

Fake news has been around as long as soldiers have been bonding around campfires, swapping tales about enemy movements. However, today’s fake news differs from the past in three distinct ways: speed, number of sources, and ease of coordination.

The speed and reach of fake news would astonish ancient propagandists. One landmark study that investigated 126,000 tweeted news stories over an 11-year period concluded that “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information” (S. Vosoughi, D. Roy, & S. Aral. “The spread of true and false news online.” Science, 359, March 9, 2018). One reason: fake news often appears to be more novel than fact-based news. Interestingly, humans, not robots, account for the speed of transmission.

The number of news sources has risen concurrent with the widespread dissemination of inexpensive news-making tools, such as portable computers, mobile phone cameras, and easy access to transmission networks (e.g., Twitter, Facebook). This technological trifecta makes producing and sharing any kind of news easy, quick, cheap, and unfiltered. Today, almost anyone can submit images or news into the global information nervous system through email, websites, or social media platforms. A world with nearly filter-free content guarantees that clueless and malicious actors have access to a virtual megaphone with a potentially world-wide audience.

The ease of coordination with which information workers can produce products would astound previous generations. On the plus side, this capability normalizes international scientific collaborations in almost unimagined ways. On the negative side, more nefarious information warriors can fabricate “news stories” and other visual “evidence” that cultivates a sense of prevailing opinion that was far harder to generate years ago. The simplicity and relatively inexpensive campaign by Russian operatives to influence the last election demonstrates the ease of coordination.

One standard critical thinking heuristic to combat questionable assertions is to look for multiple sources to validate claims. That’s good advice, but it may not work when dubious actors agree to coordinate their news reports to make them appear as if they’re independent reports when, in fact, they are not. That was one of the tricks the Russians used. This has always been possible, but the ease of coordination makes it more likely in the current era.

The Role of Universities in Combating Fake News

Scholars can help by ferreting out the nuances of fake news and detecting underlying patterns of fake news purveyors. This will prove challenging. Separating fake from real news or even separating news from opinion requires a reasonable intellectual consensus. Too often, the standard seems to be “I disagree with the news or source, therefore it must be fake news.” Nor is it easy to detect dubious networking patterns that so often emulate less nefarious patterns.

As a starting point, consider three modest proposals.

First, reinforce and augment traditional critical thinking education. Almost every university includes the promotion of critical thinking in its mission. While educators may quibble about defining and how best to teach critical thinking, their larger role remains vital in inoculating students against fraudulent claims, questionable research, and fake news. Surely every student should learn the basics of evaluating evidence such as identifying biases, questioning assumptions, and detecting graphic misrepresentations.

Facebook addressed the “false news” challenge in a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal by encouraging readers to exercise traditional critical thinking skills such as “investigate the source” (May 24). Good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Like many educators, the ad neglects to mention the power of peer influence on the dissemination process. Critical thinking in a networked age requires abilities such as assessing networks’ influence on information exposure, detecting algorithmic-driven patterns of representations, and managing rapid information flows. While many universities possess expertise in these wide-ranging areas, few possess a coherent process to share these lessons.

Second, reaffirm the central value of healthy skepticism. Augmented critical thinking education will not be enough. It is one matter for a student to distinguish between plausible and accurate narratives on an exam. It is quite another matter to use the same fact base to craft two completely different stories that are highly believable but inaccurate accounts. Creating, not just reading about, the two plausible narratives often translates into lifelong skepticism about any news story that just seems a little too perfect. Professors should celebrate, not drown out, voices with contradictory views. Likewise, when professors plan a surprise by asking students to reproduce published but erroneous experimental results, they teach a life lesson about skepticism. Experiences such as these transform the “trust but verify” adage from a memorable saying into something far more profound.

Healthy skepticism, rather than rigid ideology, should be one of the primary outcomes of higher education. This is higher education’s hedge against merely arriving at important conclusions because they were espoused by an authority, established by tradition, or derived from an unexamined dogma.

Third, highlight the discovery and public service roles of the university. During the 20th century, the primary roles of universities have been “the production and application of new knowledge, transmission of the known, and public service in a variety of forms” (J. Axtell, Wisdom’s workshop: The rise of the modern university. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016). Some university critics fear that the “transmission” part of the mission has taken the form of indoctrination. Ironically, when academics dispute such claims, they may legitimize the very suspicions they are trying to combat. Perhaps a more constructive line of argument would be to highlight the discovery of new knowledge and the public service roles of universities.

Doubt, not certainty, should be the primary outcome of higher education. The physicist James Clerk Maxwell once remarked, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” Universities should produce surprising research, novel applications, and innovative service opportunities. The only certainty should be that universities, large and small, question and improve the status quo, even as they impart the accumulated wisdom in respective fields of study.

In short, a thoughtful citizen’s trifecta of critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and tolerance of uncertainty provide the most powerful antidote to fake news. Fake news should concern every citizen, because we can no longer rely on traditional news filters to screen out inaccuracies, fabrications, and misrepresentations. It used to be that the critical mind was the last line of defense against the fake; now, it is all too often the only line of defense. If universities do not provide the tools, sensibilities, and mindset to ward off the most nefarious aspects of fake news, what institution will?

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