I have very much enjoyed reading all of the comments (more than 70!) on my review of the Ben Stein documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
I am going to comment on the comments and the controversy over the movie shortly, but for now I will begin by reprinting one of my Chicago Tribune columns, which deals with the key issue of how we know what we know, how we determine the difference between fact, spin, bias, faith, and especially competing theories.
Help children learn critical thinking skills
By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published March 9, 2005
Columnists get paid to promote Bush administration initiatives; bloggers expose the mistakes in a network news broadcast; and young people are more likely to get their headlines from the self-described fake news of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” than from newspapers.
These days, it seems like we all could use some extra guidance in telling the difference between data, reporting, opinion, advocacy and advertising. Developing this life skill is part of growing up, and parents can help kids practice how to evaluate the validity of what they read, hear and watch.
Even the youngest child can learn to think critically about the data they digest. As a starting point, watch for characters in books and movies who test the information they are given to make sure that it is accurate.
In current movies, for example, characters in “Pooh’s Heffalump Adventure” jump to conclusions about someone who is “not like us” until Roo figures out that the Heffalump just wants to make friends. Opal, the little girl in “Because of Winn-Dixie,” finds out the local “witch” is just a nice lady who doesn’t go out much because she can’t see very well.
Families who see these movies together can talk about how Roo and Opal learn the importance of making judgments based on facts and how they decide which facts are more important than others.
Slightly older children need special discussions about truth and the Internet, because that’s where they turn for so much information.
When we did our homework, my generation used reference books and encyclopedias that had been carefully fact-checked before they were published. But today’s schoolchildren run to Web-based search engines such as Google to point them to the answer for any question from the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly to the highest score in the history of the World Series.
The Internet is wonderful for finding things out, but kids need to realize a site that turns up on a search engine isn’t guaranteed to be trustworthy or authoritative, and information they find on the Internet isn’t necessarily correct.
Reliable ones near the top
One reason Google is so popular is it uses a formula for ranking search results that is likely — though not guaranteed — to put the most reliable ones at the top. Google also gets points for putting its “sponsored links” — sites that pay to be listed — off to the side and labeling them clearly so that users can tell they are ads.
But not all search engines play by those rules, and children need to know that. They also need to understand that no search engine guarantees the information it points to is factual or even unbiased.
The same applies to some popular online reference sites like the Internet movie database at The Internet Movie Database, and Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. The entries in both are written and assembled by amateurs and volunteers — which doesn’t mean the entries are wrong, but it doesn’t mean they are right, either.
Skepticism is an important research skill, and parents should make sure even the youngest children learn to ask “Who says so? How do they know? Are they fair?”
Middle school children are old enough to join in debates about opinions and the way information is presented. Current topics might include banned books, “intelligent design” (a theory designed to get Bible-based theories classified as science) and the Focus on the Family objections to the “We Are Family” video message about tolerance featuring SpongeBob SquarePants and other characters.
Parents may also want to discuss recent news stories about Buster the bunny, a cartoon character who makes video postcards about different communities and cultures he visits for his friends back home. On his PBS show, Buster has met such diverse families as Muslims, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. However his visit with a group of children whose parents included lesbian couples was controversial enough for some PBS stations to keep it off the air.
Teenagers are natural challengers of authority, so adults can help them sharpen their skills at sizing up information before they use it.
A good point of discussion with teens as well as younger children who use the Internet for research is how a Web site establishes credibility. One place to start: Look on a site’s main page for a link labeled something like, “about us.”
On Wikipedia, the link “About Wikipedia” is at the bottom of the home page. It takes readers to a detailed, annotated page that explains the Wikipedia project, among other things.
A more sophisticated discussion is how an organization or individual uses the Internet to answer critics. The Nizkor Web site links to the claims of those who deny the Nazi Holocaust occurred and refutes them, point by point. Similarly, Michael Moore’s Web site offers detailed responses to the people who challenged his presentation of the facts in the film “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Parents and older children can debate whether these techniques make the Web sites more believable, and why.
Teens also are sophisticated enough to understand the value in recognizing a Web site’s point of view — and using it. The Democratic National Committee’s page and the Republican National Committee’s page are unlikely to agree on much, but reading both for information about a proposed law will give a teen more insight than one without the other.
Backing it up
Similarly, the Heritage Foundation, a self-styled politically conservative think tank, does a good job documenting its perspective on current events — as does the Brookings Institution, which describes itself as independent and nonpartisan.
Consulting an array of views helps a teen better understand an issue and form his or her opinions.
There’s no substitute for a child learning to develop and apply his own judgment. Parents can show their children that Web sites, television shows, even newspaper articles are just the starting point for finding an answer, that information is not just the accumulation of data but requires sifting, analysis and a sense of proportion.
Giving children the skills they need to evaluate what they see and hear will help them from feeling so overwhelmed that they don’t trust anyone.
The best way to keep them from being cynical is to train them to be skeptical.