Thursday, December 29, 2016

Detecting Fake News

After the spate of fake news in circulation over the last year or so numerous guides have been published to help you spot fake news. Unfortunately, few of them are effective.

The reason for this - which you can spot for yourself as you look at them - is that they tend to focus on whether or not the source is authoritative. But to spot fake news, you need to focus on whether the news is authoritative.

The reason for this - and again, you can verify this for yourself - is that the authorities lie. Whether they're an old school newspaper, or just an old school, these days they all have a vested interest. They want you to believe them.

So how do you cope? That's what this article is about.

First rule: Trust no one.

Start with this. Don't believe anything just because someone says so. It doesn't matter who they are. Don't even trust me. Read this article sceptically.

It's not that there's nobody to trust. The problem is, you don't know who they are, and you don't know how far to trust them. Trust is something that has to be earned.

You can't trust someone simply because they have a degree or a collar or a title. You can't trust them simply because they own a newspaper or a corporation.

It's not that they're all untrustworthy. Many people - maybe even most people - are upstanding citizens and will tell the truth most of the time. But some won't. And the problem is, you don't know which is which. Not at first.

Second rule: Look for the evidence.

Much of what you are presented can be discounted based on this one rule alone. If the author or the teller does not present you with a reason to believe, you shouldn't believe it.

What counts as a reason to believe? Quite a few things, happily. There isn't a simple list. Different things will carry different weight. Here are some examples:

- verification. This means you can see your yourself that something is the case. If I say the house burned down last night, you can verify this by going to the house and looking for yourself. In the first three paragraphs of this article you can see to examples - I'm inviting you to verify something for yourself.

- replication. A lot of things can't be directly verified, or can only be verified after it's too late. But they're the sort of things that can be tested, and the test comes out the same way. Science works on this principle. If someone says they have produced cold fusion, they should be able to produce cold fusion again.

- confirmation. If something is true, then something else should be true. If it rains, the sidewalk gets wet. That's how you know rain is made of water. You can confirm this by looking out the window and predicting that the sidewalk will be wet. Successful predictions count as confirmation, and give you a reason to believe 'rain is made of water' is true.

- falsification. What makes confirmation work is that the predictions must be falsifiable. If the sidewalk bubbled and melted when it rained, then you would know it wasn't made of water. Acid, maybe. So something is confirmed only if it can be falsified. If there is no way a prediction could be wrong, then the prediction proves nothing.

These are all forms of direct evidence. The advantage is that they're solid. Do them right, and you have good reasons to believe. But the disadvantage is that they require personal involvement. You can't go to Syria to check things out for yourself. Prediction and falsification give you some reach, but they still depend on direct evidence at some point.

Plus, these four principles are hard to get right. There are numerous ways to get them wrong. Thus, you need to add another rule.

Third rule:Avoid error.

Avoiding error is partially a matter of knowledge and skill, and partially a matter of ordinary prudence and caution. There are numerous errors you can make - I list many f them in my Guide to the Logical Fallacies - but you don't have to be an expert to avoid common sense errors.

Here are some of the major sources of error:
 
- prediction. We make predictions using logic and mathematics. Logic and mathematics are skills that can be learned (and verified directly for accuracy). You can't fake this; you have to do the work. Deduction, induction, calculation, probability - get them right and you've eliminated a huge percentage of the errors other people make.

- precision. Being precise is a virtue. If you are predicting something, then  measuring the result, you need to be sure you're measuring the same thing you are predicting. Vague terms (like 'knowledge', 'value', etc) are difficult to evaluate. Non-standard units of measurement ('serving', 'car length') cannot be measured. If there are sources, are the sources named?

- relevance. It's easy to become distracted from the subject at hand.It's important to focus on the message, not the messenger. It's important to focus on whether something is true or false, not why or why not you want it to be true.

- perspective. We are fooled by our senses. We think we see the whole truth when we only see part of it. We live within a world view that shapes our perceptions and affects our judgement. Did we see a tiger in the bush, or just black and orange stripes? It's easy to jump to conclusions through bias and prejudice.

Take your time. Don't jump to conclusions; evaluate the evidence. Even if you are not an expert in reasoning or perspective, be aware that these are sources of error. Practice making your own inferences and predictions.

Fourth rule: Take names.

You are finally in a position where you can begin to trust others. After all, the proposition that someone is trustworthy is just another fact about the world you can learn for yourself.

Use the four mechanisms above to assess the trustworthiness of people:

- trust. How do they reach their beliefs? Do they careful observe and weigh the evidence, or do they tend to believe rumours and innuendo? Are they swayed by certain people or do they make up their own mind?

- evidence. Do they provide you with reasons to believe? Do they describe what they're seen for themselves clearly? Have you caught them lying or misrepresenting the truth? Is it the sort of thing you could have seen, had you been there? Do they have a track record of making good predictions (that could have been wrong)?

- errors. Do they avoid errors? To the best of your ability, can you determine whether they reason correctly, whether they use language clearly and directly, whether they stay on topic and talk about ideas, not people? Can they separate their own interests from the facts, and keep perspective?

- trust. Do they themselves have a network of people they can trust? Are they trusted by other people you can trust?

Final rule: Diversify.

No matter how careful you are, you can still be misled. It happens all the time - people make honest mistakes, they overlook factors they should have considered, or something may be hidden from view.

Never depend on just one source - not even your own eyes.The first thing you should do is to ask someone else, "do you see this too?"

This is what good newspapers do. They get the same information from multiple sources, and don't publish it unless they have multiple sources. When the reporter says an interview said something to them, they have an editor call the person back and confirm that they actually did say this. At least -  they used to do these things.

In a conflict, learn from both sides. That doesn't mean both sides are equally trustworthy - but without learning from both sides, you'd never be in a position to evaluate this. Get multiple points of view, if you can.

Remember - the truth isn't "in the middle". Don't treat all sides equally if they're not all trustworthy.

That's it! Yes, we could explore each of these subjects in more depth, and as someone serious about detecting fake news, you should. There are no shortcuts - you need to study and practice.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Baseball Down Under

First published on SB*Nation

It's the middle of winter, months away from spring training. Even the free-agent signings and trades have slowed to an icy crawl. For those of us who need our baseball fix, it's the darkest time of the year.

Let me recommend, then, a ray of sunshine, the Australian Baseball League. They're currently in the middle of their season, having just completed a nailbiter of an All Star game, and even better, many of their games are available on YouTube.


Of course, baseball is not a major sport in Australia. Aussies prefer their own brand of football, two types of rugby (League, and Union), soccer, and cricket. They also excel in Olympic sports, perennially among the top nations competing in the summer games.

So Astralian baseball is at best minor league baseball. But so what? It's baseball - the real thing! - being played in December and January, and we can follow the league and watch the games. What more could we want?

It's a development league of sorts, not only for the occasional major leaguer who finds his way down under, but also for native Australians who are honing their skills in a bid to make the roster of the Southern Thunder, Australia's national team.

The aforementioned ABL all star game pit the Southern Thunder against 'imports' playing in the ABL, designated the World All Stars. For the second year in row, the Aussies walked in off, the game played this past Thursday ending in a 2-1 score. Yes, you can watch it on YouTube. The Thunder have once again qualified for the World Baseball Classic, the 2017 edition to be played in San Diego this March.

The Australian Baseball League is a six-team circuit spanning Australia from coast to coast:

Adelaide Bite - the name might seem odd, but recall that Adelaide, South Australia's largest city, is located on the long shallow bay across much of the southern coast called the Great Australian Bight, and it begins to made sense. They're a .500 team with a 10-10 record. Starring for the Bite is 22-year old Texas Rangers draft pick Marcus Aurelius Greene, who leads the league in RBIs and is second in the dinger department. And sporting a giant red beard, starter Matthew Williams is one of the top hurler's in the league.

Brisbane Bandits - winners of the Claxton Shield (first contested in 1934) but currently fourth in the standings with a 9-11 record. The Australian Baseball League title is called the Premiership, in line Aussie football and rugby titles. Also like those sports, the schedule is divided in to "rounds", each round being a weekly series of three or four games against a single opponent. A bright sport for the Bandits is reliever Ryan Searle. In his seventh straight season with the Brisbaners, Searle leads the league in saves with six.

Canberra Cavalry - Australia's capital city hosts a second place team as the Cavs sit 4 games behind with an 11-9 record. Canberra faced the Sydney squad in the Wollongong Classic November 27 on the shores of the Tasman Sea - "if you lose sight of the escarpment, watch out" - and were winners in a 4-hour 21-11 slugfest, the most runs ever scored in an ABL game. With a homer and 5 RBIs, catcher Mike Reeves was player of the game, while fellow catcher Robbie Perkins leads the league in batting average.

Melbourne Aces - Leading the league with a 15-5 record, the Aces are home to the top two pitchers in the league, Keisuke Honda (ERA 1.21 ) and Mark Hamburger (ERA 1.91). A journeyman on the AAA circuit, Hamburger appeared in five games in the majors with Texas in 2011, pitching to a 4.50 ERA and one win. Honda, meanwhile, is trying to improve on a 7.71 ERA with the Saitama Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League. Melbourne also has the distinction of having the poorest audio quality of all the cities in the league. Melbourne is also home to Braves prospect Ronald Acuna.

Perth Heat - situated on the far west coast of Australia and on the Indian Ocean, Perth is known as the most isolated city in the world. It's nearest competitors, the Bite in Adelaide, are a three-hour plane ride away. Sponsored by a local drinking awareness program, the team refers to itself as the Alcohol. Think Again Perth Heat. Instead of selling season tickets, teams in the ABL sell club "memberships"- a single-person Heat membership tops out at a bargain $AUS 440. Second-baseman Luke Hughes is a long-time Heat star. At 6-14, the Heat are out of the running for this year.

Sydney Blue Sox - representing Australia's largest city, the Sox are struggling with a 9-11 record and lead only the Heat in the standings. 36-year old pitcher Craig Anderson has been with the team since 2011, pitching to a middling 4.44 ERA following a long AAA career. Thed Sox suffered this year from the loss of infielder Tyler Bortnik, who spent the 2016 season rising to AAA in the Tigers farm system.
The ABL regular season starts again with the next "Fixtures" on the 29th. Hefrfe in North America we'll be able to watch the Bandits at the Bit on Wednesday morning, the 28th (or catch the archive later). Playoffs begin at the end of January.

No, it's notMajor League Baseball, and nobody pretends it is. But it brings back thoughts of baseball from an earlier era, when the crowds were small (and passionate and noisy), the outfields looked out on a forest, a field or an escarpment, and the boys of summer played for the love of the game.

Monday, December 19, 2016

ICTs in Higher Education Systems of Arab States: Promises and Effective Practices - A Summary Report





Please take note that this is not the official UNESCO report of the forum, but only my personal report as invited international expert.


The Regional Forum on ICTs in Higher Education Systems of Arab States was held in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 7 and 8, 2016, with the objective to provide conceptual clarification with respect to the usage of ICTs in Higher Education, to take stock of existing initiatives in the Arab Region, and to contribute to enhancing cooperation and synergies among stakeholders. This report summarizes these discussions, first with respect to some specific topics, and second, with respect to overall themes and concepts.

Access and Inclusiveness

Presenters agreed that ICTs in education play a major role in promoting access and inclusiveness. Prof. M. Jemni presented the ALECSO smart learning framework, which adopted a four-prong strategy: to promote cloud computing, mobile applications, open educational resources, and open online courses. Dr. P. Gedeon cited the UNESCO model of inclusive education “that makes use of electronic media and devices to facilitate access, promote evolution and improve the quality of education and training.” Consultant Dr. A.M.M. Osman cited the case of the use of ICTs to support learning for refugees and displaced populations and addressed provision of higher education resources in cases of emergencies and crises. Dr. H.A. El-Ghali underscored the difficulty of providing higher education for refugee populations and pointed to limitations on employment and engagement in host countries. Mr. I. Zoghbi pointed to the role of ICTs in supporting less privileged populations, including children, women and the disabled. 

Openness

Presenters agreed that the utility of ICTs in education is enhanced though openness. Mr. S. Downes drew a parallel between open educational resources and the words in a conversation, arguing that education requires a dialogue between practitioners and students. Dr. W. Karam identified the use of free and open source software as a key enabler of ICTs in education. Several presentations referenced the use of open educational resources to support learning, focusing on both increased access and their role in promoting quality.

Quality

Presenters emphasized the importance of ICTs in supporting the quality standards essential to supporting the needs of students and stakeholders. Dr. Z. Malak offered the case of the Lebanese Center for Educational Improvement, AJWAD, describing ICTs as a catalyst to enhance quality in the classroom. Dr. K. El Hassan made the same observation with respect to the American University of Beirut, pointing to the use of ICTs in monitoring and assessment of processes and outcomes. Mr. M. Oueidat (et.al.) offered as an example the Global Campus student information and campus management application. Dr. M. Taji described the use of ICTs in teacher preparation and professional development.

Quality Assurance Process

Numerous institutions and stakeholder groups have addressed quality through the development of standards and quality assurance processes. For example, Prof. M. Sidir described the quality assurance mechanisms centering on the Bologna process in Europe and illustrated how a transnational program can be adapted to a national system. Dr. K. Abouchedid (et.al.) described a quality assurance process involving open educational resources. Dr. D. Nauffal described quality assurance processes at the Lebanese American University, addressing the challenges of measuring quality and the role of ICTs in standardizing and automating the process.  These observations were reiterated by Dr. N. Hadj-Hamou, who also discussed the role of ICTs in supporting dialogue and interaction.

Competency Development and Assessment

Assessment requires a focus on not only a definition of standards and competencies but also on individual objectives and personal learning records. Dr. P. Gedeon described the European competency framework and identified certain skills – such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication and technical skills as being among the most widely desired by employers. Computer-based education and ICTs play an essential role in the development of faculty using Moodle to support program design, class design, and student evaluation, noted Dr F. El-Hage. Mr. S. Downes argued that learning and assessment ought to address the personal needs and interests of students, and that individual and portable personal learning records are to be desired.

Overall Themes and Concepts

As noted above, all participants saw clearly the need to the development and use of ICTs to support education in the Arab Region, as has been the case around the world. At the same time, the Arab Region faces unique challenges and priorities that on the one hand make the deployment of ICTs more difficult, but on the other hand make the use of ICTs increasingly necessary.

The most critical challenge, and one that was addressed in all key areas of discussion, was the need for increased capacity. Physical infrastructure has been developed, but is unequally available through the region. The same is the case for human resources; while there are notable pockets of expertise, there is a need for greater human capacity at a national and international scale. This relates not merely to the technical skills required to effectively use ICTs, but also metacognitive skills that would enable practitioners and especially administrators and government officials to recognize quality, ensure appropriate system-wide and individual assessment, and to foster openness, access and inclusiveness in the system.

As was stated by numerous participants, including most notably Dr. Osman, an appreciation for the effective and appropriate deployment of ICTs to support social and national objectives is best accomplished through joint and collaborative action, whereby member states and officials can both learn from each other’s experiences, identify areas on common interest, and experience directly the enhancement of capacity and quality that a common investment in ICTs can support. It is often said that the nature of knowledge in the 21st century has changed, that it depends more on experience and practice than in previous eras, and that the ability to learn and adapt are of greater importance than recollection and repetition. This may be true, but it is only through the direct experience of building institutions and international collaborations that this will comprehended directly by administrators and decision makers.




For more information on this project, please contact Dakmara Georgescu (d.georgescu@unesco.org) or Dr. Pierre Gedeon (pierregedeon@yahoo.fr).

My Workflow

I was thinking about working openly recently and decided to document my workflow, such as it is. As you can see I need to devise a way to make my projects and courses more transparent.



There's also a PowerPoint version of the image with working links. No HTML version, sorry.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wiley's Misguided Advocacy

David Wiley once again launches into advocacy for the CC-by license. We've been through this many times, so I'll keep it relatively brief. His text is italicized.

> There is a growing consensus among those who work in open education that the Creative Commons Attribution (BY) License is our preferred license. 

No there isn't. The list of organizations hasn't grown over the years, and the number people from this list remains stable.

> Since the first release of the Creative Commons licenses, newcomers to the field have been attracted to licenses containing the non-commercial (NC) condition. 

There's a whole paragraph devoted to depicting advocates of the Non-Commercial license (NC) as "newcomers". As if I am a newcomer. As if MIT's OpenCourseWare is a newcomer.

> The BY license best reflects our values of eliminating friction, maximizing interoperability, and promoting unanticipated and innovative uses of OER.

>No one knows what the NC license condition means, including Creative Commons. The license language is so vague that the only way to determine definitively whether a use is commercial or not is to go to court and have a judge decide.

This vagueness is cited by proponents of CC-by but hasn't actually been a problem. There are some good rules-of-thumb which can guide you:

- if you have to ask whether your use is a commercial use, it probably is

- if someone has to pay to access your resource, it probably is

>  Example – I want to use some NC-licensed content in my course, but students can only attend my course if they pay tuition. Is that a commercial use? 

It's a commercial use if the only way people can access the resource is to pay you tuition. But if the resource is free to access for everyone, it doesn't matter whether your students use it also.

> For would-be authors of NC-licensed content, the only way to resolve the confusion arising from someone using your content in a way that you think is commercial but they think is non-commercial is to lawyer up and send a cease and desist letter.

This isn't unique to the NC condition. It applies to all CC-licensed content. In practice, I find that there has been more of a problem enforcing the attribution condition. But nobody has suggested removing it on these grounds.
 
> The primary thing you gain by choosing a license that includes the NC condition ...

The primary benefit is that you prevent people from turning it into a commercial product and selling it. There are numerous reasons why you may want to do this.

> Why would someone go to all the cost and effort involved in selling copies of your CC BY licensed material (e.g., paying for ads to drive traffic to the site where they’re selling it) when every copy will include instructions on where people can get the same material for free instead? 

Because this access is often theoretical. Should the original ever disappear (or in the case of OpenStax, should the URL ever change) there is no resourse; the user must pay for the resource.

Saying things like "there would be very little incentive..." creates a nice hypothetical, but we have no way of knowing that there won't be an incentive. We've seen that large businesses can be created out of very marginal returns, soour "very little incentive" is someone else's business plan.

> The CC BY language gives you practical protection from newcomers’ concern that some interloper is going to make a million dollars from their work (even if it does not offer protection against all theoretical possibilities).... This is why you don’t see Pearson, McGraw, or other major publishers reselling copies of CC BY textbooks. 

If we limit the example to textbooks, the statement is possibly true. However, publishers have made millions selling out-of-copyright works, such as the classics of literature. Walt Disney made a fortune by appropriating folklore and fairy stories and marketing them as Disney property.

> The only counterexample I can offer to this line of argument, and it’s not a direct one, is the CC BY simulations created by PhET. As I understand it, at least one major publisher includes PhET simulations in their offerings. The publisher doesn’t sell the simulations as a product – I don’t think they could sell the simulations this way for the reasons I’ve described above. But they do include the simulations as a “free extra” to make their textbooks or courseware more attractive than those offered by other publishers. 

This sounds like exactly the sort of situation I would like to avoid.

And it's not nearly as rare as described here. Consider, for example, companies like ResearchGate, which have slurped up all the open access publications they can find, and then require that readers log in to read them, thus creating data they sell to advertisers and publishers.

> On the one hand, the faculty member you speak to may feel like this possibility represents a lost opportunity to make some money. 

I don't actually think this is what motivates supporters of NC. Mostly, people don't want their work to become part of a commercial product that people would have to pay money to access.

> Personally, for the OER that I create, I want every learner in the world to use them – regardless of which major resource (commercial or open textbook) their faculty have decided to adopt. If publishers decide to throw my OER in as free extras with their textbooks or courseware, that just decreases the amount of search engine optimization and other work I have to do to make sure people know about the OER I’ve created. It’s free advertising for my OER. 

It's the existence of commercial content that makes SEO and advertising a requirement. This alone should be a reason to discourage CC-by. It shouldn't be necessary for us to have to advertise open access content. It's a requirement only because commercial publishers want to make sure readers cannot find the free content.

Most of us do not want to become entrepreneurs or publishers or whatever. We simply want to share the work we've created. It's the commercial publishing system that makes that hard.

As always, I argue that people should adopt whatever license best suits their interests. I continue to fail to understand why David Wiley doesn't respect that choice.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

On Teaching Critical Thinking

As someone who was teaching critical thinking for a living well before anyone thought to call it a '21st century skill' it bothers me to no end to read articles like this arguing that we should not be teaching critical thinking in schools.

It feels to me that the critics of critical thinking do not understand what critical thinking is, nor why we would teach it. Thus Carl Hendrick describes the critical thinking as follows:
the aim is to equip students with a set of general problem-solving approaches that can be applied to any given domain; these are lauded by business leaders as an essential set of dispositions for the 21st century. 
Well.... no. That's not what critical thinking is. Critical thinking is neither "a set of general problem-solving approaches" nor is it a "disposition". Critical thinking does apply to any given domain, for reasons I'll explain below. And it's irrelevant whether they are lauded by business leaders.

The most common argument against critical thinking (favoured also by Daniel Willingham) is this:
to be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about it: It's not easy to translate those skills to other areas.
and
This non-translatability of cognitive skill is well-established in psychological research and has been replicated many times.
Moreover, they argue that critical thinking does not contribute to improved learning outcomes. Citing a study of 'brain training' games, Hendrick quotes:
We know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.
Fair enough. Let's take all this as a given.

Critical thinking, however, is not the translation of specialized skills from one domain to another. Nor is it even intended to support the learning of a specialized domain - you need a lot of practice and hands-on experience to do that. Nor are the 'brain training' games an example of critical thinking.

So what is critical thinking good for? Hendricks almost had it when he said this:
we all know people who are "clever" in their professional lives yet who often seem to make stupid decisions in their personal lives.
Yes! Exactly! Critical thinking is designed to prevent this!

So how can critical thinking accomplish anything useful? After all, it is true that you do need to know things in order to reason critically about them. Happily, first, we almost never have no knowledge of a subject. And second, critical thinking is one of those things we need to know.

Let me offer an analogy: mathematics. This is a type of very general knowledge that is applied in a wide range of domains. There are some useful things to note about mathematics:
  • it applies everywhere, regardless of context. There are no domains in which 2+2 does not equal 4. 

  • nobody pretends that it is the whole of any other discipline. Of course you have to have some knowledge about physics to use mathematics in physics. And the knowledge of physics doesn't transfer to other domains (but the mathematics does).

  • knowledge of mathematics will help you a lot in everyday life, and help you spot (or prevent) glaring errors of reasoning even in domains you know little about. 
For example, I know nothing about aviation. But I can demonstrate that 100 kilograms of fuel is different from 100 pounds of fuel, which tells me that if the pilot uses 'kilograms' and the ground crew uses 'pounds', someone is in for a rude surprise. Or if the range of the aircraft is 1600 kilometers, and the flight plan is 1605 kilometers, there's a risk the flight might end tragically.

This might seem pretty basic. But so are the principles of reasoning that characterize critical thinking (and as someone who taught it, watching people get it wrong feels the same as watching someone say 2+2=5 ... and getting away with it).

So if critical thinking isn't a problem-solving set of dispositions (nor empty advice to 'consider all perspectives' and other de Bono truisms) then what is it?

In the first place, critical thinking is the application of the basic principles of logic, usually beginning with the propositional calculus and categorical syllogisms (if you took my course you'd know what those terms mean). Here's an example of each:

Propositional calculus:

If A then B
A
Therefore B

Categorical syllogism

All A are B
All B are C
Therefore, All A are C

The point of both of these principles is that you can replace A, B and C with anything, and it still works. It doesn't matter what domain you are working in. Just as 2+2 always yields 4, If A then B, and A always yields B. There are many more such principles, and indeed whole other branches of logic that form the basic of our comprehension of any domain: inductive reasoning, quantification, modalities, probabilities, and more.

Now there is a skill involved in applying these. There are, for example, many ways to say "If A then B". A lot of the time, in practical life, people skip that statement entirely, and it has to be assumed. Being able to read text, and identify these patterns, is an essential skill (even more essential than the 'word problems' that are their counterpart in mathematics). And these skills apply independently of the domains.  The words may vary, but the principles remain the same.

This leads us to consider a second example of a generic skill that applies in a wide range of domains. Mathematics was the first. And the second? Grammar.

In all disciplines, a sentence needs to have a subject and a predicate in order to have a fixed or specific meaning. Pronouns need to agree with nouns, or at least be employed in a context where some sort of agreement can be assumed. The role of propositions is the same in geography as it is in avionics, and they appear in the same places in sentences.

Grammar, and language generally, are not a part of physics (or of any specialized discipline), but physics cannot operate without them.

There is a close relationship between critical thinking and grammar. The formal "If A then B, A, therefore B" maps to the linguistic structure of a language, and we express the condition in the subjunctive sense ("if wishes were horses...). Knowing how to form a sentence is part and parcel of knowing how to reason. For this reason, a great deal of critical thinking revolves around reading comprehension.

Another, broader, part of critical thinking involves the comprehension and criticism of larger cognitive structures. here are generally thought to be four major types of structures (and favious lesser structures, such as interrogation):
  • Argumentation - the offering of reasons that lead to a conclusion
  • Explanation - the identification of causes or reasons that something is the case (and ultimately the basis for the scientific method)0
  • Definition - the fixing of meanings of terms through reference, representation, ostension or other means
  • Description - the presentation of events and states of affairs, including attributions of properties, categorizations, relations, and connections
Each of these operates in any given discipline (indeed, the absence of any of these four major types of structures in a discipline is prima facie evidence that it is a pseudo-discipline).

Most critical thinking courses focus on argumentation, since the giving of reasons to believe a conclusion is fundamental to pretty much any discipline (argumentation, for example, is always offered in response to a question like 'what should I do?'). And the principles for evaluating arguments do not vary from discipline to discipline.

That's not to say that every discipline is the same as every other. There are key differences between disciplines. Some of the major differences include:
  • what makes a question worth asking (and what questions are really worth asking).
  • what facts are relevant to the resolution of problems and states of affairs
  • what counts as evidence, and what makes a statement true or false
These are pretty big differences. Cavernous. These are what make the arguments offered by Hendricks and Willingham seem so intuitive. Any time you need to know whether or not something is true, you've gone outside the bounds of critical thinking, and entered into one or another specific discipline.

And that takes us to the third major area of critical thinking: identifying errors or fallacies of reasoning. And as you may suspect, you don't need to be an expert in a discipline to be able to tell that an error of reasoning has been committed. These have been drawn up in various guides, including one of my own, to the logical fallacies.

And here's the kicker: there are no disciplines in which any of these fallacies count as good reasoning. The whole point of a fallacy is that it is not an error of fact or of evidence (again, these are the things that are domain-specific). A fallacy is a common form of error (just like failing to carry is a common error in mathematics).

It takes skill to identify and correct logical fallacies. If you have domain knowledge you will be better at it in a specific domain, but even if you have no domain knowledge, you can avoid the consequences of some of the more egregious errors. Invalid syllogisms, misrepresentation of information, distortion of data - all these are errors in all disciplines, and can be spotted by amateurs and experts alike.

The teaching of critical thinking equips students with essential core skills that are needed in any discipline, based on principles that are as fundamental as  mathematics and language (indeed, for the purists, you can read an argument shoring that they are all in fact the same things).


Like the teaching of any discipline, it requires not so much the presentation of facts and principles as it does the application of these principles in varied and authentic environments. And like mathematics, the teaching of critical thinking can be adapted to a student's existing knowledge, developing skills and abilities that will be useful - and transferable - to much more complex disciplines in later life.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Post-Truth and Fake News

Yes, by all means, do something about the fake news that is propagating through Facebook and Twitter. But let's not forget that we have been in the post-truth era for some time (indeed, one wonders whether we ever entered the truth era in the first place).

After all, the rise of the post-truth era is made possible by the failures of the education system to prepare people to identify truth for themselves, and the failure of traditional media to present the news in an honest and forthright manner.

It's true, Facebook could easily cut down on the torrent of fake news stories circulating through social media simply by blocking access to a few sites. We could begin with the obvious: the Beaverton, the Onion, the Manatee. That would prevent sites like Infowars from portraying their parody as fact. And we could also cut off blatant miscreants like the Rightists.

Some of the more prominent election memes were instigated by abcnews.com.co for example: "I was paid $3000 to protest a Trump Rally"). No, it's not the ABC network. That's abcnews.go.com - the 'go.com' is in there because the news was lumped in with Disney's other properties for cross-promotion purposes.

But these 'fake news' sites are actually pretty funny. And it would be a shame to censor them. And if people can't tell the fake news from the real news, it's mostly because the real news does such an excellent job of parodying itself.

We would like to believe the real news can be trusted. But time and again it proves the opposite. Let's look at exactly the sort of thing we are faced with when truing to fine the 'truth' in traditional media:

  • Polls and Surveys. Yes we all love 538 (and in Canada, 308). But that doesn't make up for the plastering of almost-daily poll results in every media outlet in the country (along with the usual made-up 'expanations' of why the polls went up or down). Polls are not news; punditry about pools is barely disguised fiction.
  • Anniversaries. How much of traditional media 'news' content is filled with the observation that it was '50 years since...' or '100 years ago on this day...' and so on. We have holidays for that! But of course, the traditional media also reports that it's a holiday, same time, every year, as though it's news.
  • Endorsing the corporate candidate. In an article quoting Barack Obama as criticizing fake news the Providence Journal does not even not the irony of its lede: "Hillary Clinton was the choice of nearly every American newspaper editorial board. It didn't matter." In Canada, we had a similar case where every newspaper endorsed former prime minister Stephen  Harper. These newspapers are looking out for their corporate owners - and their readers see it plainly.
  • Uncritical reporting. It's not just Donald Trump who was allowed to say pretty much anything without correction. The news media is full of people making preposterous claims. Where is the filter that allows us to screen out claims that Mexico will pay for the wall, or that corporate tax cuts will create jobs? 
  • Reliable sources. They aren't. When factcheck.org analyzed the election, it found that the sources of most of the lies weren't the campaigns themselves, but the supposedly trustworthy institutions like the parties' national committees. We have to learn that institutions lie, they lie frequently, and they lie very well, and the traditional media actually helps them do this.
  • Media hype. Why do we even have a hype cycle?  It's driven by the traditionmal media's propensity to make (or repeat) outlandish claims for often dubious technologies. Even inventions of some value fall victim (and are therefore unfairly criticized). The hype has a predictable pattern than should make it clear it's not news: "a hotbed topic; a sexy, futuristic, ‘cyberpunk’ technology; and the potential for financial returns."
  • Fear. Irrational fear. I just got email from Forbes saying "what are you going to do when you lose your job in 6 months?" Never mind that this will happen to a small percentage of us (and that Forbes readers are generally able to bounce back). The purpose here is to make us terrified and afraid. Just as are the crime stories, the immigrant stories, etc.
  • Supermoon and other misleading trivia. To read the traditional media, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event to see a 'supermoon'. Not counting the supermoons of 2011, 2013, and 2014, to name a few. Glorifying even the most trivial (non-controversial) thing seems to be what the traditional media do. Even then, they get many of the details wrong. But it's far easier than reporting the news.
  • Advertorial - not to be confused with advertisements that look like news stories, these are news stories that are advertisements. You see them on your evening television news every day - a promotion for a new restaurant, a plug for a movie, a story about the next new Christmas toy 'craze'. Or those Black Friday stories (which are really odd coming from Canadian television).
  • Obsessively chasing non-scandals. For example, spending more time talking about Hillary Clinton's emails than all policy issues combined.Even it it were a scandal (and it genuinely wasn't) it wouldn't have deserved this much coverage. What wasn't covered? Anything to do with policy.
  • Unnamed sources. As Jeff Jarvis says, "the source matters". Yet in so many cases, the source in the traditional media is not named. We don't know whether it's a campaign insider or someone posing as a campaign insider.
  • The echo chamber. We hear many complaints about social media being an echo chamber. But traditional media are the biggest echo chamber of them all. We hear from the same sources, the same spokesmen, the same suits and the same pundits. 
  • Fake experts. Who are the experts called upon by traditional media? Often, they are sources provided by lobbyists and speakers' bureaus. As this article notes, "Being published in the media sometimes provides commentators with “expert” status even if they lack expertise on the subject matter being discussed and have no relevant research on the topic." 
  • Reposting press releases - when I ran the Moncton Free Press I would see the exact same content coming from the local newspaper site and Canada NewsWire. There's nothing inherently wrong with a press release, but the newspaper was attributing it to 'STAFF' and passing it off as news, which is blatantly dishonest. The practice never slowed, not even when they were called out on it.
  • Sloppy sloppy sloppy reasoning. The traditional media commits logical fallacies on a regular basis. Surprisingly, when I pointed this out to them, they changed nothing.
  • Poor design. We get reams of old articles shared through social media pretending to be articles from today. OK, sure, it was wrong of the conservative news site to promote this article on changing the electoral college vote in Maryland. But if NBC News made the date much more prominent, it would be impossible to fool people. But that would cut down on archive views.
  • Nationalism. Being Canadian, I am exposed to a lot of nationalism in media - not only our home-grown nationalism, but also from the U.S. (of course) and even from places like Britain, China and Russia. It just underlines to me how far at odd are nationalism and truth.And just how much it is relied upon by traditional media.
  • Think tanks. These supposedly 'independent' voices are not. They are funded by various interests (historically from the far right but now from across the spectrum) to spead misleading research and (sometimes) outright lies. In Canada we have the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and many more. These should never be given an uncritical platform. But this is what the traditional media gives them every day. 
  • Institution envy. There are a few sources that make the traditional media go gaga. Thus we get 'The Harvard Study...', the 'Oxford report...', a 'Yale analysis...' and so on. There's nothing about the source of these items that makes them more likely to be true, nor more important, yet traditional media can't get enough of them, even though they collectively exhibit a pronounced slant.
As Jessi Hempel writes, "In the past, the sources of accurate information were recognizable enough that phony news was relatively easy for a discerning reader to identify and discredit. The problem, (Snopes managing editor Brooke) Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer"

We won't solve our problems with the truth by suppressing fake news. We see this in less democratic regimes, and it's never successful. We solve the problem only by having some news agencies that get it right - that are trustworthy, and can be known to be trustworthy.

And note: it's not enough to create a news media that I think can be trusted. The disaffected inhabit all sides of the political spectrum. The media needs to win back the Sanders supporters, the Trump supporters, and sceptical readers in Moscow and Beijing.

Yes, the failure of education and growth of inequality have been reported elsewhere. As Ben Williamson writes, " the statistics from the EU referendum indicate that the vote for leaving the EU was concentrated in geographical areas already most affected by growing economic, cultural and social inequalities, as well as by physical pain and mental ill-health and rising mortality rates."

And as he notes, "Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller of the think tank Demos wrote a report 5 years ago that highlighted a need to teach young people critical thinking and scepticism online to ‘allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes.’"

But let's not blame the less-educated. The most educated people in society have made this the environment we're living in.



Reading

Backchannel - According to Snopes, fake news is not the problem
Code Acts in Education -Social media and public pedagogies of political mis-education
Digital Digs -Pluralism and the nonmodern, nonliberal society


FactCheck.org - How to spot fake news
Fast Company - How We Got to Post-Truth
Fast Company - Fake U.S. News is a Global Problem
Medium - A Call for Cooperation Against Fake News
Quartz - Oxford Dictionaries declare 'Post'Truth' the word of the year.
the Conversation (Andina Dwifatm) - Everyone’s an expert: in the digital era, fakes need to be exposed
Washington Post. Donald Trump is crashing the system. Journalists need to build a new one