Monday, April 23, 2012

Teaching the (non)Controversy Part I: A Marketplace, Corrupted

In celebration of passing 5,000 page views on my blog (THANK YOU SO MUCH), I thought I would change things up a little by mixing the typical rant up with a problem that I don't necessarily have an answer for yet.

(Please note, I will be writing about "controversy" in this blog. Please take the content of my claim into consideration even if you disagree with the examples)

But first, check out my Pin (Pinterest Board)!:

(ok, in all honesty, I am also trying to figure out a use-case for Pinterest in education as well. According to some of my students I won't get it, because I am a not a girl...ha!)

Interlude 1:

One of our numerous resources
The debate topic a few years ago in Lincoln-Douglas was over mandatory vaccinations. As we clarified issues such as individual autonomy and social responsibility, the topic of Autism kept coming up. As all good coaches and competitors do, we went to the research, eventually focusing on two sources: Autism's False Prophets and The Vaccine Book. One of the fascinating things we learned through these sources, peer reviewed journals, discussion with physicians, etc. was the "controversy" of the link between Autism and Vaccination was non-existent -- there wasn't a link.

Despite other books
Despite celebrity spokes people
Despite air time on evening news programs and screen time on websites

The scientific community had put this "controversy" to rest through the process of epidemiological study, scientific method, and peer review. But if you google this topic, the controversy appears to be live and well.
In fact, the third link (when I looked it up for this blog) refers to a March 2011 study published in a peer-reviewed journal that "sheds new light" -- It actually appears to affirm a number of the issues with the original Autism-Vaccine link claims but studies other areas that could be open for investigation.
[End Interlude]

Thus, the full understanding of this issue (which I do NOT claim to have) would require a careful study of published literature, a grasp of the process of Peer Review and its relationship to the scientific method in assessing the validity (or invalidity) of various hypothesis, and an ability to carefully and closely read information beyond the first few paragraphs and analyze carefully the implications of a statement.

Sounds like 21st Century skills to me.

Teaching the (non)Controversy - What went wrong?

I think there are a  lot of issues that are at play here, not the least of which include strongly held religious beliefs that may come into sharp contrast with commonly accepted scientific theories (see how I just went there with evolution without making it the focus of my essay? #savethedinosaurs). I am not going to focus on that one, but instead want to look at  how the information age has influenced this issue.

First, Back in the pre-PC days, it was difficult to get writing (any writing) in front of a large number of readers. Most academic publishing was controlled by universities and, because of the practice of Peer Review and the necessity to maintain an academic reputation, it was difficult for theories to be published without strong scientific grounding. Thus, if you were researching information in a library, it had likely gone through an editorial process or a full-bore system of Peer Review.

Second, there was a lot less news in those days: fewer channels, no Internet, and no 24/7 news cycle. Additionally, the news was not in intense competition for nielson ratings and page views as a primary driver. With less competition, news agencies could afford to be less sensational.

Third, if you did have an extreme minority opinion and you did want to exercise your 1st amendment right to throw that idea out there, your method of transmission was severely curtailed. The paper flyer you hand out on a street corner lends some opinion on the validity of the thought in most people's minds.

Fast-forward to 2012. There is more information created in a single day than a human being could ingest in his or her entire life. Much of this information is unvetted through either a publisher's editorial department or the formal peer review of academia. The Internet has become the great publishing equalizer, allowing people's opinions to appear as fact and ideas without evidence to exist with the same amount of shiny and pretty (and sometime even more) as venerated news agencies, academic publications, and scholarly research.

In this environment, news agencies are fighting for every precious eyeball. While we like to pretend that we each want more feel-good stories, ratings go up when there is human drama and the best way to initiate this on a news show is to have two or more people yelling at eachother over their heartfelt beliefs. Thus, the creation of "equal time" policies serve the dual purpose of showing "all sides" of an issue while creating a system most likely to create entertaining television. The flaw in this system, of course, is that careful consideration must be made to determine just how big that other side of the issue actually may be.

The Marketplace of Ideas, Corrupted

John Stuart Mill, among others, posited the idea of a "marketplace of ideas" where free expression and deliberation of ideas would allow good policy and modes of operation to rise up from the masses while less-great ideas fell to the wayside.

JSM didn't know about Twitter.


I have not suddenly become an anti-social media zealot. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a huge fan of social media and the power it gives us to connect and share ideas. I owe the bulk of my 5,000+ page views to the word spread through social media conversations like #flipclass and #byotchat. What I am writing about here is much more nuanced than "social media bad"
[End Interlude]

The marketplace as a concept depends on two primary things: first that people will carefully consider ideas and reject them thoroughly as part of the common civil discourse (kind of like Peer Review) and second, that the voices advocating the most reasoned, truthful, and valid ideas will eventually become a common chorus as minds are persuaded and bad ideas fall out of favor.

But that does not happen as easily in the Information Age. Conjectures that are posited by the medical community as worthy of investigation gain traction on specialized message boards and gain root and the sound of authority. These opinions are searchable, findable, retweetable, and re-enter the discourse (sometime with the aid of balance-seeking news agency) long after the matter has been settled in the world of Peer Review.

Meanwhile, the commonplace algorithms for validity: popularity among everyone (Google) and popularity among like minded people (Facebook, Twitter) have no method of reconciling the wheat from the chaff. Throw in a healthy dose of political divisiveness, religious intolerance to competing worldviews, and a dash of distrust of the authority and you have our modern discourse.

It is in this environment that we must teach new skills of information literacy.
As an educator, are you ready?

Coming in part II: Some new ideas for a new age