Why critical thinking is the long-term cure for disinformation

While combating specific false beliefs is important, in the long run, helping people learn to spot misinformation is the best way to counter it
Photo illustration: Mahdis Mousavi/Unsplash

Episode Summary

People often say that we live in the “information age.” But what does that mean? It means that people living today on earth have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. All of us can read high quality scientific research, even before it’s published in academic journals. You can look up everything from great lasagna recipes to the latest news about Malaysian politics, and everything in between.

Having the world’s knowledge digitized and made available to everyone has truly been a great thing. But it’s come with a downside. Not only can we know more than ever, we can also be misled more than ever.

That point has become abundantly and dangerously clear during the Covid-19 pandemic. The conspiracy theories and lies about the coronavirus have spread worldwide and become believed by millions of people. Tragically, many people have died from believing falsehoods about vaccines, masks, and fake cures for Covid.

But what can be done about all this misinformation? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. One good one, however, is to spread greater awareness of critical thinking so that we can do more than just obtain information, but actually acquire knowledge.

Knowing how to think rather than what to think is the most-needed skill of our time. But whose responsibility is it to teach critical thinking? In my opinion, it’s one that belongs to all of us. Not only do we all have beliefs that are untrue, those of us who are aware of the importance of logical thinking have the responsibility to spread that knowledge, and to practice it ourselves.

In this episode of Theory of Change, we feature Melanie Trecek-King, the creator of a project called Thinking Is Power. It’s a great online resource for teaching and learning about critical thinking skills. As we’ll discuss on this episode, the project was inspired by, among other things, her experience teaching biology to students at a community college in Massachusetts.

A video version of our conversation is below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Melanie.

MELANIE TRECEK-KING: Hi, Matt. Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well, so let’s get right into it. So as I said, the website is ThinkingIsPower.com. So I encourage everybody to check that out. Tell us a little bit about what’s on the site. And how you came to be doing it.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, so the site is Thinking Is Power as opposed to knowledge is power. Because you’re right, there’s just too much to know. And we have a lot of information at our fingertips. So instead of trying to figure out how to know everything, it’s trying to figure out how to think about everything. And since no one can mislead us as much as we can, the site is really about learning to monitor your own thought processes, and understand how your own biases can lead you astray. So you don’t fall for misinformation. It came out of a course that I developed to teach science literacy and critical thinking to my students.

SHEFFIELD: And so what, who’s the site for otherwise, though? Why did why did you decide to take what you were doing out of the classroom?

TRECEK-KING: Well, honestly, I thought the material was so much fun, it was difficult to keep it to myself. So there’s that. But also, I wanted to provide my students with a resource, I wanted to, I really have two goals with a site. One is to encourage other educators to think about how we teach science, especially to those who are not going to be scientists when they grow up. And the other is for, there’s a lot of people who aren’t students, who are done being students and who were just curious and want to learn how to think better. And so the site was my attempt at providing some sort of resource for them.

SHEFFIELD: Uh huh. All right, well, so let’s talk about—maybe let’s talk about the course, how is it that you came to create this course that you didn’t originally start out intending to do that?

TRECEK-KING: No, actually, I’m an ecologist by training. And when I moved to Massachusetts, and started teaching at a community college, I taught and I love teaching at community college, and I teach primarily courses for those who are not going to be scientists when they grow up. And the course that I focused on—like so many science, non science majors take is—intro bio. And I taught intro bio for over a decade.

And I love biology, don’t get me wrong. And biology is full of amazing things that it would be awesome if everybody knew. But I realized that I was teaching my students how to memorize things that they would forget after the exam. And most of them didn’t want to take science. They were there because they had to, and they were going to leave the class not loving science anymore than when they came to me.

And I really did try. Actually, I remember the moment really well, I was teaching the cell cycle, not just the cell cycle, but its relationship to cancer. And cancer is one of the things that have impacts most of us and so learning how the cell cycle can go awry, that can lead to cancer was my attempt at trying to encourage to think—students to think like scientists and enjoy the material. And I just saw their faces and they were deflated.

And I thought you know, there’s got to be a better way to do this. So I went looking for something different. I found a few really great examples. And they gave me some curriculum, I started developing something different and ended up with a course that I call Science for Life. From the class, it’s skills, not facts. And the primary skills that I focus on are science literacy. And science literacy is not just memorizing facts. It’s understanding the process of science, how scientific knowledge is different than other forms of knowledge and critical thinking, and information literacy. And so through the course, the goal is to empower students to think better, so that they can make better decisions. And it’s really about intellectual empowerment.

SHEFFIELD: It’s interesting, because really what you’re teaching them is epistemology. But you’re not telling them that

TRECEK-KING: It’s a scary word.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and but the thing is, though, that I think is the key though, in in this, as I said, in the intro, you know, we live surrounded by it, and some of it true, some of it not true. And so what the best skill in the information age is to is to understand how to process information, because memorizing it isn’t as important as it used to be. Because now you can just look up something if you’re wondering how something works or random fact that you need. So that’s memorization isn’t as important. It’s It’s knowing how to think about it. Would you agree?

TRECEK-KING: I would, yeah, and our science majors still leave their undergraduate degrees with an astonishing number of pseudo-scientific beliefs. So even with our science majors, I would argue that we could probably do a better job of teaching them how the process of science works. And you’re right, you have all this information available at your fingertips. So not only can you need to learn how to think through the information, finding out which information is trustworthy, and which information is not trustworthy is another big part of that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. All right, so let’s maybe just talk about some of the things that you talked about. So I think generically, people would not be interested in well, so here’s how to know about fake news or things like that, but you use you go about in a very creative and fun way. Why do you start off with witches? And how are you doing it?

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, I’m really hoping my students aren’t watching this, at least my current students, because I’m going to give away some of the trade secrets here. Actually, at the very beginning, I start with a personality assessment, where I pretend that I know someone who’s an astrologer, and numerologist and I—there’s this whole elaborate ruse. I actually, I’m a decent liar, it turns out when I want to be, and so I give my students their personality assessments, and then have them discuss it with each other. And they realize eventually, that they all got the same one. But the vast majority of them think they’re very accurate.

And so I have to apologize for lying to them. But I tell them, I did it for free, and for educational purposes, but the point is, we can all be fooled. And if I had just told them, that you can be fooled, they wouldn’t necessarily believe me, so I have to demonstrate it to them. And in the process of doing that, I start a lecture with witches, we look at the witch trials in Europe, in the United States, how convinced people were that witches where the cause of weather events, and of people getting sick and dying. I mean, they were convinced enough to kill thousands of people. And most of my students don’t believe in witches. And so it’s easier for them that it’s not something that triggers them, it’s easier for them to look from a distance and analyze, well, they believed this really strongly. They were convinced that they were right, was the evidence that they had good evidence? And there’s really harm in believing things that aren’t true. And so through that the students are more open to questioning their own beliefs. So it’s really sort of back-end way of getting them to question how they come to something and their own confidence in their own beliefs, and evaluating the evidence that they have for their beliefs. And I’ve pulled them, pulled them simultaneously. So hopefully, they’ve started to break their confidence in how much they think they know.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and that’s, I think, is a really important concept also, because in order to process information, we have to understand that we don’t know everything. And it turns out when you can just look up everything you want in Google or DuckDuckGo, or whatever people think they know more than they do. But the reality is just because you can look something up doesn’t mean you understand it. And there’s a saying that you in our conversations before the show had had talked about that. People sometimes will say ‘well facts don’t care about your feelings.’ But you’d kind of flip it around and say that ‘your feelings don’t care about the facts.’ Talk about that concept a little bit.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah. Most of us don’t realize how much of our thinking is intuitive and emotional. And we come to a belief through those illogical ways. And then once we have it, we protect it with facts. So we cherry-pick evidence that we want. And it’s all motivated reasoning, we cherry-pick evidence that we want and then we get this inflated sense of confidence in our belief. We think, well, I have all of this evidence, of course, it’s true. And we don’t realize how little we know, we don’t realize that our access to information is not the same thing as knowledge. And one step further, we think that information that’s available in our communities the same thing as information that’s available to us. And so we don’t realize where our knowledge ends and others begins. And so we have an inflated sense of that. But this motivated reasoning, the guiding of our reasoning, through emotional ways, is really behind a lot of our overconfidence in our beliefs. So it is true that facts don’t care about our feelings. But it’s also equally true that our feelings don’t care about the facts.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So you get into that concept further, in a new essay published on your site about why doing your own research is a lot harder than you think. Tell us about that.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, I mean, everybody’s doing their own research these days. I think what a lot of people mean by that is, they have a belief that they already think is true, or that they want to be true, or conversely don’t. And so they go to Google, and they type that in, and they find the things that tell them they’re right. And it’s even true with scientific studies, you can mine the scientific literature and find something that says pretty much anything that you want it to say, especially when you don’t realize the difference between the higher-quality journals and the predatory journals and so on. And so I was trying to promote some intellectual humility, in that realize that you don’t know as much as you think you do. And then I realized that people needed an answer to that question, and how do I find good information? Because we still don’t know everything. And we still want answers. We want to make good decisions. And so how do I go to a search engine and find good information? And so the follow-up piece that I wrote was about why the expert consensus is the most reliable form of knowledge for non-experts, and then how to find it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think the other thing also, you’re trying to teach people that skepticism begins with yourself. And there’s that quote that that you mentioned—

TRECEK-KING: Richard Feynman, yeah

SHEFFIELD: Yes. Go ahead and tell people what that saying of his was.

TRECEK-KING: Well, it’s, it’s you are the easiest person to fool. He’s talking about how science is a way to not fool ourselves. But we all think we can’t be fooled. But you are the easiest person to fool. So yes, skepticism starts with skepticism of your own beliefs, and realize how easy you are to fool. When you want something to be true or don’t want something to be true, we are very capable at formulating the arguments to protect those beliefs.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and these concepts, the necessity of critical thing is become more—we’ve needed it more than ever, especially with this whole with the Covid-19 pandemic. But you started your course before that. During the pandemic, though, is that, is that have you encountered people who did believe in false ideas about masks or vaccines or what have you? Have you encountered that at all?

TRECEK-KING: You know, we have been online since March of 2020. And we continue to be. And, you know, Massachusetts has very high vaccination rate. Basically, everyone wears masks wherever you go. I have had students in the past express vaccine hesitancy views and we cover even prior to the pandemic, I covered the MMR vaccine with the mistaken link to autism. But I don’t tend to have those kinds of views in class. You know, there’s a smattering. It’s a really big diversity of students. So there’s a smattering of different kinds of pseudo-scientific and non-science beliefs. But I’ve not really found a lot of that independently. What I do find a lot of, my students are a lot more media literate than I am. And they send me some of the best examples of pseudoscience and bad information and so on.

SHEFFIELD: What are some of the examples, just for our amusement here?

TRECEK-KING: Um, well, the one that’s immediately coming to mind, I’m honestly not sure I could say so. Let’s see. I had a student. Oh, gosh, it’s—so they, my students, are fully aware that I have really crass humor, so they tend to tell me, send me those kinds of things. Like for example, I do an assignment. I’m a big fan of having students create misinformation. The idea is to inoculate them against misinformation by recognizing it and active inoculation is a great way to provide the best inoculation against misinformation. So one of the assignments that I do, I have students create advertisements for products that are pseudoscience and I give them the biggest sellers in pseudoscience and supplements, and that would be like weight loss and male enhancement. So I get a lot of students who are sending me various male enhancement products. How about I leave it at that?

SHEFFIELD: Well, that certainly is an example of a misinformation commercial product that is aimed at men. But there are also a lot of disinformation products—commercialized misinformation—that targets women. And that’s something that is a pet peeve.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, it really is. I mean, anything Goop pretty much takes the cake. But everything from the really obvious like vagina eggs to, there’s a lot of alternative medicine that’s specifically sold to women, things like astrology, lots of alternative diets are very common in things like women’s magazines. Even really prominent women’s magazines, they are not necessarily good sources of information.

And the problem is that they are presented like they’re a form of empowerment, a way that you can take control of your health, it’s appealing to the part of a person who wants to take control who the medical establishment hasn’t always been inclusive of women, for example, and listen to our health concerns. And so there’s a bit of frustration with that. And we do have problems with our medical system. And there are answers that you can’t get from modern science. And so it appeals to the part of us that wants to take control that feels helpless, that needs hope. But what it feeds is false hope. And worse, it’s often doing so while simultaneously sowing distrust of science. So it’s a dual harm.

SHEFFIELD: One of the paradoxes of disinformation or bad information is that it kind of has its own defense mechanism built in because when it doesn’t work, so when the astrologer tells you the wrong thing, or when the penis pills don’t make your, your genitalia bigger, or you don’t get larger breasts, because it’s not based on reason, it’s based on emotion, that you are the reason that it didn’t work, your personal moral failings or dietary failings or exercise failings or energy failings. It’s your fault. It’s not the scammer’s fault.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really frustrating is a lot of victim blaming, and we see it with Covid, even where you’re getting sick, it’s because of some moral failing on your part, you did something wrong. And so what did you do to deserve this? So yeah, I agree entirely. Misinformation in that way—so I’m gonna go back to what you said about, you’re essentially referring to in most pseudoscience and science denial belief systems, the I call it the get out of jail free card is the conspiracy theory. So when all else fails, it’s a conspiracy. Or there’s some other way of moving the goalposts or making excuses for why something didn’t work. And yeah, we see it in all forms of those kinds of belief systems.

SHEFFIELD: Exactly. One of the other false beliefs that you talked about, and I think is a interesting one. And I would invite our livestream viewers, if you guys have any questions, feel free to type them in whatever platform. So one of the other false information or false beliefs that you talk about it in your, on your site, and also in your courses is about ghosts. And you do it in a way that I think is really fun and interesting, in that you show people that ghosts, the perception of ghosts have changed over time. So talk a little bit about what that means.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, with each of the sections of the class, I tried to bring in some sort of pseudoscience or science denial belief that corresponds well with that particular section. And one of the more important sections of the course is the limits of perception and memory. We have this idea that seeing is believing in that ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ Like we think that our own perceptions are the best way of knowing something. Like I know that homeopathy works, because I tried it and it worked. I know I saw ghosts because I saw one. I know ghosts are real.

So with limits of perception and memory, I try and show students how easily their perception is fooled and how easily their memories are manipulated, or how easily they forget because our memories are even worse than our perception. And so yeah, the ghosts are obvious topic for that section. And when I discuss ghosts, I actually walk them through a history of ghosts and how cultures over time have viewed ghosts. The way that we see ghosts today are different than the way that we saw ghosts 500 years ago and they’re just not different over time they’re different over cultures even today, Native Hawaiians view ghosts differently than people in Sweden and people in Japan. And if ghosts were real, if and I’m not saying they’re not right, but if they are, one would expect that whatever happens to us after we die to be the same over time and place, it’s consistent. And instead, what we see is ghosts being the result of whatever that culture at that time and place expected to see.

SHEFFIELD: So just talk about some of those specific differences.

TRECEK-KING: So like today, I’m not going to be able to name the names because I don’t, I don’t understand how to say them. But there’s a ghost in Scandinavia, a creepy-looking ghoul thing, that apparently sucks the blood out of your toe when you sleep. And in Hawaii, there’s the Night Marchers that are the ghosts of warriors that if you see them cross your path, you’re going to die. There’s a way to not die something like sleeping in the road, or I’m going to get the legend wrong.

Sleeping in the road, that sounds like a way to die.

Yeah (laughs). There’s another one where if they pinch you, you’re going to die.

And even what we expect ghosts to be able to do over time has changed. So for example, it really wasn’t until the 19th century that we really thought that we could communicate with the dead via like Ouija boards or via electrical impulses. We didn’t have electricity, right?

So the belief in the ability to test ghosts’ spirits through various electromagnetic machines. We couldn’t talk to people over distances until we had the telegraph, for example, and then finally, the telephone. So the idea that you could talk to somebody in a different plane using these various methods didn’t really start until the 19th century, there’s really famous couple of sisters that called the Fox sisters.

So the Fox sisters were these, there was three girls, but the two younger ones in upstate New York in the 19th century, and they lived in a farmhouse with their parents. And one night, there was a knocking on the wall, and they called their mom in to tell them that they were—that there was a ghost and it was somebody who had been murdered in the house.

And the parents are really, really upset. The ghost kept talking to them. And they would they would ask the ghost questions and the ghost rwould espond with a series of raps, yes or no, and so on. And they got really famous, and they left their small town, they went to live with their sister in the bigger city, they started having public seances. They went to the White House, they toured in parts of Europe, they made a lot of money. They were really famous.

They also had a lot of infighting, and they had some divorces and they had drinking problems and gambling problems. Well, it all came to a head one night when they had a seance, hundreds of people there. And one of the sisters gets up and says we faked it, the whole thing. We’ve been faking this whole time.

And they showed how they did it, they would make their knee crack or their ankle crack up next to a table so that it would echo and they would do various other kinds of tricks. And over the years, and these were decades that this, they would hold seances people would report seeing ghosts and hearing them and feeling them—there’d be touches and so on. And all of that was the product of what they expected to experience. Their perceptions were what they were expecting, because the sisters were faking it. And so the whole point with covering ghosts in this way is that, you know, we think that I experienced it, therefore I know. And there’s what the skepticism comes in, and the intellectual humility, well, do we really know that? Is the personal experience the best way to know that? How might our perceptions be playing tricks on us? So it’s not just that seeing is believing, believing is actually seeing.

SHEFFIELD: I think another thing to think about it is that, so people, some people are aware of the phrase that you know, perception is reality, but it’s something they apply to other people and not themselves. And it’s and it’s worth applying that to ourselves as well, I think.

What about the idea—the reason I’m doing this episode is because a lot of people on my different platforms have asked me questions about ‘I’ve got a relative who has these false beliefs about different things.’ And actually, we have a question that just came in from a viewer I’m going to put it up on the screen, it came out on YouTube. So Ron Jette says: “There will be those who refuse to believe in science, no matter how much evidence or logic you offer. How do you deal with those who are pseudo science believers?”

TRECEK-KING: It is the subject of probably of lifetime’s worth of work.

SHEFFIELD: You have one minute (laughs).

TRECEK-KING: Yeah (laughs). Solve all the world’s problems in one minute. Yeah. So first, I would encourage some empathy. We all have illogical beliefs. We all believe in things that aren’t true. We all have our blind spots.

And so when when you’re talking to someone who has a really firm belief in something that is not true, it’s worth understanding where that belief came from. That belief is there, there’s something further down that is probably the reason that they want to believe that. And so it’s an emotional thing. And so where in, where is that important part for them? And also encourage connection, find something that you agree on, find an area where you can connect and find common ground, realize that you’re probably not going to change someone’s mind, certainly not in one conversation.

The best thing that you can do is to plant something that will grow later. And along those lines, one actually trick that might work, there’s something called the illusion of explanatory depth, which is the idea that we don’t know as much as we think we do. And so the original studies on this involves things like bicycles and toilets.

And so they asked people, how well do you know how a bicycle works? ‘Well, of course, I know a bicycle works, I’d ride one every day, right? And I’ve been riding on for decades.’

‘Okay, on a scale of whatever, how confident are you?’

‘I’m really confident, okay?’

‘Draw a bicycle.’

Right. And once you have to get that out and articulate it to someone else, or draw it, you realize that you didn’t know enough about it, as much about it as you thought you did. So in this way, something like Socratic questioning, or there’s a great group that is called Street Epistemology that does this today that doesn’t try to change someone’s mind, but tries to get into a place where you’re really curious about what it is that the other person believes and why. And getting them to a place where they are willing to question it themselves. Now all that’s to say, there are some people who will never change their mind. And depending on your relationship with this person, you may have to decide how far into that you want to go. As a science communicator, I try and stick with people in the middle of the Bell Curve that are interested in willing to change, because they’re the people who won’t change their mind, it’s probably a waste of time. But that’s from a distance, it’s not somebody that I really care about. So it will be different in those relationships.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think one of the other things to keep in mind, just to circle back to something you said, was that, if it is somebody that you do know closely, and you have a, longer-term family or otherwise intimate relationship, you may have to set that subject aside, but let them know that you don’t believe in their pseudoscience beliefs. Let people understand that if they are thinking about that topic, that you’re willing to discuss it with them, but you’re not going to force it on them. Because you’re you can’t determine what their opinion is, it’s up to them, and to let them—so that that’s one thing that I’ve tried sometimes with people, and then also and this is why I was talking about your I liked your idea of talking about ghosts and witches, because those are topics that people are not investing their identity in believing in witches. Most people, let’s say they do believe in ghosts, and maybe they even think that they saw one. They’re not making that their identity that ghosts are real. And that’s different. It can be less threatening to talk about those topics for people because, you know, like in the case of Covid disinformation, there is political identities unfortunately, that have been wrapped up in pseudoscience. That’s another thing I would say.

TRECEK-KING: Yeah. Just to add to that, though, I am continually astonished at what people will attach their identity to. So for example, I’m an ecologist and started a sustainable landscaping program at my college. Things like lawn, people have an incredible ability to deny environmental impacts of their lawn, or I literally today was in a conversation on a native gardening group, and people are denying the impacts of butterfly bush. So I think if somebody can attach part of their identity to a plant, then it’s no surprise that people have been able to attach themselves so much to aspects of the pandemic. Cats are another thing. Outdoor cats, there is just tribes, cats outside, no cats outside, right? I like birds, I like cats, and it just becomes a major identity issue. And it’s difficult to find common ground to evaluate evidence when you’re so invested in the outcome.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, good point. All right. Well, we have another viewer question. I’ll put it up on the screen. So it’s from Brian Cohen and he says: “A class like yours can be great at inoculating students who are likely to be younger. What can we do to revert the motivated reasoning that has taken hold with former critical thinkers later in life?” And Brian, I’m glad you asked that, because I was going to ask Melanie that very thing. So go ahead, Melanie!

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And it’s why I started Thinking Is Power, because the beauty, I think, in what makes Science For Life work is that my students are captive, right? They, they want a grade, and they have to be there. And they have to listen to me for four months to be able to get a grade. So there’s at least a part of them that is invested in the class.

But the other thing is, I break down the structure of the course. So that it literally, so I start with why we believe things and the difference between believing and knowing, and then the inherent nature of skepticism and why that’s so important. And the limits of our perceptions and our memory and why you shouldn’t necessarily trust your personal experiences. And what I call ‘good thinking,’ but it’s basically a metacognition it’s an awareness of the biases and heuristics that can cause faulty thinking.

And that’s two months into the semester, it takes me half the semester to break down students to where I can start to build them back up again. ‘Well, okay, I’m biased and logical, what is the answer that question?’ This a science class, so the answer to that question is: ‘Science is a better way of knowing.’

But I’ve had students get really frustrated, they’re three, four weeks into the class, and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t trust anything, I don’t know what to believe, ah!’

And you know, they kind of have to have that little crisis to move on to something better. In real life with people who aren’t students, that is a much more difficult thing to do, right? I don’t have them for that period of time. And I can’t force them to go through the sequence. But on Thinking Is Power, what I’ve tried to do is something very similar. So I’ve called it foundations. And it literally goes through the sequence of my class, I’m building in the aspects of the class throughout. So it starts with believing and knowing and I—how do we form our beliefs, for example, and skepticism. And what is skepticism? And how might we be more skeptical? So toolkits.

Moving on through the modules, so if someone was interested in doing so, they could follow those sequence of steps, and hopefully, become better critical thinkers. Now, you can lead a horse to water, right? So not everyone’s going to want to do that. You have to be willing and motivated to do so. And that’s actually an important aspect of critical thinking, you don’t just have to have the skills to do so or the ability to do so, You have to have the motivation to do so. I would hope something like a pandemic and the kinds of things that we’ve seen over the past couple of years is motivation for a lot of people, and it seems to be people are really interested in learning more about how to think better, so that this was my attempt.

SHEFFIELD: I would say also, the responsibility isn’t only on educators as well, it’s certain other influencers in our society, particularly social media networks. And in your case, Melanie, you’ve had kind of a bad experience with Facebook, in particular. So you know, a lot of lot of people in my audience know that Facebook is filled with all kinds of misinformation and fake news and lies and profiteering. But they have so much stuff that they are trying to process all of it almost entirely, as much as they can, using computers and using what they call artificial intelligence. But the reality is, it’s not that smart. And so not only does it allow a lot of misinformation through, it also will sometimes catch people who are trying to debunk disinformation. And you yourself, have been victimized by that. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, I have. So I started my Facebook account just over a year ago, a Thinking Is Power Facebook and shameless plug, I would love for anybody to follow me on Facebook. I started sharing tidbits of information like I do on my website. And Facebook flagged me for—there was a post where I was trying to educate about what propaganda looks like and how to recognize it and the dangers of it. And Facebook flagged me as promoting dangerous individuals and hate speech.

And they put me in jail, Facebook Jail for two months. And when I got out, the site has limited spread. I don’t really know exactly what’s happening because, of course, they’re not very transparent. But the gist is, well, I appealed. They said no. Their Supreme Court—and so that started in what like, December or January. I put in something, a bigger appeal for the Supreme Court. And of course, this was the start of it and my site is tiny, tiny so they didn’t really care. They took five cases, they overturned four of them, and one of them was very similar to mine. Nevertheless, mine stood.

And to this day, people still get warned if they go to my site that I may violate their community standards. And recently, they continue to flag me. Recently, I was flagged for I shared one of my original fallacy graphics. Another one was, I shared a graph from the journal Nature about extinctions over time. And another one was a photo of potato diversity because I was trying to educate my readers on the value of crop diversity. So apparently, Facebook just keeps flagging me for stuff. And it’s been really difficult to build an audience when Facebook’s algorithms can’t seem to distinguish between education and actually dangerous material.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it’s really terrible. And this does keep happening to other people as well, unfortunately. So you can take a tiny amount of solace in that fact. But that’s really not much of a consolation (laughs). But yes, the social media companies have, in many ways failed their responsibilities to the public with that. But also, and you touched on this a little bit earlier in the show where you said that science education needs to be reformed. In terms of not just teaching ‘Well, this is how a cell divides,’ or ‘This is what a proton and an electron are’ to do more than just simply teach facts, but to actually teach how science works and why it’s useful, right?

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, most like, you go to a majors level, first class, and it will start the textbook with the scientific method. And it’s a series of steps. It’s like a recipe, you observe something and then you ask a question, and then you make a hypothesis. And then you do an experiment. And then you get done. And it’s like ‘I did a science’ and then you don’t see it through the rest of the textbook’s 600 pages. You don’t see it again.

First off, that’s not how science works. And so it’s disingenuous to present it is as that. And second, I think we really need to ask ourselves, as educators, what science literacy is. Is science literacy memorizing a bunch of facts? Now, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for memorizing facts, because there absolutely is, but especially those who are not going to be scientists when they grow up. And even in courses for majors. An understanding of how science works, is often overlooked to what we know.

And if we can’t distinguish between pseudoscience and science in the classroom, we won’t be able to distinguish between pseudoscience and science outside of the classroom. And unless we figure out what the process of science was, and so one of my goals is to encourage more educators to rethink how we think about science education, what science literacy is.

I, speaking for myself, science is critical thinking that you have to be able to critically think, to be a successful scientist. And so I assumed that I was teaching critical thinking in my classes, because of course it’s science. And it wasn’t until I blew everything up and started over again, that I realized that I wasn’t. I just, I really wasn’t, and I legit feel like I failed my students over all those years. I did try my best, but I didn’t prepare them for the pandemic, for example. And so with an understanding of the process of science, really trying to understand how the process produces knowledge, the different ways that science is done, the establishing of a scientific consensus, what that looks like, how to recognize it, how to find it. Pseudoscience is a great way to teach science, because they’re prevalent beliefs. They’re engaging for students, and it does help them see the difference. So yeah, I would love for more educators to rethink how they teach science. And I have an educators tab on Thinking Is Power with some ideas, including a write-up on my course. I’m hoping that site, that tab grows over time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s great. And I would say to those of you who are science educators watching currently, or listening later, that Flux, the media organization that our show is part of, we also are working on building a community with people who do teach or are interested in teaching about critical thinking to their students. So feel free to send me a direct message on Twitter or use the Flux.community contact form and drop a line.

So educators have a responsibility. Social media companies have a responsibility. And then also, there is a responsibility for government officials who operate in scientific agencies. I feel like they need to, they have a responsibility to educate the public about what they’re doing as well. And one of the kind of tragic things about her during the Covid-19 pandemic has been that some of the agencies out there have have engaged in misinformation. You know, very early on where they were telling people don’t go and buy masks. Instead of just saying why they didn’t want people to buy, and the specific masks that they were trying to get them not to buy.

And then not explaining to people that scientific uncertainty is okay. Because unfortunately, a lot of the public that doesn’t understand the scientific method and scientific processes doesn’t understand that in science, everything is subject to revision at a later date, nothing except for a handful of physical laws. And even those are as far as we know, so gravity exists, and it performs in this way, the law of gravitation. There are only a few handful of things that are assumed to always be true in our specific reality, so uncertainty’s okay in science and to scientists. But I feel like the government hasn’t really communicated that to people. Do you think so?

TRECEK-KING: Oh, I feel like that’s a bit above my paygrade. But I think it’s a really difficult situation, because the public isn’t very scientifically literate. And there’s messaging about, we’ve all seen the process of science play out in real time, over the last couple of years. I’ve seen people say, well, science is always changing its mind. Yes, I mean, what else are you supposed to do when you learn? Right?

I mean, your doctor, when you go to the doctor, they don’t cut you to bleed you anymore. Because we’ve learned, right? We learn things we change our mind, that’s a good thing. And science knows it doesn’t know everything. That’s why it doesn’t stop. The nature of scientific knowledge is that it’s never certain, as there’s a great Feynman quote, and I’m going to paraphrase again, but it’s something like there’s various scientific statements, all of which I have varying levels of confidence in, but none are 100% certain. And if you notice, even like the new IPCC report, what is this, the sixth IPCC report since 1988? And their language over time has evolved, it’s gone from certain that humans are causing climate change to virtually certain to, I’m going to forget their wording they use now, but they didn’t say, absolutely 100% confidence this is, because it never gets there.

Scientific knowledge is about reducing uncertainty. But it’s not about absolute certainty. And actually, that area right there, the difference between absolute certainty and very close to it is what denialists use. So they will demand an impossible level of proof before they accept the science. And in my opinion, they’re using one of science’s best characteristics, the fact that it leaves itself open for learning more, against itself. And they’re demanding something that will never, science will never achieve before they accept the science.

So we have to be careful about that. And then the public, you hear lots of well, ‘they must not know anything.’ Well, just because we don’t have 100% confidence doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything. And so what does the nature of scientific knowledge look like? How did we get it? How confident can we be in it, and then recognizing in ourselves why we don’t want to accept something.

So if someone, I focus on this a lot in my class, because it’s really about understanding your own thinking, if scientists are saying, we’re very confident in this conclusion, and you don’t want to accept that, and so you’re trying to find information that proves you right? Then what is that about you, why do you not want to accept that? Could they be wrong? Yes, they could be. The chance that some of this established science is wrong, is next to none. And I can guarantee that it’s not going to be a non-expert Googling that’s going to find the answer. It’s going to be another expert. So the government is trying to communicate messages about real-time science, to a population that is unfamiliar with how science works. And we’re all scared, right? Our lives have changed. People around us have gotten sick and died. We’re faced with literally life-threatening decisions. And we want certainty. We want to feel comfort. And this is where the hucksters step in. They offer that false premise, the false sense of empowerment. They tell you the government is wrong, scientists are wrong. SoI say it’s a no win.

SHEFFIELD: No, it is. And it’s, that’s why this is a shared responsibility that one particular person talking to their friend or even if all educators got on board and started doing, this is a shared responsibility. And so for people who are concerned about the spread of conspiratorial thinking and disinformation, telling the people that you know, that agree with you, that are not believing in conspiracy theories, getting them to understand the importance of teaching critical thinking. That is a thing that we can all do.

Let’s maybe talk briefly about your personal sort of experience and coming to all this. So you were, you were raised in an area of rural Iowa, I guess your your culture there was not particularly interested in critical thinking. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

TRECEK-KING: Yeah, so a little farming town in northwest Iowa, very small. Like, to this day, I don’t know how to parallel park, I learned to drive on a combine that kind of thing. So very rural, and it was, in many ways, a nice place to grow up. But I was raised in a church that believed that the Earth was 6,000 years old, and that women—God made Eve to serve Adam, and she was the cause of all sin in the world. And I didn’t really think that was very right. Nevertheless, I mean, that was what I was taught. And it wasn’t until I went to college. And I actually remember the moment really clearly, I was in a world civilization class talking about ancient civilizations and religions. And the professor was, the professor was talking about how different cultures based on their conditions, environmental conditions, cultural conditions, create a different gods to serve their purposes. I remember like a light bulb went off in my head. It was like “poof” ‘Humans made God, what an interesting concept.’ I hadn’t thought about that before. But it was a rough transition for me, it was definitely something I was primed to hear, because of how my church taught me I was sort of less-than for being female. I was hearing mixed messages at home from my mother, who was very keen on telling me that I could do anything I wanted to do.

SHEFFIELD: So, and in my own personal experience, having been raised in a very strict Mormon background, fundamentalist, if you would say, I think both of our personal experiences, they show that that it is possible to break out of bad thinking patterns that will lead to misinformation. So I think that is perhaps maybe one of the best arguments that we can make of why it’s worth keeping to do this. And to try to educate people about things.

TRECEK-KING: I would note that I’m not sure anyone could have changed my mind. In that I, I do wonder if someone tried to, like, for example, we were armed with all of the arguments against evolution. So had someone tried to present evolution to me, I had my “facts” so that I could go to battle. I had to come to it myself. And I had to come to it in the area where I was primed to come to it. So I’m just, in my own mind, trying to think about where other people are today and where—in the places where they believe something that isn’t supported by the evidence, how we can encourage others to come to it on their own time.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and then, briefly, as we get to the end here, let’s maybe talk about the idea of a few years ago, in the state of Texas, there was this controversy over the idea of teaching critical thinking to students, and some of the state legislators had this idea that somehow critical thinking was undermining of religion and was going to destroy the belief in their state. But that’s not necessarily true, is it?

TRECEK-KING: I mean, I don’t think so. I teach my students to be skeptical, not just of what you hear, but of your own beliefs. The biggest reason we fall for misinformation is because it confirms something we already believe, or that something that we don’t want to believe. So learning to be skeptical of our own beliefs can actually prevent us from falling for misinformation. But with that, if a belief is true, it will withstand scrutiny. So if you really believe that a belief is true, then scrutinize it, it will withstand scrutiny. If it doesn’t, then do you want to believe in things that aren’t true? That’s a question you have to ask yourself, I suppose.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I think that’s a great way, a great thought to think about there, Melanie. So I wanted to say thanks to everybody who’s been joining us for the live stream. And thank you for the questions everybody. And I want to again put up on the screen here Melanie’s information. So I’ve been speaking with Melanie TRECEK-KING, and she is the founder of Thinking Is Power and on Twitter, she is thinkingpowers with an “S” and your website is ThinkingIsPower.com. Thanks so much.

TRECEK-KING: And I do have a Facebook. Help me beat Facebook.

SHEFFIELD: Yes, yes, and she’s got the link on her website. So help Melanie fight back against the Facebook fake news.

TRECEK-KING: Thank you, Matt, for having me. I appreciate this.

SHEFFIELD: Thanks for listening today. Theory of Change is made possible thanks to people like you. If you’d like what you heard today, please be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and leave a nice review. That actually is really helpful.

And if you really want to support the show, please click on one of the donate links that are in the show notes. High-quality content doesn’t create itself. So you can really do something great from my standpoint by showing financial support. Theory of Change is part of the Flux media network. We’re a new media organization providing in-depth podcasts and articles about politics, religion, media, and technology. The website addresses is Flux.community. And if you’d like to visit the Theory of Change section, just go to theoryofchange.show and you’ll go right to the episode archives.

I’m Matthew Sheffield. Let’s do this again.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.