The last two presidencies have been the most trying of my political and professional life. It has been a challenge to disentangle the racism and visceral hatred far too many Whites held for President Obama from his legacy as our first Black president. I witnessed firsthand families, marriages, friends, and communities torn apart. The Trump administration has been marked by a dramatic increase in racial tensions, hate crimes, and white supremacy, with the nation regressing rather than progressing in terms of humanity and honoring cultural differences in society and educational settings.
I have frequently found myself using the word “emboldened” in the last few years to capture how much more empowered racists have become. In this climate of hatred, peddlers of news that is intended to deceive and even incite have become similarly emboldened. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, an alarming 68 percent of adults at least occasionally get news via social media, even while a majority of them doubt its authenticity. Students of all ages have similar difficulty evaluating the credibility of what they read, view, and hear.
For scholars, wading through this cloud of untrustworthy minutiae in the news, social media, and even peer-reviewed journals takes intentional effort and resources to find what is credible and valid. Here are a few guiding principles I rely on to stay informed and decrease my chances of being bamboozled and brainwashed:
As part of the annual release of the 2020 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, Education Week reached out to a handful of influential scholars from this year’s rankings to find out how they stay informed.
Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year’s new Edu-Scholar data by the EdWeek Research Center.
1. Listen to both sides. Any intelligent scholar should be able to listen to both sides of a position and form her own opinion. After I understand each side, I avoid hearing or reading the interpretations of others through news commentators, Facebook comments, or tweets for at least several hours. Without my mind filled with the questionable and polemic views of others, I am better able to tighten up my own interpretations.
2. Assume that the news is unreliable. I start with the assumption that the information I encounter on social media is false or misleading. From there, I continue to listen and read widely to draw my conclusions. We can’t hide from social media, but we can be critical of what and who we view to avoid misinformation.
And this misinformation is not limited to online communication. I am alarmed at the number of refereed journal articles and studies that have been published despite significant flaws in theory, literature review, methods, design, and interpretation.
3. Adopt critical and logical thinking strategies. I am a staunch advocate of methods and models that promote thinking at the highest levels, including Bloom’s Taxonomy and the scientific method. Such strategies include comparing and contrasting, critiquing reliability of sources, conducting studies and experiments, interviewing others, participating in debates, exploring multiple viewpoints, and more. We can and must teach our children how to find and interrogate fake news—and many of us must learn the same lesson as adults.
4. Seek out neutral experts. Finding such scholars can be challenging, but they exist. I have more trust in the information authenticity of scholars who are clearly trying for objectivity and impartiality rather than pushing an agenda. I also study scholars’ resumés or vitaes and other relevant experiences to determine if they have professional or personal experience on the topic at hand. If their portfolio is weak, I waste no time listening to and reading about them.
5. Look for motive and intent. Our spirit of discernment exists for a reason. While pursuing degrees in communication, counseling, and educational psychology and dabbling in cultural anthropology, I learned to always look for the stated and unstated intent of what is said and how it is said. When I understand the motive—be it on social media or in scholarly outlets—I am better equipped to decipher reliable scholarship from all the noise.
Regardless of our age and profession, we are bombarded with an astounding and immeasurable amount of information from social information on TV, advertisements, computers, tablets, and cellphones. There is no escape, so we must be intentional and proactive about arming ourselves, our children, and our students with strategies to be critical thinkers. In the words of the United Negro College Fund from nearly half a century ago, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as How to Tell the Scholarship From the Muck