Resisting scientific misinformation

A year ago we posted a free, one-week curriculum unit for grades 6-12 called Resisting Scientific Misinformation. To date there have been over 3,000 downloads. Last week The Science Teacher published an open-access article about our materials, which we hope will result in additional attention to and use of the materials.

Helping students resist scientific misinformation is one of the important missing pieces in the NGSS. As we developed the curriculum materials, this missing piece became an impetus to look for other missing pieces and to write the white paper posted on this site.

It was interesting to learn recently that accepting misinformation is a bigger problem in the United States than in many other nations. As a Boston Globe article reported:

“Nearly 10 percent of the online stories followed most closely by readers in the United States in December came from [untrustworthy news] sites…. Enthusiasm for these sites in the United States far outstrips that of [France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom]. The British are especially resistant; news from unreliable sites made up just 1.2 percent of the most-followed stories among British Web surfers.”

As you might expect, there are a variety of ways to help students with the problem of misinformation; unfortunately, none of them are addressed directly by the NGSS. One approach is to use technology-rich services that help users separate information from misinformation. For example, one can install software from NewsGuard, a startup that evaluates the trustworthiness of Internet news sites, including whether the news site identifies its owners, backers, and authors of articles. A green check mark appears for users who install the software in their web browsers.

Snopes is an easy-to-use website that has evaluated thousands of claims for accuracy, which includes a list of the “hot 50” rumors circulating online. Checkology describes itself as “a browser-based platform where middle school and high school students learn how to navigate today’s challenging information landscape by developing news literacy skills,” and it includes lessons educators can use with classes. A basic version is free, while a premium version requires a subscription.

This list of technology-rich resources to help users sort information from misinformation could be greatly expanded. We use some of them and we’re glad they exist.

At the same time, students need to learn how to judge for themselves the thousands of dubious science-related claims that appear on social media, on TV or radio, or elsewhere. New claims appear all the time. Using our unit (free online), teachers guide students through evaluating for themselves a number of “scientific” claims, some of which turn out to be valid, and others not. The materials focus on four approaches to evaluating claims: a better understanding of advertising, including ways some advertisers try to fool you; asking the right questions about a dubious claim; understanding more clearly how scientists reach their conclusions (including the vital role of such institutions as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention); and distinguishing between more and less reliable sources of scientific information.

The unit concludes by asking students to investigate a dubious claim by using appropriate websites, and then writing a short synthesis of their findings. Again, we find the NGSS is lacking in asking students to investigate claims for themselves, even such timely issues as the risks and benefits of teenage vaping.

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