Research on helping people resist misinformation

Research about “what works” in education is surprisingly thin. So it is good news for teachers and policymakers that multiple studies demonstrate that various approaches to help people resist misinformation do just that; they work.

One example comes from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). You may remember that SHEG documented how poorly most high school students are able to distinguish between fake or misleading online news sites compared to accurate sites. In one summary (2016), Stanford researchers summed up students’ ability to reason about information on the internet in one word: “bleak.”

To address this problem, SHEG developed a set of Civic Reasoning Online curriculum materials. A recent evaluation involving more than 3,000 students showed that those who used the SHEG materials grew considerably more in their ability to evaluate online sources than a control group of students who did not use the materials. Education Week published an article about this study last month.

As we developed our free one-week unit for grades 6-12, Resisting Scientific Misinformation, we based the materials on a number of high-quality studies about helping people resist misinformation. For example, a 2017 study demonstrated that educating people about misleading argumentation techniques, such as are often used by advertisers and climate change skeptics, helps reduce the influence of those techniques. Another study found that if people know what a high percentage of climate scientists agree that human beings are the major cause of climate change they become better able to resist climate change misinformation. And we relied on other studies, too.

In short, there is good reason to believe that teachers can help students resist scientific and other types of misinformation. This goal is critically important at a time when social media spreads misinformation at an alarming rate.

We wish that authors of the Next Generation Science Standards had focused far greater attention on teaching students to be “careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives,” as urged in A Framework for K-12 Science Education, the template for the NGSS. Misinformation of all kinds, notably including scientific misinformation, has become a far more serious problem since that Framework was published in 2012.

There are somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 teachers of science in grades 6-12 in the United States. By anyone’s reckoning, only a tiny fraction of them now focus on teaching students how to distinguish between science fact and science fiction. That is a shame. If national or state science education standards emphasized the importance of teaching students how to judge the quality of information they encounter, a far larger number of teachers would focus on this important topic.

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