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.

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.