From politics to COVID-19, we have a big problem with false information on the internet. There’s been a lot of discussion about what platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can do to stop it from spreading, or if the government should step in to regulate those spaces. But there’s been less focus on the skills users need to sort through it all — skills that aren’t necessarily taught, at least in a formal way, in the U.S. education system.
Helen Lee Bouygues is trying to change that. She’s the founder and president of the Reboot Foundation, which teaches critical thinking skills to combat fake news. She said we’re just not inclined to second-guess information when it’s flooding our social media feeds. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Helen Lee Bouygues: It’s actually just a natural human reaction to not want to seek challenging views. And then the second point, there have been studies already conducted that if you are pounded by lies about the information, over time you actually do start believing it. So the combination of the two, obviously, really make it very difficult for people to think out of the box.
Meghan McCarty Carino: These kinds of skills aren’t necessarily regularly taught as part of our curriculum in U.S. education. So if it’s not a formal part of the curriculum, do you have recommendations for parents or teachers as they talk with students?
Lee Bouygues: When we’re teaching science or math, too often in schools, we just give the facts and get to the answer. But actually, the different types of experiences and different models and how you get to different answers, that kind of exercise in and of itself helps people understand their own way of thinking. So it’s very, very important for children, especially of younger age, that parents sit with their children, in terms of which websites they go to, and challenge what they’re reading. Because this is a skill that can be taught, but it’s not something that [is] innate.
McCarty Carino: And you’ve pointed out that in the U.S., even when it comes to students writing papers, they don’t necessarily have to provide the counterarguments, something that is a little different where you’re based in France, right?
Lee Bouygues: Absolutely. If you think about the logic behind that, the best way to improve your argument, and actually hone in on your own convictions and the way you write a paper is by thinking about opposing views and counter arguments that will help you better refine your own thinking. So by looking at counter arguments, you’re actually doing more metacognition also, which is obviously thinking about your own thinking, which is so important for critical thinking.
McCarty Carino: The people who come to you to use these tools are often teachers and parents, but also interestingly, police forces. Do you have different strategies for reaching an adult audience like this? Adults, I assume, may be less flexible in their thinking, compared to kids.
Lee Bouygues: You mentioned the police force. Yes. I was personally surprised when we had requests come in via our website from different organizations, including, for example, doctors organizations as well. Because today, in this faster-moving economy and environment, predictable analysis is much more difficult. And even look at this COVID-19 crisis — for businesses alone, how do you react when you’ve never imagined or planned an event where you might have to completely shut down your factory? So rethinking your business to address companies in a COVID-19 period. Same thing with police force or armies. They are requiring their communities to do more critical thinking as well, because with terrorist attacks, and in a more complex environment, you can’t really rely on just the basic way of thinking. And hence, for adults especially, the key tools for [improving] critical thinking are one, questioning assumptions, two, reasoning through logic — and not just opinion and emotions — and three, seeking out diversity of thought.
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