Joe Nathan

It’s a great story, but is it true? That’s what I’ve wondered about something a statistics professor told me years ago. Recently I’ve thought often about that story. And I’ve read several studies insisting that young people need help determining “what’s true.”

Let’s start with the professor’s story. He described a race involving two cars from different countries. A newspaper story allegedly appeared which did not explain how many cars were in the race. It praised the local car for placing second. It pointed out that a car from the U.S. placed next to last.

Both statements were accurate. However, as the professor pointed out, there were only two cars in the race. The U.S. car was first (next to last). The other country’s car was second.

I’ve often cited this to help illustrate how statistics can be manipulated. However, recently I’ve spent hours seeking an online reference to the story. Can’t find it.

That leads to several studies that are online. One was published in May 2021. It was written by Stanford University researchers who challenged 3,446 American high school students to determine what’s true about some assertions found on social media. The researchers state that the group of students “had been carefully selected to match the demographic makeup of the American population.” (A summary is available here: tinyurl.com/68jfm4e9.)

One of the tasks in the study asked high school students to determine the source of a video that appeared on Facebook. The video claimed to show ballot stuffing at a national U.S. political convention. The researchers say that the video actually showed voter fraud in Russia, not in the U.S. But only three (yes, three) of the more than 3,000 students were able to find the video’s source.

Based on this and other results, Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group wrote: “This study is not an indictment of the students — they did what they’ve been taught to do — but the study should be troubling to anyone who cares about the future of democracy … We have to train students to be better consumers of information.”

To help students with this, a 2017 article titled “Turning Your Students into Internet Detectives” contains what I think are free, valuable resources. Families might try some of them this summer. Educators might use them in the fall. The article is here: tinyurl.com/smsn ndhy.

The article describes several tools that students and families can use to check facts. One is Fact Check.org, created by people at the University of Pennsylvania.  Another is called Snopes, www.snopes.com, which allows people to submit questions.

Can we trust people at Stanford, Edutopia, Fact Check and Snopes? Just because someone works at a college or university does not mean the person is unbiased. Some of the most questionable studies I’ve ever seen were produced by university faculty. And claiming to be nonpartisan does not mean it’s true.

However, I’ve used the sources mentioned above and find them credible. I hope readers will try one or more of these websites and share your reactions.

Some readers will recall the story, which apparently comes from India, describing blind men who touch an elephant. Their description of the animal depends on whether they touch the elephant’s tusk, tail, leg or trunk. (This story is found on many internet sites). The story is used to conclude that “truth” sometimes is complicated and complex.

The two-car story, whether it actually happened or not, is an important reminder. Facts can be used to mislead and misrepresent. And sometimes information is presented that is not factual.

Here are two things I think are true: Youngsters need our help figuring out how to determine what is accurate, and the tools described above can help.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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