Mixed Salad of Thoughts

Sunday, September 03, 2017

I was recently in an online healthy, plant-based eating group were someone posted an article that purported that Amish people (who don't get vaccinated) have less autism, cancer, and other diseases. While on it's surface it seemed to support eating habits similar to those of the group, the article was fraught with lack of clear evidence/sources, tautologies, and false cause fallacies. 

In fact I commented as follows before the thread was shut down:
The only source cited (without links or references) is the dubious " journal Cancer Causes and Control " then reference to some Ohio State study that (if it even exists)I GUARANTEE might have at most made conjecture about causal relationships, but NEVER would have said "Here's Why..." as the click bait article does.
Reading threads like this help me realize why I teach, and why our curriculum focuses on teaching kids to read with purpose and read critically. In in 2nd grade we teach the students to look at an article like this and determine the purpose-- is it to 1.Entertain, 2.Inform, or 3.Persuade? Obviously this article wants to present itself as an Informational text, but when we look closely we can determine that the author definitely has an opinion that is clear, and that they want us to share: We should live in several ways like the Amish: NOT getting vaccines, and eating more whole, unmanipulated foods. That's fine, we don't dismiss a Persuasive text, we evaluate it CRITICALLY to determine if it is a strong, logical argument and if there is enough evidence to support it.

In third grade we begin having students cite their work, they must include (at the very least) the title of the piece and the page or paragraph number for the source as well as using quotation marks around the author's words. This is a critical step in determining if information belongs to an outside source or the author of the article. (Something notably missing from the Amish/Anti-Vaccination piece) 

In fourth grade we begin having students use two pieces of text to build background knowledge, compare, and determine if the accounts match. A student might read an informational article on wolves then a narrative story and be asked, "Is this a realistic portrayal of a wolf?" This pushes them to begin questioning the text in front of them. Begin to determine whether or not it can be trusted. 

In Middle School we begin  teaching logical fallacies. Did the author make a blanket statement about a group or concept that cannot hold true for all? That's called a generalization. There is not enough data to support the statement and one need only find an outlier to prove it false. (My favorite of these was Trump's statement "No one knew health care was this complicated" ...pretty sure a few people would say they knew.) Generalizations also happen when someone uses a stereotype or small sample group to generalize about the entire group. They happen more frequently when the group is the less powerful, less predominate group. So while we see white-supremacists chanting how they hate minorities we do not assign those virtues on all whiles, but when an individual or small handful of a minority group do something it is more likely to be generalized about their entire group. We teach students to recognize these generalizations that are so insidious that they are often held as fact or believed to be statistically supported despite a lack of data.

 Closely related is a fallacy called "Begging the Question" in which something is stated as fact or a premise for an argument that has not actually been proven: Blacks are better atheletes, Urban schools are inferior, or Grandparent are wise. These "facts" are not at all facts and if an author bases an argument on them, the entire argument is based on a weak foundation that has not been proven.

We go further with our students in the last years of Middle school in demanding they look at two articles on the same topic and present why one is stronger or weaker than the other. We start with them dissecting the article based on it's use of qualified sources and clear citations. Does one have better sources than the other? Are all the sources listed in a way that we can go and read them for ourselves? Does the author make it clear when they are quoting work and when they are speaking for themselves?
Then we ask students to look for generalizations and false causation logic. Does the author use generalizations (and are those generalizations necessary to prove the argument) or do they connect two things to say one caused the other without clear evidence beyond that one happened first?

Then we ask them to really read closely, line by line, and ask: Are there ANY claims that are stated as fact that are actually opinion, and if so, do they back up those opinions with expert opinions or logical evidence? If they do not have an outside expert, do they establish, by way of their own experience, credentials, or personal research, that their claims are valid?

Finally, does the author address counter-arguments? When they do so do they adequately disprove them without resorting to personal attacks, dismissals, or other logical fallacies (strawman, bandwagon, appeal to emotion, etc.)

All of the above take place in the English classroom instruction, supported by progressive instruction in Science and Social studies that show students HOW a study should be conducted and what evidence is needed to support a conclusion. In these classes they learn how others have done research as well as the successes and failings of humanity over-time. They learn how history has proven the dangers of falling prey to "Bandwagon", "Divide and Conquer," "Slippery Slope," and "No True Scotsman" speakers who have moved crowds, turned votes, and committed atrocities.  They learn the concepts of marginalization, and dehumanization. They learn the best and the worst of what humanity has been. 

In classes throughout these grades they learn to discuss and debate with their texts and with each other. They learn to respectfully disagree and then state why, supported by evidence, or pointing out the error in thinking. They learn to rationally discuss concepts and ideas in ways that lead, not to being "right", but to the even better feeling of having new clarity and insight into an idea and developing their own ideas into well-formed arguments.

And hopefully, if we have done our job well, they go on to continue this critical thinking in High School and College and for the rest of their lives, as they become voters and parents and leaders in our community. Hopefully they learn how to recognize and tear down false claims and how to speak up against those that would spread them.