When I was a child, my great-uncle would tell me stories. One of those tales was about the Hoop snake, a terrifying local reptile that grabbed its tail in its mouth and rolled after people like a hoop. He also shared stories of the Blue Racer snake that could slither faster than a person could run.
Neither of these snakes actually exists, but guess what? I’m afraid of snakes! I’m not proud of it — there’s no scientific fact behind it — but there it is.
Opinions formed with false information — or no information at all — can have long-lasting, unforeseen consequences.
The definition of information literacy, according to the American Library Association, is the ability of individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”
Dictionary.com defines critical thinking as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” Where do we find that evidence and how do we know if we should believe it? We turn to peer-reviewed science.
You would think that access to the information highway known as the Internet would make this easier, but it appears to have muddied the literacy waters even more.
In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences published National Science Education Standards. The Academy stated, “Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences…Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.” (National Science Education Standards, page 22.) They go on to say, “Everyone needs to be able to engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about important issues that involve science and technology.”
I spend a substantial amount of time on social media for my job. There was a meme at Christmas that said, “Based on your Facebook posts, Santa is bringing you a Bible and a dictionary.” Santa might have wanted to include a basic science textbook, too.
I’m appalled at the number of people from all walks of life and income levels who simply read a headline, decide it does or does not support their inherent bias, and then share or refute it without ever bothering to read it. Never mind actually doing some background investigation to check its veracity.
NPR did a story in 2016 about tracking down a fake news creator who has made a small fortune turning out completely false stories for social media. He feels no guilt. He claims he puts obvious clues to their falsehood in his stories if people would only bother to check, but they rarely do.
Factcheck.org provides the following checklist for determining if a story is “fake news”: read beyond the headline; check the author; check the supporting evidence; check the date of publication and the dates referenced in the story; determine if it’s intended as satire; check your biases; and consult subject matter experts.
It’s too late for me — I will fear snakes forever — but you can take simple steps to limit your susceptibility to tall tales.
Information literacy is a basic building block of an educated, civilized society. Education is our business. We hope you’ll join us for summer or fall classes and we can conquer this monster together.