Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 5, 2018

Teaching skills to combat fake news and misinformation

In any major, UW students learn to evaluate sources, use texts responsibly and understand the impacts of information. The rise in fake news and misinformation creates an even greater need for these skills, in and beyond the classroom.

At the same time, the topic itself can be an effective and timely way to engage students. Some instructors have been incorporating fake news and misinformation into their courses so students develop critical thinking skills and, in some cases, come up with concrete solutions to the problem.

“Calling Bullshit” arms students at the UW and beyond with tools to spot BS, wherever it appears

photo of Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom

Jevin West, assistant professor in the Information School and Carl Bergstrom, professor in Biology. Photo credit: Quinn Russell Brown.

“Our world is saturated in bullshit,” begins the syllabus for INFO 198/BIOL 106B, the cross-listed “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World,” designed and taught by Carl Bergstrom, professor in Biology and Jevin West, assistant professor in the Information School. The course’s objective? To help students “learn to detect and defuse it.”

Bergstrom and West have been collaborators for years, and had long talked about a problem they both noticed in STEM higher education: in Bergstrom’s terms, that “We do a really good job teaching the mechanics of subjects. But we’re not teaching students to engage with uncertainty and weigh different arguments against each other. That’s a really big problem because it makes us particularly vulnerable where numbers are concerned.”

So in winter 2017, they decided to create a course that would teach habits of mind more commonly connected with Humanities fields — engaging uncertainty, questioning evidence — to STEM students. But almost as soon as the course launched that spring, it became something much bigger: a course about approaching information critically, applicable to any discipline.

Meeting a need for BS detection skills — and going viral

“Calling Bullshit,” first offered as a one-credit course, attracted students from a wide range of disciplines. When Bergstrom and West taught it a second time, in fall 2017 as a full-fledged three-credit course, enrolled students represented over 40 different majors.

photo of lecture on laptop

The “Calling Bullshit” website makes course lectures available for public viewing. Each video is under ten minutes, making them easy to watch and share. Photo credit: Shantelle Liu.

And its impact has extended well beyond their classroom — far beyond the UW. Before launching the course, Bergstrom and West created a robust website with all course materials accessible to other institutions and to the general public. The course has gone viral, with new courses being explicitly modeled on “Calling Bullshit” at over 70 universities and high schools around the nation, and across the disciplinary landscape. West says they’ve been surprised and excited to hear from so many people —students, teachers, retirees — who have watched their lectures, read course texts and found the course interesting and valuable. In under two years, the course’s Twitter account has garnered over 8,000 followers — and the course website has been viewed 1.5 million times.

Empowering students to detect BS, in any field

The course’s learning goals make it easy to see why the course is filling a need for so many students at so many institutions; these include, “Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet,” and “Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.”
So, what exactly is the “bullshit” that students most need tools for detecting? Bergstrom and West say it’s that which cloaks itself in what we’re often inclined to treat as “truth”: namely, “statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener.”

As their students discover, detecting bullshit is no easy task. “We give them a set of rules for calling BS,” says West, “like ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.’ Students feel empowered when they can spot this stuff.” Students are asked to bring in examples of bullshit when they encounter it in daily life. For Bergstrom and West, the goal is for everyone to become effective bullshit detectors.

And these skills have enormous value for students, including in their future careers. “When we talk to big companies, they want people who have these skills to look at a whole situation, take a proposal that’s on the table and evaluate and challenge that, in a quantitative domain,” says Bergstrom. “It’s an absolutely crucial part of STEM education — and really, of all education.”

Jackson School Task Force tackles the international problem of fake news and misinformation — and offers solutions

In the Jackson School for International Studies, students have a unique opportunity to enact real change on a pressing social issue: participation in a Jackson School Task Force. In winter 2018, a task force tackled fake news and misinformation — producing a 100-page report, now accessible online and contributing to the academic conversation on the issue.

photo of Scott Radnitz

Scott Radnitz, associate professor of International Studies and adjunct associate professor of Political Science and Sociology. Photo credit: Shantelle Liu.

“The New State of the News: Confronting Misinformation in the Digital Age” was designed and taught by Scott Radnitz, associate professor of International Studies and adjunct associate professor of Political Science and Sociology. Task forces, offered every winter quarter to seniors in the International Studies major, are themed around real world problems. Students collaboratively research and write a detailed report directed toward policy makers, and at the end of the quarter, gain professional experience through defending their findings to a visiting subject matter expert.

Engaging students around an urgent and timely topic: U.S. and global disinformation

Radnitz, a political scientist, studies the post-Soviet region; three years ago he started working on a book about the central role of conspiracy theories in post-Soviet states’ politics. “It’s a different way of dealing with media in that region,” he says, “when you don’t know what you can trust.” But something has recently changed, he says: conspiracy theories and fake news have also become more prevalent in the U.S. He decided the issue — urgent, currently unfolding, and international in scope — would be prime task force material.

Radnitz suspected the topic would be of special interest to students as well — and he was right. “Students are engaged in this issue personally because they’re avid social media users,” he says, “but also because everyone was so immersed in the 2016 presidential election, following the revelations about fake news as they came out. In some ways my students aren’t that far behind the experts, because everyone’s trying to catch up and figure it out.”

photo of Jackson School’s winter 2018 Task Force

The Jackson School’s winter 2018 Task Force: “The New State of the News: Confronting Misinformation in the Digital Age,” allowed students to wrestle with this complex issue while developing research and professional skills. Photo Credit: Franceska Rojas.

For students, the task force’s timeliness imbued it with a sense of high stakes — and also helped develop their research skills. “Considering the immediate nature of fake news and misinformation, we had to keep track of the new material and developments that were emerging every day and basically work in real time,” says participant Oleksandra Makushenko, class of 2018. “It provided experience in teamwork, crisis management and working under a strict deadline.”

A multi-faceted problem requires a multi-faceted approach

In task force courses, students research an aspect of the larger issue, and then write a section of what becomes a comprehensive report. “Fake news is a pervasive problem and needs to be tackled from different angles simultaneously,” says Radnitz, so the class decided on three angles early on:

  • Individual and Collective Psychology
  • Business and Technology
  • International Case Studies and Governance
    For each topic, students outlined the problem — for example, for topic A, the individual and social forces that make people susceptible to misinformation. For each topic students also make practical recommendations — for example, for topic B, on how pressures might be placed on businesses to limit the spread of misinformation.

    Some students took international angles to their research. The report includes a comparative case study on public trust of the media in three different countries, and a section on how the Ukrainian government has responded to Russian disinformation. Radnitz says that early on, the class decided that their audience should be policy makers, academics and the U.S. public — in order to help us “learn lessons for how we can confront this problem at home.”

    Developing student expertise — and contributing real results

    At the end of any task force, an expert in the field visits the class for an evaluation and defense of their findings — in Radnitz’s course, former CNN Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty. After thorough preparation, students presented their work to Dougherty, and then responded to her questions for over an hour. The benefit of an expert’s on-the-ground perspective, and the experience of withstanding scrutiny on their research, are part of the unique professional development that task forces offer to Jackson School majors.

    “Probably the most important thing I learned,” says Makushenko, “is that there is no easy fix for complex problems. It takes time, committed people, substantial resources to address something that is broken in a holistic manner.” Fortunately, some of these committed people are at the UW. Radnitz says he will likely teach a version of the “The New State of the News” for his next task force. “The issue isn’t going anywhere,” he says — and UW Jackson School students have expertise that can make a difference.

    In required writing courses, students learn to critically evaluate information

    All UW students, no matter their major, take a course in English composition. In the Expository Writing Program, where most students take a 100-level English course, students learn that writing, reading and research have everything to do with critical thinking: about the information that surrounds us, how arguments are composed, how evidence is used and how context affects meaning.

    “A big part of the work we do in the EWP is teaching students how to effectively collect, evaluate and interpret sources in order to support their writing,” says Denise Grollmus, former EWP assistant director. “This has become increasingly important in light of the prevalence of fake news. We focus not only on how students can learn to evaluate information, but also how we can use the issue of fake news to teach these evaluative techniques.”

    While EWP instructors — mostly graduate students in the English department — design their own curricula, all EWP courses share common learning outcomes. These focus on writing but also on habits of mind, including “engaging in analysis — the close scrutiny and examination of evidence, claims and assumptions — to explore and support a line of inquiry.”

    Some EWP instructors use fake news to teach exactly why these skills are so very important. Matthew Hitchman, EWP instructor and assistant director, introduces students to the research process with fake news. “I try to move beyond the dichotomy of reliable/unreliable sources, because ‘reliability’ often reads as ‘academic,’” he says, and students should get comfortable using different types of sources. This means that inevitably, students will encounter bad information — so Hitchman begins his research sequence by giving students a range of real, faked and satirical sources to evaluate. They then analyze the sources’ context, credibility, purpose — and finally, their biases. Hitchman works with students to carefully define terms such as ‘fake’ and ‘misleading,’ “which are quite distinct from ‘bias,’” he says. “It’s important to learn that while sources should be scrutinized for forms of bias, there are some types of information that shouldn’t be entertained
    at all.”

    In addition, says Grollmus, “because even the most reputable sources can still get it wrong, EWP instructors ask students to consider the credibility of a source’s citations. We ask them to consider whether an article includes a diverse set of sources, for example, and what the exclusion of certain voices might mean. Our hope is that by training students in these evaluative techniques, we’ll help them become more critical readers and thus better informed citizens.”

    To ensure that these values stay central to all EWP courses, staff are currently drafting new program mission statements that address pressing social issues, including fake news and misinformation. “It’s an issue that asks all of us to think about sources, be discerning readers and see rhetoric as something with impact and the potential to do harm,” says Emily George, EWP assistant director.

    Most students take a composition course through the EWP in their first year; as they continue on as readers and writers in various fields, they carry these skills with them. At the UW, “critical reading, writing and thinking skills aren’t limited to first year composition, or even to the classroom,” says George. “They’re part of every student’s general education.”