Children  may turn into copy-and-paste (from online to mind) information junkies if we don’t’ teach them to think scientifically.

Fake news works because our minds are lazy; they subconsciously rely on shortcuts to make quick decisions, accept too much at face value, and if something is familiar is also safe.

Our minds are not blank slates; they are eager to assimilate new information in their world view, a projection of their self. What we call the self is simply a story, a story that we continuously write and rewrite in our minds.

How would a secondary school student (let’s call her Jane as “familiar is safe”) assimilate new information if she comes across anti-vaccination Facebook pages well curated by parents of one of her friends, an anti-vaccine campaigner? The pages present a well-argued claim linking childhood immunisation to autism. The claim quotes a research paper published by a British doctor in 1997 in Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, which suggested that measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is increasing autism in British children.

 Jane is fluent in social media, but it doesn’t mean she is also an expert in judging the credibility of online information. She cannot dismiss this false claim as hogwash as she doesn’t know that the Lancet article was an elaborate lie and was retracted by the journal in 1998. A slew of studies now shows that vaccines are safe, effective and save lives. Besides, vaccination is not a personal choice; it’s a social responsibility.

The way Jane’s impressionable mind will filter and shape the anti-vaccination information will be influenced by immediately believing that the “facts” come from a familiar source, a friend’s parents, and accepting the “authoritative source” at face value. Behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman would describe Jane’s experience as the phenomenon of “what you see is all there is”, the cognitive laziness of assuming the facts to hand is all the information you need.

In his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman (he won a Nobel Prize in economics, but he never attended an economics class in his school or college) talks about the “halo effect” (that first impressions can overwhelm subsequent information). Anti-vaxxers have got one more recruit to continue their pseudoscientific cause as the myth is likely to persist in Jane’s mind even when she reads about the new research.

Science education is not merely a matter of teaching new ideas, but more important is teaching how these ideas become accepted by scientists. A sensational news item on new research finding students may read in a popular media doesn’t mean the study result has been automatically stamped “proven by science”. Science advances unpredictably, not linearly in a series of eureka moments; one scientific study often disputes the other, sometimes followed by the third that contradicts both. An idea is labelled truly “scientific” only when it has earned the consensus among the majority of scientist in that particular field. Even then it can be challenged by other scientists. Theories of science are continually being added to and updated.

Like most of her friends, when our hypothetical Jane gets out of bed, she reaches for her smartphone and checks her social media feeds. There is no time to process and synthesise new information; it’s all copy (from online) and paste (on mind).

Students all run the risk of turning into copy-and-paste information junkies if they don’t’ learn to think scientifically, that is, think critically. If in their science classes, students discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted, feedback, they tend to do better. Parents and teachers should create this kind of learning environment even before the kids learn to tie their shoelaces. It is easy as young children are naturally curious and they frequently ask how and why questions. These children will be free from naïve intuitions and false beliefs.

In an article, “Online and Scared”, in The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman, a renowned commentator who has won three Pulitzer Prizes, writes that the mass of our interactions has “moved to a realm where we’re all connected but no one’s in charge”. He suggests teaching children that “the internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, where they need to bring skepticism and critical thinking to everything they read and basic civic decency to everything they write”.

Interestingly, a recent research study, “Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief”, published in the respected journal Science shows that regardless of their religious background, the subjects who were encouraged to adopt an analytical stance in solving problems reported significantly reduced religious convictions compared with people who didn’t receive the same clues.

Don’t let your lazy mind come under the “halo effect” that the results of one scientific experiment will make you lose your religious faith. Scepticism and critical thinking will let you examine your intuitions and beliefs in different ways.

© Surendra Verma 2019

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