PERSPECTIVE: Fighting 'fake news' - The myth of 'information literacy'

by John Richard Schrock The Thunderbolt was a publication of the American Nazi Party. I saw my first copy my first year of teaching in rural Kentucky in 1969.

Before class, a high school student showed me a copy, careful that no classmates were nearby. The feature story was an outrageous claim that African-Americans were more closely related to gorillas because they could produce hybrids and white Aryans could not. The article had a picture of a very hairy black infant to “prove” the case.

I recognized the picture. I wrote the term “hirsutism” on a slip of paper and sent the student to the library with instructions to look it up in the World Book encyclopedia. When he came back, after class was over he came up and whispered: “They lied, didn’t they.” I nodded. He had found the encyclopedia entry on the wide range of infants that have this rare hirsute condition and realized how the neo-Nazis had fabricated their racist article.

We did not use the term “fake news” in 1969. We had fake news, but it was slow to spread in print, and readership was small.

Today with social media, such fake news could “go viral” overnight.

Today, both K–12 and higher education are rushing to battle fake news with so-called “information literacy” courses that have magic cures for detecting the range of amateurish didn’t-quite-get-the-story-right misinformation to vicious falsehoods, such as the example above.

Librarians are often called upon to sort truth from trash. That is ironic because before the internet, library materials were classified: 500s and 600s were the pure and applied sciences. The occult was in the 100s.

But our misunderstanding of free speech has kept the Internet free from classification. How dare anyone put vaccines-cause-asthma or dolphins-are-just-underwater-humans in the non-sciences.

So the Internet has become a vast wasteland. I let my student teachers discover this themselves. I assign them to find 10 accurate websites on the Internet in some specific biology field that they choose: kidneys, ferns, fish, etc. They think it will be an easy assignment, but it takes hours or even days.

They have more than 40 credit hours of biology under their belts and they detect website after website that looks good — until they read the details. Tips on search words and other literacy tricks have little effect.

A study in the journal Pediatrics found the majority of online information on childhood diarrhea was wrong, and sometimes fatal. and sites are no more accurate than addresses.

A most damning piece of research came from the University of Connecticut. Seventh-grade students were taught to become “research pros” by using RADCAB, a “critical thinking assessment tool for online information” teaching about Relevance, Appropriateness, Detail, Currency, Authority and Bias.

The Connecticut study directed students to use RADCAB on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website. The students found that the Tree Octopus website passed all the tests for authority, citations and other criteria (the Ph.D.s and journals were fake, however).  But when an actual expert was brought in to explain how the octopus only lives in the sea, nearly all of the students rejected the expert.

They now had “ownership” of this falsehood.

This would not have happened if the students had actually known something about an octopus. To combat fake information in the future, citizens are just going to have to know more content.

To return to the neo-Nazi Thunderbolt article I described at the beginning, my ability to de-fuse that terrible lie came directly from my having read through the World Book encyclopedia in fifth grade and then recognizing the picture more than a decade later.

Without that knowledge and our unique ability to recall faces and photos for long times, I would have had to resort to an authoritative “believe me” explanation that would not have undermined the legitimacy of the claim.

Abstract “information literacy” lessons don’t work. If there was any god-like truth-detector, we would all be using it.

Simply, any assertion that schools can teach students a method to separate truthful reporting from fake news, is itself “fake news.”


John Richard Schrock is a distinguished biology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas.  This column first appeared in the Crowley Courier Traveler and is published here with permission.