young classroom students working on computers
Image courtesy of minasi.

by Zoe Weil

Ever since I was a child, I’ve heard the injunction “Don’t believe everything you read.” This has been a warning that’s been difficult for me to heed. By nature I’m very trusting. I expect that others will tell the truth just as I endeavor to tell the truth. But years of study, research, graduate school, and the influence of my scientist husband, who’s the best critical thinker I know, have honed my own critical thinking skills, and I’m pretty good about not believing everything I read.

It’s even more important in today’s world – with “facts” at our fingertips through our various electronic devices – to be vigilant about assessing the truthfulness, accuracy, and bias of the sources to which we are quickly led when we seek information.

Let’s say that you are a high school student asked to do a report on Martin Luther King, Jr. And let’s say that you Google “Martin Luther King,” as I just did. The first URL that came up was Wikipedia. The second was his biography on the Nobel Prize website. The third was, presumably a non-profit (.orgs are usually not-for-profits) dedicated to King and his work.

If you were a student you’d likely eschew Wikipedia, because you’ve been told to by your teachers, even though Wikipedia is often far more accurate than other sites, crowdsourced as it is. You might skip over the Nobel Prize site because it represents just one award in his life (albeit a great one). And there’s a good chance you’d land at the third site.

It turns out that is a front for a white supremacy group, but you’d have to dig into the site to find this out. Clicking on a link for “The Creativity Movement,” that’s found on a PDF document, (or clicking on the small “Hosted by Stormfront” link at the very bottom) leads you to websites for an explicitly white supremacist movement. It’s likely that many students wouldn’t get that far, instead taking the pop quiz on the home page and “learning” all sorts of things about Martin Luther King, Jr., brought to you by a white supremacist.

It’s always been too easy to be misinformed, manipulated, and misled, but in today’s world it is even easier. Which is why teaching our children how to think critically, to research, to identify sources, to corroborate information, and to be truth-finders, not simply truth-seekers, is paramount. Without these skills, they will too easily be swayed by those sources that tell them what they want to know – of which there will be many.

This is another reason I always tell my students: Don’t believe a word I say.