by Marsha Rakestraw

The media is full of “truths” about people and issues. Many of these “truths” are incomplete, inaccurate, biased, misleading, and otherwise lacking context and the bigger picture.

As humane educators and changemakers, it’s important that we’re offering accurate information and thinking critically about what we’re exposed to — and teaching others to do the same. But when we’re exploring global ethical issues, the challenges can be threefold:

1. Finding credible, relevant resources can be daunting.

2. We’re often faced with resources from a variety of stakeholders who may be using bias, framing, or other strategies (consciously or not) to sway readers to their viewpoints. Since bias is a part of almost every resource, how do we determine what resources are most credible? How do we determine what’s “true”?

3. When we come across information that contradicts (or seems to conflict with) our beliefs — what we’ve come to accept as true — it can be a struggle not to respond in a closed or defensive way. Studies have shown that when we encounter information that disproves a belief we have, instead of accepting the new information, we can become more strongly set in our beliefs. How do we maintain awareness and openness, considering this “backfire” effect?

Here’s a two-part exercise that’s useful for humane educators and changemakers. Do it yourself, and then adapt it for your own humane education work.

First, read/view these resources to gain some context and insight:

Battling Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. (TEDx talk, 14 min.)

Try This: Correct Misconceptions by Education to Save the World. 11 February 2014.
(Note that this strategy is for the classroom, but the ideas are more generally applicable, including for ourselves.)

How to Separate Fact & Fiction Online by Markham Nolan (TED talk, 13:29)

Beating the ‘Backfire Effect’ by Marsha Rakestraw. 9 March 2015.

Remember that in considering the accuracy and credibility of sources, it’s important that we question sources we’ve found credible in the past, so that we’re ever-mindful and conscious about our information choices.

If you use an activity like this with students or those unfamiliar with how to evaluate sources you may want to direct them to resources such as this guide to evaluating information sources or a technique such as the one outlined in the Be A C.R.I.T.I.C. activity.

Next, choose one of the following to investigate (if/when you do this with others, you can have them report back on their experience):

  • Choose a fairly recent news story (within the last two years) related to one of the humane topics you’re most interested in — something that mainstream society tends to believe to be true. Now dig deeper into that issue to uncover the truths (and any inaccuracies, oversimplifications, intentionally misleading information, etc.).
  • Choose two sources (such as news articles) that include conflicting information on the same topic. Do some research to determine what information is accurate, and what information is incorrect, skewed, oversimplified, etc.
  • Often we limit our understanding of a person to the one “truth” that has been taught to us over the years. Choose a well-known person (contemporary or historical) about whom there is a generally-believed “truth” in mainstream society. Then do some research to flesh out a broader picture of that person. Does what you find confirm that truth? Contradict it? What are some additional major truths about that person?
  • Choose a belief you have, whether about something you read, were told, saw in the media, or have adopted without personal research, and, through research using accurate, credible  information examine its validity with commitment and vigor. (Consider, for example, what beliefs and assumptions you have about your own and other cultures, religions, species, political parties, socioeconomic groups, “facts” learned in school, etc.) Consider what you learned and how what you learned might change your future decisions.

Then think about how you can bring this attention to accurate, credible information, to thinking critically about information, and to our challenges with “truth” to your students/audience, as well as your own work.


Image courtesy of Daveblog/Flickr.