Teaching in a post-truth era


“Post-truth” was chosen by the Oxford dictionary as its word of the year in 2016, but what exactly does this concept mean and why is it so important?

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Post-truth (aka, post-fact) is described as an adjective "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." This means that people are more inclined to believe things that feel true even though there is evidence stating otherwise. 

Schools must help students deconstruct what they see on social media and learn how to look for evidence, even if the data does not support the desired claim of the student. Objective evaluation skills free of bias are more critical than ever in times like now, which are filled with facts and evidence by the scientific and academic field. But students, faced with so many options and different points of view on topics, may easily fall into choosing those that reinforce their own viewpoints, or they may follow the lead of friends who decide for them what to believe through their postings on social media. 

While post-truth has been around for years, the internet exaggerates its effects due to a commonly-used algorithm that creates filter bubbles that isolate the user from important data and information. These filters use past internet selections of the person targeted to offer similar articles or information to those that the user clicked or liked before. By doing so, it reinforces the same ideas and limitations of the user's past experiences, effectively isolating him or her from a wider horizon of information. This filtering technology is found everywhere, commonly in social media and internet searches. 

In a perfect world, the algorithms would offer a range of articles with different points of view but, because these do not, it falls to educators to ensure that the students are exposed to comprehensive points of view in balanced selections and give them the tools to evaluate different positions of argument.

study by Sam Wineburg at Stanford shows that students do not possess the skills to detect bias and fake news nor to evaluate claims of authenticity. Another survey by Joseph Kahne of UC Riverside and Benjamin Bowyer of Santa Clara University showed similar results: students prefer to seek evidence that aligns with their own beliefs and ignore the evidence that supports opposing views. 

One way that educators can help students deal with this post-truth era is by teaching critical media literacy. This pedagogy encourages students to question texts and social media posts and look for bias that filters or eliminates other points of view. This is not to say that truth and sets of truthful knowledge do not exist; the idea is to teach students to be much more rigorous and objective toward supposed truths and understanding. Students must learn that evidential facts exist and must use critical thinking skills to consider them logically.

A critical literacy approach should also teach students to consume and contribute to knowledge collaboratively. Through extensive research projects and learning about bias and propaganda, students will come to think, evaluate, and reflect on the sources they wish to share. By becoming unconfused citizens in an advancing world, students will see themselves as compelling agents of change in society rather than passive consumers of information that is often not correct.

Moreover, by trying to teach students to reason and use evidence, educators rise to the challenge of sustaining the principles of democracy. By teaching students to weigh facts, consider different views, form an opinion, and then articulate it, educators equip students to respond to those who disagree with them in ways that avoid polarization. 

The post-truth era is nothing new but the algorithms that exaggerate bias and polarize politics in the world highlight that teaching excellent debating and critical literacy skills is more critically needed than ever before.