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This is the second IAE Newsletter
in a new series devoted to the educational issue of credibility and
validity of information.
Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 2: Determining Credibility
through Subjective Means
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The previous article in this series suggested that future students will
become personally responsible for determining the credibility and
validity of increasingly complex cultural and scientific phenomena. In
an earlier era that had fewer mass media outlets, as well as the
difficulty of correcting printed errors, those responsible for the
production and dissemination of information tried to insure breadth and
validity/credibility in the information they produced.
Today’s students face the complexity of assessing the credibility and
validity of subjective beliefs (as in the humanities and gymnastics
competitions), and of objective beliefs (as in the sciences and in
For much of human history, priests and rulers determined what was true
and moral. Several hundred years ago, the belief that we think
individually and rationally emerged within Western governments and
cultures. The rise of representative democracies supported the belief
that we are freethinking rational individuals, and that majority
decisions can best represent governmental and cultural credibility.
Let's examine current thinking on the credibility of subjective
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013),
that our initial response to imminent danger or opportunity is our
innate emotionally-driven rapid reflexive response strategy that
Kahneman calls System 1. If, however, the challenge is complex but not
imminent, we may use a delayed reflective System 2 response strategy
that uses rational thought processes. The two systems in balance
provide a typically useful means for self-preservation and a
qualitative life. The key task is to know which system is better with a
given challenge. Our K-12 curriculum is more tuned to mastering System
2 than System 1.
This dual response system is reflected in our government's
organizational attempts at checks and balances. For example, the House
of Representatives is perhaps somewhat like System 1 responses to
issues, but the more deliberative Senate and count system are more
oriented to System 2 responses. Note how often fear of imminent
consequences is inserted into issues to quickly activate System 1
responses before folks take the time to rationally think out the issue.
The issue could probably be solved by negotiated rational discussion,
but many seem to prefer an emotionally-driven reflexive response.
As our country has grown from about four million to well over three
hundred million people and the issues confronting it became
increasingly complicated, it's perhaps not surprising that political
parties representing broad differentiated beliefs emerged to take over
the analysis of issues, and many citizens found it easier to simply
identify with a political party (or a religion or other cultural
commitment group) that came closest to their beliefs. The belief that
we rationally and individually respond to complex challenges is thus
probably not correct. We're a social species and so we must also look
to how a society itself makes decisions.
The concept of Social Physics emerged from the respected work
that MIT professor Alex Pentland has done to study how individuals and
groups make decisions. His perspective is probably best represented in
his book, Social Physics: How Good
Ideas Spread–The Lessons from a New Science (2014).
The social sciences have historically depended on such indirect means
as surveys and observations that sometimes push the bar on both
credibility and validity. Recent advances in mobile digital technology
provide stronger and more direct evidence of human decision-making and
behavior within our social environment.
Big data from mass media and
social networking can now describe what we actually do (a process
called reality mining) rather than what we say we do. Quoting from
Recent research is beginning to uncover the degree to which we act as
independent individuals. By combining big data from cellphones, credit
cards, social media and other sources, we can now observe humans in the
same way that biologists can observe animals in their natural habitats
using cameras or sonar. From these observations of people, we can
derive mathematical rules of behaviour – a "social physics" that provides a
reliable understanding of how information and ideas flow from person to
person. This social physics shows us how the flow of ideas shapes the
culture, productivity and creative output of companies, cities and
Pentland discovered that we're group-oriented rather than
self-oriented, tending to adapt our behavior to the behavior of our
peers rather than to think and function individually. That's perhaps
not surprising since we tend to associate with compatible folks. It's
easier to copy those we trust who have invested time and effort into
mastering something than to individually learn everything from scratch.
What kinds of groups are the most creatively productive? Those in which
the members tend to be both cohesive within their group and interactive
with diverse others outside of the group, not limiting their
explorations to one biased side of an issue. By getting a sense of how
others view the issue, they can positively affect those within their
Pentland thus believes that "…it's time that we dropped the fiction of
individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognize that our
rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric.
Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining
the public good. Indeed, research has now demonstrated that people are
much more influenced by their social networks than by individual
We are thus rationally autonomous individuals, but we're also
part of a social species that's highly dependent on the knowledge and
skills of others. We are capable of independent thought and decision
(as our country's founders believed), but many of us also trust the
judgment of those whose understanding we consider superior (leaders of
our political parties for example). Most of us realize that others may
not always agree with us, but we're sometimes willing to go along with decisions that we independently consider wrong.
This sports analogy might be useful. The NBA Playoffs include the best
athletes in a very demanding game. A panel of three referees determines
fouls, and fans are impressed by how players respond to incorrect calls
that are typically shown via screened replays that fans and players can
see. The fans tend to boo the referees but the players tend to play on.
They consider the panel of referees as basically credible even when
they're obviously wrong. Win one, lose one. Play on. It's a position
that we also take when we pay taxes for some government activity of
which we don't approve.
That's probably the way to think of the subjective credibility of a
majority vote in a democratic society. If folks think the decision is
manifestly wrong they can challenge those who made the decision in
public forums, appeal to a higher court, or wait until the next
election when repeal/replacement is a possibility. Otherwise, just play
on and pay your taxes.
The curricular reality is that K-12 schools are going to have to
prepare students to cast a wary eye at the credibility of what they
read and hear in increasingly biased niche-driven media. Students will
have to master the requisite rational and demographic analysis skills
in addition to the skills needed in their own credible discourses with
peers. That doesn't mean that students should ignore biased sources,
but rather that they should recognize that biases are now broadly
promoted as credible.
The acceptance of subjective democratic processes suggests that a
curriculum that hopes to teach students how to respond to subjective
credibility should include the following general concepts:
We're a representative democracy and qualified voters have the
right and obligation to vote and the right to run for elective offices
that don't have a precluding minimum age requirement and other legal
It's irrelevant how voters arrive at their vote, whether by
independent study and rational thought or through a trusted friend's or
political party's advice. Each voter subjectively determines personal
credibility. Our Constitution has back-up systems to quickly or
eventually change grievous majority errors (such as it did with slavery
and universal suffrage).
Respected scholars provide useful information on how humans make
decisions individually and collectively. Media formats provide
alternate perspectives, either biased or unbiased (depending on one’s
personal view). Trusted friends can provide another perspective.
Learning to recognize and respond to the varieties of subjective bias
is a major task for folks who hope to live in an effective democracy.
Students should learn how to become rationally effective in
discussion when they criticize decisions they consider to be
inappropriate or wrong.
It's important for citizens to know when a credible majority
actually exists. Polling techniques and statistical analysis have
improved much in recent years, but even today many polls lack
credibility because the research processes they use aren't valid.
Individually and in groups, we are being bombarded by a rapidly
growing accumulation of information. Some information is subjective,
some is objective, and some is a mixture of the two. The credibility of
information sources, as well as the credibility of the information they
present, can often be difficult to determine.
We need to educate today’s students to be aware of these difficulties
and to consciously work to overcome them, both in their own learning
and in their communications with other people.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent
books are A Child’s Brain: The Need
for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy
(2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit four books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a
monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire
2000-2009 run. Contact information: email@example.com.
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