Information Age Education
   Issue Number 148
October, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

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

Robert Sylwester
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 100-meter races).

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 decisions.

Daniel Kahneman

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.

Alex Pentland

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 (Pentland 4/5/2014):

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 societies.

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 own group.

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 incentives."

Curricular Elements

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:
  1. 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 requirements.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. Students should learn how to become rationally effective in discussion when they criticize decisions they consider to be inappropriate or wrong.

  5. 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.
Final Remarks

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.


Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. See also an IAE Newsletter review of the book:

Pentland, A. (2014). Social physics: How good ideas spread–The lessons from a new science. New York: Penguin.

Pentland, A. (4/5/2014) The death of individuality. New Scientist. Retrieved 10/6/2014 from


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:

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