How education affects trust in science and evidence

Person holding smart phone with words "fake news" on the screen

By Tracey Burns

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

Those are the words of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He was referring to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the challenges it raises for science and evidence.

Think about it: Although there is an overload of information, there is still much that is unknown. Digital media allow for the spread of unverified “research” claims and the knowledge base itself is rapidly shifting as we learn more. The stage is set for disinformation and fake news.

Education has an important role to play in helping students, teachers and indeed the broader public understand what evidence to trust. The OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) brought together experts from across the world to discuss these issues.

Assessing the veracity of information on line is key

One of the big challenges teachers and students (and parents!) face during the pandemic is a flood of information. With the science evolving, the answers to such key questions as whether young children were particularly at risk for COVID-19 or whether they were more likely to spread the virus to others were initially unknown.

We must remember that this is part of the natural progression of science. When we are all anxiously looking for answers, however, it is not easy to understand what information to trust. Claims of miracle cures are promoted on digital media, and algorithms sort us into groups of like-minded individuals. Our own cognitive biases push us to look for arguments that confirm what we believe, rather than inform us of opposing arguments. The twin effects of greater access to information with less quality control have in some ways reshaped the policy and practice landscape in education.

This situation is exacerbated in times of crisis. Being able to assess the veracity of digital information quickly is essential, not only for designing policies and pedagogies, but for well-being and peace of mind. Luckily, this is a learnable skill: Media literacy helps children (and adults) to understand different types of media and the messages they are sending.

Children can be taught media literacy from the youngest ages. In Canada, for example, MediaSmarts has developed programmes like Break the Fake, which teaches four main skills for finding and checking the accuracy of information on line. It teaches children that it is imperative to verify information before sharing it. For COVID-19 specifically, they have rolled out Check then Share, which provides concrete tools such as a dedicated search engine to find information from trusted expert sources.

Being able to assess the veracity of digital information quickly is essential, not only for designing policies and pedagogies, but for well-being and peace of mind.

Taking aim at disinformation

The flood of information is not all benign, however. Unlike misinformation, which could simply be incorrect information forwarded unintentionally, disinformation is false or misleading evidence that is spread deliberately to deceive. It is particularly powerful in times of crisis because while science and research takes time, disinformation and conspiracy theories are quickly developed and disseminated.

Disinformation campaigns aim not only to confuse, but also to erode trust in science, to the point where facts no longer matter. A key motivation of disinformation campaigns is to bewilder and fatigue people, challenging the basic notion that it is possible to know “the truth”.

Fact checking is an important component of reacting to both misinformation and disinformation. In addition, gamification can help students learn key tips and tricks to identify and combat disinformation. For example, groups in the Netherlands and the UK have developed the Bad News Game, where players become fake news tycoons, gaining followers by spreading disinformation. Similarly, in the Cranky Uncle Game (currently in development), the player becomes a climate science denier, learning about strategies people use to mislead and misinform. The students love it because they play on their phone, similar to daily habits. While playing, they learn tactics that they can use in the real world. These games are designed for high school students and undergraduates, and there are also initiatives aimed at younger children – you can’t start early enough.

The importance of science, the courage to doubt

As the initial wave of the pandemic passes in many countries, it might be tempting to think that these issues will no longer be as important. But that would be a mistake – education and basic science literacy are more necessary than ever. Students (and, in fact, all citizens) must be able to understand how knowledge is produced and verified. They need to know that science makes mistakes and consensus takes time.

But when thinking about managing information, it is not enough to talk only about the quality of the evidence. We are human, and emotion also plays a part in how we interpret and understand research and evidence. We need to have confidence that while the science might be changing, it is still moving forward. We need to trust that our leaders are doing the best they can, informed by the available evidence. As the evidence shifts, so might policy responses. This is not a failure.

We can trust in science, and evidence. While it is evolving, we can acknowledge that we are not sure of the best course of action. We can have the courage to doubt. It is often considered political suicide to admit a mistake, or that a correction in policy is needed as more evidence becomes clear. It shouldn’t be.

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