Learning to discern fact from faux news

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BRATTLEBORO — There's an interesting and timely experience unfolding in Michael Auerbach's Environmental Science and Policy class at Brattleboro Union High School.

His students are studying issues regarding climate change and global warming, among other topics, and have been reading from a variety of resources.

Earlier this semester, a guest speaker pointed out a quote from a text that had been attributed to the Environmental Protection Agency. It stated that despite our best efforts, we'll end up making no significant difference in the warming of our planet. It turned out, though, that the citation was inaccurate.

"Now this is where most people just continue on with their reading," Auerbach said. "They don't go to the reference cited in order to verify the statement. We checked it out and in this case, it turned out that the author was quoting a Heritage Foundation article about the EPA report and not the report itself. That's a big difference."

He shared, "I think it's very daunting for teenagers who are scientific neophytes to discern what may be true [when reading] what one group says versus another group. I often see two outcomes: one is that you take your professor's word for it, which I resent. I don't feel anyone should be able to just spoon feed somebody their liberal or conservative politics or scientific opinions based on their own points of view. The other outcome is that students simply choose to continue believing what they have already come to believe. I want students to investigate how we can really tell if something is valid and truthful."

Springboarding from this, Auerbach selected articles with differing views on a variety of climate change issues. He assigned both pro and con articles to pairs of students and asked them to explore the citations listed in them. They had to determine if the citations were deemed trustworthy based on a ranking system that awarded the highest score to government reports, peer reviews, and assessment reports, followed by mass media, and then followed by reports published by various think tanks. Students then located the citations and, in reading them, determined if "the articles cited were actually used correctly by the authors who cited them."

His students performed this task on over 100 articles and, in doing so, discovered that the pro side, those who believe that humans are causing global warming, scored significantly higher in their ranking system than those with the con point of view.

"We discovered a significantly higher usage of sites that were deemed not legitimate and, in fact, some that had been discredited, in the articles that disagreed with the notion of human causes of global warming."

Continuing this investigation, he and his students next conducted interviews during a recent weekend in downtown Brattleboro, asking people three questions: where do you get your news and information? How do you tell if the information is reliable? And do you have an opinion on climate change, and if so, when did you arrive at that conclusion and what was it that led you to that conclusion? They found, not surprisingly, that few people utilized resources considered to be "spot on," according to Auerbach. "The majority of people said they got their news online or from listening to what their friends have to say, and a number of people said they relied primarily on social media as the basis for their information gathering."

Auerbach believes this investigative procedure, seeking the veracity of things we read and hear, is a useful skill for all of us in our current world of information overload. "From my point of view, what could be better and more timely than knowing you're sending people out into the world with a toolkit that they can continue to use, providing a process to discern things they can trust from things that they can't. I think this is something that a lot of Americans could use right now."

Timely, indeed.

Colette Anton, a West Dover senior in Auerbach's class, appreciates the importance of this form of investigative learning. "It's made me consider the fact that when you read something you believe was attributed to the EPA, for example, that you immediately jump to reliability and credibility, when this may not be case at all." She went on to say, "I think it's harder today to determine if something is true or not. "Everyone's biased and I think we often check the news as a way of reinforcing our own beliefs. I have a liberal viewpoint and I find it often hard to consider a more conservative one. I think it's very important, especially in science classes, to be sure that what you're reading is actually correctly cited and accurate. I've found this process to be very helpful."

Her current focus in Auerbach's class is in "regenerative agriculture, which is the process of re-constructing the organic matter in our soil to help us return to the way that ecosystems occur naturally. 40 percent of our topsoil is gone, worldwide."

It's worth noting that Auerbach's students are taking this class for dual credit, both high school and college. Environmental Science and Policy is one of the many Windham Regional Collegiate High School courses offering dual credit, in this case through an agreement with Marlboro College. The Windham Regional Collegiate High School offers more than 50 such courses in partnership with both the high school and the Windham Regional Career Center and in conjunction with a number of area colleges.

Paul Cohen is a consultant for the Windham Regional Career Center and the Windham Regional Collegiate High School. He can be contacted at pcohen@wsesu.org.

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