Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth (Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew)

Sam Wineburg is a professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Sarah McGrew is pursuing her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford.

This commentary  appeared in Education Week, November 1, 2016.

Did Donald Trump support the Iraq War? Hillary Clinton says yes. He says no. Who’s right?

In search of answers, many of us ask our kids to “Google” something. These so-called digital natives, who’ve never known a world without screens, are the household’s resident fact-checkers. If anyone can find the truth, we assume, they can.

Don’t be so sure.

True, many of our kids can flit between Facebook and Twitter while uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to using the Internet to get to the bottom of things, Junior’s no better than the rest of us. Often he’s worse.

In a study conducted by Eszter Hargittai and her colleagues at Northwestern University, 102 college students went online to answer questions about things that matter to them—like how to advise a female friend who’s desperate to prevent pregnancy after her boyfriend’s condom broke. How did students decide what to believe? One factor loomed largest: a site’s placement in the search results. Students ignored the sponsoring organization and the article’s author, blindly trusting the search engine to put the most reliable results first.

Research we’ve conducted at Stanford University supports these findings. Over the past 18 months, we administered assessments that tap young people’s ability to judge online information. We analyzed over 7,804 responses from students in middle school through college. At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.

One task asked students to determine the trustworthiness of material on the websites of two organizations: the 66,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics, established in 1930 and publisher of the journal Pediatrics, vs. the American College of Pediatricians, a fringe group that broke with the main organization in 2002 over its stance on adoption by same-sex couples. We asked 25 undergraduates at Stanford—the most selective college in the country, which rejected 95 percent of its applicants last year—to spend up to 10 minutes examining content on both sites. Students could stay on the initial web page, click on links, Google something else—anything they would normally do to reach a judgment.

More than half concluded that the article from the American College of Pediatricians, an organization that ties homosexuality to pedophilia and which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, was “more reliable.” Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics never uncovered the differences between the two groups. Instead, they saw the two organizations as equivalent and focused their evaluations on surface features of the websites. As one student put it: “They seemed equally reliable to me. … They are both from academies or institutions that deal with this stuff every day.”

Ironically, many students learned so little because they spent most of their time reading the articles on each organization’s site. But masking true intentions and ownership on the web has grown so sophisticated that to rely on the same set of skills one uses for print reading is naive. Parsing digital information before one knows if a site can be trusted is a colossal waste of time and energy.

This became clear to us when we gave our tasks to professional fact-checkers. Three strategies separate checkers from the rest of us:

  • Landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing checkers did was to leave it. If undergraduates read vertically, evaluating online articles as if they were printed news stories, fact-checkers read laterally, jumping off the original page, opening up a new tab, Googling the name of the organization or its president. Dropped in the middle of a forest, hikers know they can’t divine their way out by looking at the ground. They use a compass. Similarly, fact-checkers use the vast resources of the Internet to determine where information is coming from before they read it.
  • Second, fact-checkers know it’s not about “About.” They don’t evaluate a site based solely on the description it provides about itself. If a site can masquerade as a nonpartisan think tank when funded by corporate interests and created by a Washington public relations firm, it can surely pull the wool over our eyes with a concocted “About” page.
  • Third, fact-checkers look past the order of search results. Instead of trusting Google to sort pages by reliability (which reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how Google works), the checkers mined URLs and abstracts for clues. They regularly scrolled down to the bottom of the search results page in their quest to make an informed decision about where to click first.

None of this is rocket science. But it’s often not taught in school. In fact, some schools have special filters that direct students to already vetted sites, effectively creating a generation of bubble children who never develop the immunities needed to ward off the toxins that float across their Facebook feeds, where students most often get their news. This approach protects young people from the real world rather than preparing them to deal with it.

After the vice presidential debate, Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweeted, “Unfortunately for Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Google exists (and we aren’t stupid).” Yes, Google puts vast quantities of information at our fingertips. But it also puts the onus for fact-checking on us. For every political question swirling in this election, there are countless websites vying for our attention—front groups and fake news sites right next to legitimate and reliable sources.

We agree with the tweet from the Clinton campaign. We’re not stupid. But when we turn to our screens for information and answers, we need to get a lot smarter about how we decide what’s true and what’s not.

18 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

18 responses to “Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth (Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew)

  1. Pingback: Diigo links 11/21/2016 – DrAlb

  2. Andy Felts

    Bravo!

    It can get worse–our political system instelf is subject to what Robertson and Epstein term “Search Engine Manipulation Effect.” Empirical research they conducted using a doctored, fake search engine so as to be able to maniupulate the list demonstrated that where political candidates were placed in search results (higher or lower on the list) could significantly influence their opinion about candidates.

    Google thought the article both valid and serious enough to merit a response where they claimed they of course would never dream of doing such a thing.

    Rather than being a powerful machine to disseminate knowledge, since anyone can pay to have their site moved to the top of the list we should not be too surprised if students turn in papers that are increasingly detached from any factual base.

    AAF

  3. How do we teach students to properly fact-check? I imagine that many teachers would be stumped in the same way as the Stanford students. In the field of history the “facts” have changed over generations due to different interpretations and analyses of primary documents, new discoveries, and ever-changing power dynamics in society. What may seem heresy to one generation becomes gospel to the next. The marginalized viewpoints become mainstream. I cannot tell if this process of historical “vetting” is helped or hindered by the proliferation of opinion-based sites that do not present themselves as we may want them to.

    I am also curious to find out how historical facts might be compromised in standardized testing if the emphasis is not on the knowledge itself. I admire Hirsch’s work on “core knowledge” and I wonder if a universal knowledge based curriculum might help us better examine what’s out there.

    • larrycuban

      Nice point you raise about facts at one time may not be facts at another time because of historical interpretation. Seems to me that your last paragraph challenges your first one. Still the question you raise in the first sentence needs to be answered. Thanks for comment.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    The results don’t suprise me that much – they are in line with e.g. the EU Kids research program – but these strategies fact-checkers use are very helpful:

    -> Landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing checkers did was to leave it. If undergraduates read vertically, evaluating online articles as if they were printed news stories, fact-checkers read laterally, jumping off the original page, opening up a new tab, Googling the name of the organization or its president. Dropped in the middle of a forest, hikers know they can’t divine their way out by looking at the ground. They use a compass. Similarly, fact-checkers use the vast resources of the Internet to determine where information is coming from before they read it.

    -> Second, fact-checkers know it’s not about “About.” They don’t evaluate a site based solely on the description it provides about itself. If a site can masquerade as a nonpartisan think tank when funded by corporate interests and created by a Washington public relations firm, it can surely pull the wool over our eyes with a concocted “About” page.

    -> Third, fact-checkers look past the order of search results. Instead of trusting Google to sort pages by reliability (which reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how Google works), the checkers mined URLs and abstracts for clues. They regularly scrolled down to the bottom of the search results page in their quest to make an informed decision about where to click first.

  5. Pingback: Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to th...

  6. GE2L2R

    I found the comments from two of the members of the American College of Pediatricians that were critical of the original post by Weinburg and McGrew that appeared in ‘Education Week’, November 1, 2016 interesting and enlightening. It occurred to me that members of an authentic professional organization would not have found it necessary to take the time and make the effort to defend their organization’s credibility.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment.

    • abcdef

      Back when newspapers still existed, I read the following advice to writers of letters to the editor: Make yourself the representative of an organization.

      Just invent a title for yourself, such as “Vice President, Oregon Chapter, Society for the Preservation of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus,” and claim the spurious authority that will flow from the readers’ assumption that the organization is as grand as its name. No one need know that the membership is limited to you and your cat.

      Clearly, the American College of Pediatricians has done exactly that.

      Sadly, it still works. It is easier to check out the grand name today than it was then, but no one bothers.

  7. JL

    Actually, I find this article very interesting. While I do not question students’ lack of critical analysis (as I experience it first hand), I find myself wanting to play devil’s advocate. This article presents the American College of Pediatricians as an evil, unreliable source because of their view on homosexuality? Now perhaps there are far more serious issues at play here. However, that is presented as THE reason to discredit anything that their members might post on a wide variety of medical issues. I personally am not familiar with either organization. Though I am now curious enough to research both of them a bit further and make my own informed decision (because I DO think critically), I find it funny that an article on reading/researching more deeply doesn’t offer any anything more critical than the organization’s POV on homosexuality to support its own POV that it is an unreliable source. Maybe it’s truly awful–but that one point shouldn’t stop someone from reading further before making their decision. For what it’s worth, I am not supporting homophobia–some of my best and closest former students are BGLTQ.

    • larrycuban

      I will pass on your comment to Wineburg and McGrew. Thanks for taking the time to write.

      • Dear JL, Thank you for your comment. The issues with the Am. College of Pediatricians go well beyond differences of opinion on issues of homosexuality. They, for example, have columns suggesting that the letter P go before the acronym LGBT to stand for “Pedophilia” (no research in the medical field supports a statement that befits the benighted 1940s — “P for Pedophile,” June 15, 2015,” website of the American College of Pediatricians, http://www.acpeds.org/p-for-pedophile.). The former director of the National Institute of Health, F. Colllins, MD, railed against the organization for their misuse of his research: “It is disturbing for me to see special interest groups distort my scientific observation to make a point against homosexuality. The American College of Pediatricians pulled language out of context from a book I wrote in 2006 to support an ideology that can cause unnecessary anguish and encourage prejudice. The information they present is misleading and incorrect, and it is particularly troubling that they are distributing it in a way that will confuse school children and their parents.” The ACP also came under fire for misquoting the research of Gary Remafedi, MD, of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, who wrote that his research on gay youth had been “hijacked” the ACP, who “deliberately distorted my research for malicious purposes.” City Pages, May 26, 2010, “University of Minnesota Professor’s Research Hijacked,” http://www.citypages.com/news/university-of-minnesota-professors-research-hijacked-6725473. The Southern Poverty Law Center labels the organization a hate group, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/11/13/meet-anti-lgbt-hate-group-filed-amicus-brief-alabama-supreme-court

        The American College of Pediatricians is a splinter group from the American Academic of Pediatrics that broke around issues of adoption by same sex couples. The former has 200-300 members, one staff member, offers no continuing professional development, and has no established refereed journal that is widely quoted. The latter, the AAP, is a big tent, in fact the largest organization of pediatricians in the world, with 64000 members, 450 employees, publishes the esteemed journal Pediatrics, and is widely respected for its positions on everything from bicycle helmets to SIDs. I think most people would see profound differences in the credibility of these two organizations and the information they offer on their respective websites.

        Thank you again for your comments, and I hope I have shed some light on this issue. Warmly, Sam Wineburg

      • larrycuban

        Thanks,Sam, for replying to comment.

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