Friday, February 1, 2013

Hoodwinked by Facts

 Is the Truth out There?

by Karen Hamilton - Monday, July 5, 2010, 07:06 PM

While it is true that the web allows anyone to be a knowledge provider and inevitably leads to more and more information that we as users must sift through, the technology or Web 2.0 is not necessarily the problem. Technology may serve to amplify the problem. For me it is wholly a question of critical thinking skills and that, hopefully, is one of the most important skills that should be gained from education.

Moon Hoax 1835
Humans have been hoodwinked, bamboozled by false facts from the beginning of time. Do we trust print or media? In 1835 Benjamin Day's New York Sun ran a series of six articles that captured the nation's attention. There was life on the moon and Sir John Herschel, well known astronomer said it was so. The moon was full of bison, goats, unicorns, and bat winged humanoids who built temples. People couldn't wait for the next edition. Using the grandiose scientific language of the time, the story was so popular that it was reprinted and circulated in both local and national papers. After the story had its desired effect, it was revealed as a hoax. The great Moon Hoax of 1835 had done its job: increased circulation. And in 1938 when Orson Wells on the day before Halloween broadcast his War of the Worlds drama on radio causing panic amongst listeners who believed aliens were invading, there was the inevitable outcry against the evil and dangerous broadcast industry. Here we go again.

Do we trust what we see in the news, when their driving force is often, “If it bleeds it leads?” Can we trust a textbook? Pick up a textbook from the 50s and check how much of the so-called facts still add up. If we look at a home economics textbook from back then, we would certainly know that a woman’s place is in the home baking cookies and having babies not worrying her pretty little head with matters such as these. Knowledge isn’t a static kind of thing. It’s subject to revision. An authority today may not be the authority tomorrow.

That’s not to say that there is not more to consider in light of user-generated content and knowledge that is collectivized. But to me what it says is that education is more important than ever and it’s a teachers job to provide students with the experience of sifting through the muck to find the good and trustworthy bits. The search is important.

Instead of banning the use of sites like Wikipedia, students should be taught how to get to the truth of what is posted. There is no putting the genie back. The students are on the net; it’s our job to harness the powers of it and help show them a critical eye. Constructivists believe that students should build their own knowledge. Web 2.0 gives that opportunity as students and teachers can deconstruct and recreate original content and share it. With contribution, also comes responsibility. Should we discourage the collective contribution? I think not, but teaching thinking is never easy. In college many times students come prepared to memorize facts and they haven’t always been encouraged to think. It’s our job to get them questioning things. From what I’ve heard in K-12 it is often about answers set in stone. But even so called educated people can have narrow thinking when they expose themselves to only one side of an issue.

Would our students become relativists believing that it’s all equally true and believe that there is no real truth because of all the information that they can’t weed through? Would they believe that it all depends on one’s point of view? In my experience of 20 years teaching college, I have to say I haven’t found a lack of opinion. A problem more often is belief in things just because they are on the net or in a book, or “so and so said”. The courses I teach all address the media, so if I can’t get across the importance of critically evaluating any evidence no matter the media, then I haven’t done my job. But with all of us a creators also comes responsibility. As potential authors, students and contributors should learn to evaluate the consequences of what they post. In this way, the learning opportunity expands even further.

To me, what the web offers is neither a wondrous vision of the collective unconscious nor the gates to Dantes Inferno; it’s a complicated place that needs careful examination. We must examine not only content but also the meanings of all these words: knowledge, authority, expert, trust, fact, independence, reality, truth, credibility, wisdom and how they relate to both old and new technologies. It’s all about thinking, critical thinking.

Maybe we need a course on Prankonomy..

“Take and be taken. There's a skeptic born every minute. Every man a mountebank, every man a mark! These are your new commandments, O children of Barnum, Borat, and Blair Witch. The source of hoodwinkery has shifted from the all-powerful (ad agencies, governments, MTV) to the tweeting masses—and lo, charlatanism is democratized. …Still, it's sometimes hard to distinguish a prank from a scam, a sham from a fraud, a Nigerian prince from Prince Albert in a can.”
See Wired’s Guide to Hoaxes: The Official Prankonomy


Brown, S. (Aug 24, 2009).Wired's Guide to Hoaxes: How to Give — and Take — a Joke, Wired. Retrieved from

O’Reilly, T. (Sept 30, 2005). What is Web 2.O, Retrieved from

O’Reilly, T. & Battelle J. (2009). Web squared: Web 2.0 five years on, Web 2.0 Summit. Retrieved from

Wesch, M. (Jan 31, 2007). The machine is us/ing us. Mwesch:YouTube. Retrieved from

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