Michael M. Ego Fact or fiction — a litmus test

November 14, 2018

A report by the Brookings Institution offers evidence that previous research has demonstrated that most modern presidents have told lies for a variety of reasons.

However, “when a president continues to insist that his previous false statements are true, the institutions of government become corroded and democracy is undermined.”

In September 2018, the Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump vastly exceeded the lies of previous presidents as he has made more than 5,000 false or misleading claims. These lies undermine public confidence in President Trump and American government, increasing public cynicism and jeopardize important political, economic, race, gender, social, and health policy implications.

I started an exercise several years ago at UConn Stamford for every class that I was scheduled to teach, and typically includes students who are not Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) majors in the course. On the first day of the semester, I pass out the “accuracy and credibility checklist,” that lists potential sources of information, and asking the students to rank from 1-3 (one representing high and three being low). The items include Fox News, CNBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Stamford Advocate, New York Daily News, National Public Radio, Friends, Neighbors, Parents, Relatives, Scholarly journals, Clergy, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Time Magazine, TMZ, and the Rate-my-Professor website. Then, I initiate a discussion of the choices that the students have made on the checklist.

Observation One: very few read a hard-copy newspaper, but some check online versions occasionally. Observation Two: Social media is the primary source of their information.

Then, during the next class, I offer what I would describe as a “teachable introduction to research methods.” I emphasis in my one lesson on research methodology the “source” of the information. Is the information based upon research, or someone’s opinion? If it is based upon research, what is the source? Is it a reliable source? Is the information accurate? Peer-reviewed research studies? Was the research valid (did the study examine what it was supposed to measure)? Was the sampling done in a scientific matter or a convenient subject pool? Since social media is the primary source of information for undergraduate students, would they be able to use these factors to determine if the information was fact or fiction? I am hopeful that my efforts will be fruitful for the students, but there is no guarantee that one lecture can meet its objective.

An undergraduate student faces many challenges to succeed at the university and their personal life, as well as meet societal expectations. It is my belief that one litmus test that will be an enabler to students, as well as the general public, is their ability to decipher fact vs. fiction by knowing the basics of interpreting information sources and to facilitate their judgments accordingly. It will also enable the students and the public to defy lies made by President Trump and others (both Blue and Red news stories).

Michael M. Ego is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut, Stamford.

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