Critical Information Acquisition

I love reading the blog Confessions of a Community College Dean, where the author descries the trials and tribulations associated with running a community college. In a current post, the pseudonymous author asks, “If I Could Design One Course…” to add to the general education requirements, what would it be? Here, the answer is a course on financial literacy.

Confessions of a Community College Dean

Wise and worldly readers, if you could design one course to require as a Gen Ed for most or all students — and it’s not one typically taught now — what would it be? I’m thinking a study skills course in which the skills would be applied to critical financial literacy.

The course I would design is similar, but I would design a course on critical information evaluation. People are notoriously bad at evaluation the quality of information they are presented. Confirmation bias leads people to accept obviously incorrect information because it supports a preconceived world view.

We see this happen all the time across multiple information domains when Trump supporters used a picture of someone in makeup for a horror show, when people claim new evidence shows cellphones cause cancer, vaccines cause autism, the Pockets Full of Silver myth, or any of hundreds of other silly stories we all see.

We are all guilty of this at times. Snopes entire business model is based on it. Determining information validity goes above and beyond credible sources. While the New York Times is more trustworthy than the Weekly World News, but that does not mean everything printed in the Times should be accepted without critical evaluation. Capturing students early and teaching them to critically evaluate the information they are presented and to determine its credibility should be what the entire college experience is.

However, this has degraded in the modern university. Many universities address this. For instance, this guide from the University of Louisville provides some instruction. However, there are two places it goes wrong. First, critical information acquisition is taught “across the curriculum” and, paradoxically, are never taught. Also, these sorts of guides are common, but never address the core of information evaluation, only source evaluation. This is the reason the Wakefield study won’t die. It was in a peer-reviewed journal therefore it must be valid.

Teaching this early in the college experience would benefit students as they continue their college education, but the real value comes in introducing these important concepts to people as they enter the real world, giving them the skills to conduct life with better information and better decision-making.

Image by Cory Doctorow / Flickr.