FAKE NEWS! How Science Teaches Us Critical Thinking

In this information age, there’s a strange phenomenon sweeping the world: fake news. It seems to be the ‘get out of jail free’ card for anyone who hears information which they don’t like or agree with, and that’s a big problem for children growing up, and trying to navigate the world around them. 
How can you know what is real, and what is fake? Critical thinking is an incredibly important skill, and one we should encourage our children to develop. Understanding what makes objective fact (i.e. you can’t argue with it because you don’t like it!) is a big part of that. 
Here are three ways you can help develop those all-important critical thinking skills in your children, both in science lessons and beyond…

1. Cause and Effect: Developing Hypotheses

This is all about understanding the ‘why’. This is something that seems intuitive for adults, but it’s actually something we have to learn. There is an infinite number of experiments you can do to illustrate cause and effect- but the most important thing you can do is open the conversation up to children and ask them why they think something happens. This can then lead into a conversation around what a scientific hypothesis is, and how it frames all scientific experiments.
For example, if you want to teach children about photosynthesis, start by asking children open-ended questions about how plants grow, and what they think they need to survive. A lot of children understand that they need water and light- but won’t know why this is the case. 
Then suggest experimenting with growing plants, to test their theories. Perhaps you could decide to grow some classroom potatoes (which can be grown in a heavy-duty carrier bag or a large tub, and help engage kids in an understanding of agriculture) or even start with something a little easier like cress. Get the children to identify what they think would be the best growing conditions and then set up an experiment to test their hypothesis by placing the cress seeds in different conditions.
At the end of the experiment, you can revisit their hypothesis and see if they think they were right. The important thing is to help them see that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong- in science, you learn just as much from what doesn’t work! It’s a case of understanding why something didn’t work, i.e. the plant kept in a cupboard died because it didn’t get enough sunlight. Cause = lack of sunlight, effect = dead plant!

2. Talk About Biases

Bias is defined as a cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something. Explain to your pupils that, sometimes, this can be very apparent – but in science, we’re looking for facts, so it’s important to minimise bias when conducting research in order to ensure that the results are accurate.
It’s also important to discuss the role of bias in reporting. You could demonstrate this by giving the students two reports of the same experiment- one written with bias, the other, without (these ‘reports’ can be as short or as long as you like). Invite the students to read and assess both of them and try to identify certain language used which indicate bias, or where the information/data presented has been manipulated to support the authors’ view. Then open the conversation up to discuss why this can be damaging, and what the implications could be.
You could get the students to practice conducting research without bias by dividing the class into groups, and getting them to write some survey questions on a particular topic- like finding out how many students would like all homework to be abolished, for instance! The students writing the survey questions are likely to have a certain bias, so challenge them to write questions which allow them to accurately report on the feelings of the class without leading the students into a certain result.
They should realise just how hard it is to ask questions that don’t ‘lead’ the responder into a certain viewpoint. Be sure to discuss the survey and the results, and encourage them to write an unbiased report on their findings to extend the lesson further.

3. Encourage Asking Questions: Establishing Fact from Fiction

Science is, first and foremost, about asking questions. All scientists set out to answer unanswered questions, so fostering a culture of inquisitiveness is important in classrooms. This is linked to developing a hypothesis, which we talked about earlier- but more than that, as educators we need to be encouraging children to challenge the world around them, and not to simply accept what is presented to them as fact.
There is, of course, a balancing act to play here. As we mentioned in this blog intro, there’s a rise in people – even authority figures – choosing to dismiss scientific fact because it doesn’t suit their own narratives. This is where lessons about critical thinking come into their own; when you have opposing sides arguing that they’re “right”, each claiming to be presenting the truth. Being able to filter through the rhetoric to establish what is fact and what is fiction is incredibly important. 
This is where teaching children about reliable sources is incredibly important. Sometimes information can be presented in a way which looks legitimate, but upon closer inspection is not at all. Invite your students to visit https://www.allaboutexplorers.com/explorers/columbus/ and read the article there. Then ask them if they think this is factually accurate (spoiler alert, it’s not!). Discuss the problems with the piece, but be sure to discuss why someone might believe it- and what potential problems can arise from the spreading of fake news. 
For older students, a good exercise would be to show a screen shot of one of Donald Trump’s tweets claiming that global warming is a hoax. Discuss the implications of that statement, and unpick whether or not it is true. You could extend this further by asking students to find reliable sources proving the climate change is real, and discussing how to persuade people to believe in the truth using accurate and compelling data. This makes for a great cross-curricular exercise!
In what has been called the ‘Information Age’, it’s never been easier to learn about the world around us. But unfortunately, it’s never been easier for people to be misled with fake news, and misinformation. By equipping children to think critically about the information they consume, and by helping them to identify reliable and unreliable sources, we can not only help to make them better scientists- but better global citizens, too.