Ages 13+
Analyzing Sources

Ages 13+
Analyzing Sources

6. Analyzing Sources

Summary:

Teenagers need support  to cope with and analyze disinformation and deception online. They should work on developing critical reading and browsing habits and learn to identify different kinds of deceptive reasoning. Families can practice analyzing false or misleading information together. 

By the age of 13, young people likely already have significant experience navigating the internet. They have all made extensive use of a variety of websites in order to find answers to their questions or to help with papers and schoolwork.

The internet has democratized the transmission of information, allowing anyone and everyone to put forward their ideas, opinions, or hypotheses on multiple online platforms. People usually post things online in an affirmative style which presents any given statement, no matter how dubious or speculative, as a well-known fact.  

People’s personal blogs, companies’ promotional lifestyle websites, and free encyclopedias all feature articles on complex subjects, almost always with content that has not been vetted by any experts,  whose critical thinking skills and reasoning would be invaluable.

It seems that everyone—or almost everyone—has the tendency to grant at least some level of truth to everything they find online, especially if the site looks credible and its language is elegant. The same gullibility often applies to what we see on television or read in newspapers.

It is important to make young people aware of the phenomenon of “fake news” and to give them concrete proof of the great deal of false—even outrageous—information online. 

For example, it is possible to find videos claiming to prove that NASA’s moon landing was staged. Debunking these types of conspiracy theories, with the help of parents and educators, can be a useful exercise for students. As can discussing what makes certain sources reliable or unreliable.

For example, students could be shown a factual documentary on the moon landing and a video claiming the moon landing was faked and then asked to work out which one is false

In order to do this, they must use their logical knowledge to see if any false presumptions have been made. They must also ask themselves who made and commented in the videos. What is this person’s reputation? What are their professional qualifications? Has the document’s credibility been discussed in any forums?

Debunking these types of conspiracy theories, with the help of parents and educators, can be a useful exercise for students.

In analyzing these and similar sources, we will arrive at one of five possible situations:

  1. An author has good intentions but his or her reasoning is flawed. The author draws unsubstantiated conclusions from trustworthy information. For example, we have proof that certain particles came out of thin air and did not evolve from anything. Some wrongly conclude that this proves the existence of God, since only God could create something from nothing. This information is true, but the reasoning is false, and the conclusion therefore does not follow. The solution involves the relationship between energy and mass in the equation E = mc2. In empty space, even the smallest amount of heat can cause spontaneous conversions of pure energy into matter.

  2. An author has good intentions and reasons well, but uses false information. Here, the author can come to false conclusions, even if he or she reasons impeccably. For example, one could conclude that the acceleration of an object, induced by gravitational force, is dependent on its mass because if one drops a rock and a feather from a balcony, the rock will hit the ground before the feather. Here, the problem lies with the initial information, which is erroneous because it does not take the role of air resistance into account. The observation on which the argument is based is thus incorrect in this case, as is the conclusion. In reality, in a vacuum, the feather and the rock would reach the ground at exactly the same time.

  3. It could be that the hypotheses and baseline observations, as well as the arguments drawn from it, are all incorrect. A false conclusion is likely to result.

  4. Authors could be giving out false information intentionally with the aim of selling a product; harming another individual, group, or country; spreading a rumor to make themselves feel important; or sadistically causing mental anguish to others for their own enjoyment.

  5. An author intends to get a point across by using an argument which appears to comply with logical reasoning but which actually contains one or more inferential leaps, deliberately introduced in order to prove that the conclusion is objective because it stems from rigorous thinking. Sophistry and paralogisms arise from this sort of trickery.

It is very important to expose adolescents to these five possible kinds of lies or deception, as well as to reflect on how to identify them by analyzing authors’ arguments and questioning the hypotheses or observations at the root of their arguments and their likely intentions, given the message’s context. For example, in an advertising context, we can understand that car manufacturers might benefit from lying about the amount of pollution produced by the vehicle they sell.

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Case Study 5