Defend Truth


Banishing the BS – how to equip kids with critical thinking skills in an age of fake news


Dr Mark Potterton is principal of the ­primary school at Sacred Heart College and ­director of the Three2Six Refugee Children’s Education Project.

Distinguishing truth from falsehood and deliberate misinformation is becoming increasingly difficult as various interest groups compete for dominance. This poses a challenge for schools as they seek to encourage students to develop critical thinking skills and take an active interest in the world around them.

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Unesco warned that orchestrated disinformation campaigns about the virus, which pose a threat to fact-based journalism, were also putting human lives at risk. These campaigns have since grown and have especially muddied the messages around vaccines.

Guy Berger, Unesco’s communication expert and one of the agency’s pundits on disinformation, explains that falsehoods related to all aspects of Covid-19 have become commonplace: “There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the Covid-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others.”

He notes that heightened fears, uncertainties and unknowns are fertile ground for fake news to flourish and grow. The big risk is that one falsehood that gains traction can negate the significance of a body of true facts.

Berger argues that when disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the danger is that information based on truth only has marginal impact.

Berger’s solution is to improve the supply of truthful information and ensure that the demand for information is met by promoting greater transparency from governments and the disclosure of data in keeping with right-to-information laws.

The government has a lot to say about getting schools to work in South Africa and improving academic outcomes. However, not since the late Professor Kader Asmal have these plans included the idea of pupils becoming critical and discerning thinkers.

Extending young people’s horizons

I like the ideas of Neil Postman in his classic paper, Bullshit and the Art of Crap-­Detection, delivered at a teacher convention in 1969. I still find Postman’s ideas relevant to today’s context and the pupils I teach.

Postman argued that the best thing that schools can do for children is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from “bullshit”. He maintained that every day, in almost every way, people are exposed to more “bullshit” than is healthy for them. This comment is even more pertinent today in a world of mass media and exploding fake news on social media.

Although the world has become so interconnected, general knowledge and awareness of current affairs are dismally low. Many pupils are unable to think beyond their immediate and personal concerns. Yes, literacy levels or the poor state of school toilets are important, but education must also concern itself with extending the horizons of the young people in its care.

Untangling the web – giving children the right tools to fight fake news

It begins with small steps. For example, primary school children need to know that by bringing in newspapers or glass bottles for recycling, they are indirectly reducing the pressure on the environment.

In the high school context, it becomes increasingly important to counter a youth culture that is pervasively focused on self-satisfaction. Young people need to realise that the world they inhabit exists beyond themselves. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt put it very well: “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.

“And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Crap-detection skills

Let us go back to Postman and his valuable lessons from 1969. Children today are exposed to a lot more “bullshit” than they were in 1969! If pupils improve their crap-detection skills, they are more likely to be critical thinkers as adults.

Postman deals with four kinds of “bullshit”: pomposity, fanaticism, inanity and superstition. He argues that many people are daily victims of pomposity when they are made to feel less worthy than people with grandiose titles (or who fly past in blue-light brigades), or who use words that obscure what they really mean.

Fanaticism is more malignant. Postman used the term “Eichmannism” – a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for the Jewish death camps during World War 2 – to describe the presentation of an ideology that is devoid of any scientific basis: “The essence of fanaticism is that it has almost no tolerance for any data that do not confirm its own point of view.”

It appeals to rules and obedience and places these above the common good.

Here, I am reminded of former ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s strong defence of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s visit to South Africa in 2015. The focus shifted from the issue of a wanted war criminal to the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, all couched in the language of diplomacy, diplomatic immunity and African solidarity.

Postman described inanity as “ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity” that emerges from “the invention of new and various kinds of communication [that] has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues”.

Inanity is particularly relevant in our world of social media and radio talk shows where everyone has a voice (and an audience). Cyberspace is also filled with people who are often in no position to provide informed perspectives. Politicians, too, spout misinformation and promises daily – or simply remain silent under the cover of impending legal processes.

Finally, superstition is, according to Postman, “ignorance presented in the cloak of authority, or an authoritative belief with no factual or scientific basis”. The best recent example is reflected by people who refuse to wear masks, saying they pose a greater health risk than Covid-19.

As a school principal, I am frequently reminded that educational outcomes are important. Among these is the responsibility of getting pupils to engage critically and think more deeply about the world.

The Marikana Massacre, 10 years on, is one of the best of many South African examples of how to expose students to information and disinformation.

Teachers can use Judge Ian Farlam’s Marikana report to ask questions such as: was it Lonmin’s responsibility to provide miners with adequate housing and security? What is being done to improve the miners’ situation today? What was the role of Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega in the situation? Can anyone still be held responsible for this massacre? Why has little action happened since then?

Marikana report: Key findings and recommendations

Pupils should be encouraged to see the Marikana disaster from the perspective of the miners, the widows, the mine bosses, the President, the police, the government and others.

In the case of refugees and migrant communities in South Africa, questions can be asked about the safety of these communities and their lack of inclusion. Why, despite international agreements, are so many children not able to access public schools? Why are there no politicians, across the spectrum, that advocate for refugees? How different are refugees from us?

Undocumented migrants – The myths, realities, and what we know and don’t know

The challenge for schools is to help children become more critical of what is being presented to them in class, online and elsewhere. They need to be less likely to believe and spread falsehoods.

Freedom of expression and access to credible information are two remedies to counter disinformation.

Postman reminds us that “each pupil’s crap detector is embedded in their value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values”. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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