It’s not a particularly popular time to be a gadfly
Death of Socrates
“It’s a question of how do you decide what’s good enough evidence to support a conclusion,” says Abraham P. Schwab, associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He’s got a point. In our current media landscape—with the proliferation of all sorts of ways for experiencing information—we’ve reached the point in our digital evolution where the most important thing isn’t getting news, but being able to decipher its quality.
That’s the conclusion that the Stanford History Education Group came to after conducting a study to determine whether kids were able to tell fake news from the real McCoy. They couldn’t. According to NPR, the Stanford researchers spent a year evaluating 7,800 middle school, high school, and college-educated students to find out how they parse online information sources for credibility. The researchers were “shocked” by how many high school students couldn’t tell a verified source from a fake news source on Facebook or by how middle school students could not tell the difference between native ads and actual articles.
This comes as no surprise to Professor Schwab, who has young children of his own. He says that one of the challenges for him is “constantly pushing them to not try and figure out what the right answer is that the teacher is looking for, but to investigate possible answers.” The focus on finding the right answer is training students to accept only one answer from authority figures where there could be many—especially when it comes to issues of society and governance. That is where philosophy could come in.
The Case for the Humanities
The case for philosophy isn’t an easy one. The battering the humanities took after the giant recession of Y2K was enough to dampen the spirits of any seeker, but the monster of 2008 sent people reeling. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities fell overall by 8.7% to a mere 106,869 recipients, the lowest number since 2003. During that same time, over 3.6 million bachelor’s degrees were earned, meaning that only 2.9% of students earned a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts discipline. The number of students graduating with philosophy degrees is even smaller, accounting for some 14.3 percent of the overall total of liberal arts degrees during that span. Obviously, it wasn’t a particularly popular time to be a gadfly.
But philosophy is needed now more than ever, despite all the accusations that the major is pie-in-the-sky or that it is a hobby, more so than anything. What we need are more tangible STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degree recipients, they argue. Humans who can manipulate our digital and material spaces with their knowledge of the physical, not idealistic, world. They are not wrong, and it helps that these subjects can yield significant dividends. Of course, compensation is a more than worthwhile goal. Not everyone wants to live in a barrel like Diogenes or end up swishing hemlock like Socrates.
But the need to learn how better to wield judgment is becoming a downright requirement as information becomes more prevalent and more complex. Beyond that BuzzFeed quiz on which Gilmore Girl you are most like lies a whole online universe of thoughts to contend with. In this way, training students how to form their own conclusions on subject matter could act as a barrier against simply believing what someone says because it seems authoritative.
Not Just Students
Professor Schwab also put the onus on the media, though, to stop acting under the relativistic idea that all news should be weighted equally. “In as much as the general public, because it’s consuming things from all sorts of sources, need to be able to evaluate evidence and make object judgments that rely on reasonable evaluations of evidence is the same way journalists need to,” he stated. “So they need to not only report that this is what this individual claimed, but why you should also be skeptical of it.”
It’s an interesting idea. In the debate on whether fake news stories shared via Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks is impacting our social discourse, I think the answer is yes. Fake news does something that real news has an obligation to avoid, which is pointing a finger firmly in one direction. The stakes are higher when reporting on fact vs.fiction. So just what should the news be doing? A 2009 report released in the Columbia Journalism Review claims that, first and foremost, the job of independent journalism is to tell people what they don’t already know. “What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs,” claims report authors Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson. “Reporting the news means telling citizens what they would not otherwise know.”
Buried inside that statement is a small nugget of information, now at risk. Discerning whether this thing that we don’t know is something that is true is the rub—especially in the robust way that humans have always demanded information about things that are worth knowing.