Critical thinking key to countering fake news

Some of my students, despite having graduated from top universities in their own country, believed everything I said simply because I was the teacher, the "approved" authority.

So compliant was this cohort that it was an uphill task getting them to challenge the "wrong information" I sometimes deliberately presented to them.

The best way to counter fake news is to teach people how to think critically: Analyse complex information into constituent parts; understand their interrelationships; identify logical fallacies and inconsistencies; recognise the basis for authority, biases, vested interests and so on; and above all, ask searching questions.

Only then can they evaluate and make a judgment: Does the argument hold? Is this scientifically plausible? Could this be fake news?

That Singaporeans need to be protected from fake news is an indictment of an education system that spoon-feeds children and which then expects them to regurgitate knowledge in exams.

That said, it is very difficult for children to pose and discuss questions in classes of more than 20 or so students.

Why else would educational institutions boast of having small (instead of large) class sizes?

But critical thinking does not a compliant population make. It gets a bit fuzzy and chaotic at the edges.

Yet critical thinking, alongside the ability to keep learning, is indispensable to our children's future because employment will no longer be based on what they have learnt at school or university.

Unlike factory workers of yesteryear, our future workers will need to analyse and innovate. Artificial intelligence and robotics will mean constantly having to unlearn and relearn new skills.

Every school-leaver should be fluent in at least one world language, be sufficiently numerate to understand basic statistics and probability and be amply cognisant of history to see how the future will never stand still.

Critical thinking and the ability to keep learning are required to keep us - as individuals, as family and nation - at the top of our game, any game, whatever the odds.

Lee Siew Peng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2018, with the headline 'Critical thinking key to countering fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe