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UW officially adopts course fighting fake news

A fake news story is positioned near ads from major global corporations on The Red Elephants website. Experts say it’s not so easy for brands to make sure they don’t end up on websites that publish false stories. (The Red Elephants via AP)

There’s no soft or polite way to say this. The trial run of the University of Washington’s class “Calling Bull—-” went well this year.

And yes, the professors have heard plenty of jokes about getting a BS degree from UW.

“I think what’s surprising to (students) is how easy it is to BS,” Professor Jevin West said. “We have an assignment where we give them a data set from the World Health Organization. We split the class into three parts. We made one class make an argument with the same exact data that the United States healthcare system is the best system in the world. The other class had to make an argument that it is the worst. And the third class had the hardest job, which was to be as neutral as possible.”

“They couldn’t believe how easy it was to cherry pick the data,” he said. “Once they had learned that, any time we put up a graph they were very skeptical of what they were seeing.”

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Under a trial run, there were two courses offered teaching critical thinking skills, focusing on facts and data. They were led by Professors West and Carl Bergstrom. The first class was only a single credit. It was strictly a lecture course.

“It went great,” West said. “We had students, by the end of the quarter, sitting in the aisle way. That’s a sign students are having fun, especially since it’s a senior level class. They are desperate to get off campus as fast as possible.”

The second run at the course was a three-credit version and was more interactive. About 160 students signed up.

“Some of the simplest lessons that we give them worked pretty well like if something sounds too good to be true, or too bad to be true, it probably is,” West said.

The experimental course is no longer experimental. It is now an official offering at the University of Washington. They don’t get to put a swear word in the title, however.

Information manipulation

It’s incredibly easy now to find “news” that backs up just about any worldview. Whether or not it’s contextually accurate is another question. The internet has made it easy for anyone with an opinion to get their message out.

It has become so bad that a recent study found only 36 percent of politically-aware Americans were able to fully determine fact from opinion. Only 44 percent of digitally-savvy Americans were able to do the same.

But the course is not strictly about spotting fake news. The course focuses more on skill sets.

“We really tried to keep it away from the most divisive political issues in the country right now, and tried to focus on developing the basic skills that people need to parse information, particularly numerical information,” Bergstrom said.

Skill sets like spotting graph and data manipulation.

“Most of the course was teaching the student to say ‘this graph is misleading me because they are not showing the axis properly and it makes a big difference look smaller, and a small difference look big,'” Bergstrom said.

“Our exercise is not meant to tell everyone that everything is (false or misleading) … that’s giving up,” West said. “What we’ve got to do is show people that there is a right answer, and you can find it.”

Defeating fake news

Beyond looking at information with a skeptical eye, Bergstrom said that a good defense against fake news or misleading information is the classic maxim: consider the source.

“I think you have to move to trusted sources,” Bergstrom said.

“I think we see that from the left and the right in the news media, for example,” he said. “There are stations and networks that cater to particular political orientations (to the point of deliberately misrepresenting data).”

The professors were hesitant to call out specific stations or networks. But, as an example, they did point to a graph that The Washington Post reported on in 2015. That graph was presented by The National Review in an attempt to make global temperature rises look tepid. It was used as an argument against human caused climate change. The Post, however, did the same exercise with data from the national debt and the Dow Jones Industrial average, showing both minor and alarming results.

“As you look at the scale, if you zoom in you actually see the two-degree increase that we’ve had over the past 50 years does have serious environmental effects,” West said. “If you buy this argument of zooming out as far as you want with data, you can put the exact same variables, with time on the x-axis or on the y-axis and show that it’s a flat line too, that time doesn’t march forward. These are strategies you can use to respond to these preposterous things.”

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