It seems lately that I have read a lot of articles, news reports, studies, and textbooks that misunderstand exactly what concrete proof is. In some cases, I'm afraid the lack of evidence is deliberate; in others, I have to wonder if this is thanks to the way we teach students how to write essays. The standard for essay writing goes something like this: Choose a topic. Write a thesis. Find evidence from "reliable" sources to support your claim or contention. Submit.

There's an enormous problem with this method. First, it may be that you find, for instance, twenty scholarly journal reports to support your thesis. This would, then, seem to validate your point. Unfortunately, unless you take the time to research the authors thoroughly and follow all their footnotes (assuming they even provide them) to be certain they all used only original source documents, you may in fact have twenty scholarly articles that essentially all quote each other. This is not proof of anything, outside of academic laziness and shenanigans. It also overlooks the possibility that you ignored over forty scholarly journal articles that totally debunked your thesis. Further, unless you fact-check him/her carefully, simply relying on the author's credentials is also a faulty precedent to take. Just because a person claims to be an "authority," it does not necessarily make him so. It doesn't mean he is actually correct or entirely unbiased in his own research. It does not preclude the fact that he may have consciously or subconsciously directed his study in the direction he wanted it to go, whether or not it could be fully, factually supported.

Second, we have an additional problem with whether the data collected genuinely indicates the conclusions drawn. This is where I find *many* studies and essays fall apart. Even if there isn't a problem with how the research was performed, there is often a huge mistake in how it was applied. In other words, logically-speaking, the arguments presented don't stand, once a person carefully thinks things through instead of accepting it all at face-value. (As a side-bar, I have many times also found studies do not mathematically add up.)

Unfortunately, many people are all-too-ready to quote any study, article, or research that fits their pre-conceived opinions. And since we all grew up "learning" that as long as someone states something and then gives "proper quotes" to support himself, he must be correct, we don't evaluate things the way we should. Journalists in particular fall into this trap far too often. Perhaps it is because they are in a rush to get the scoop, but it seems that they feel as long as they have any research or expert quotes to support them, they've done their job. The reliability and credibility of the researcher hardly comes into question - as long as he has the stamp of approval gained by the correct college or university degree, he is considered a "good" source. One would think, when college students who are polled overwhelmingly and consistently admit to cheating, (calling into question the worthiness of many of the degrees awarded), that we would put less credence in these so-called experts and do more research ourselves, but instead, the opposite seems to be the case - we not only accept these "experts," we even rely on "fact-checking" websites and reporters to confirm things for us, taking them at their word simply because they claim to be "neutral" or "non-biased." It is a strikingly dangerous way to get our news and information.

So what can we do?

1. Teach our children to evaluate EVERYTHING critically. There really is no 100% always reliable source, especially when it comes to politicians and the media. If they read a news article or report, have them ask themselves the following questions.
  • Does the data presented fully support the conclusions as stated?
  • Who provided the data and where is the original source?
  • Any time math is involved in any way, can it be tested and verified?
  • Is the article presenting fact or opinion?
  • Can the same data lead to entirely different conclusions, and if so, does the author acknowledge this?

2. Teach our children statistics. This should be a required course for high school graduation. Our children need to fully understand statistics. Often, simply armed with that knowledge alone, they can see where a lot of information reported through the media is not accurate.

3. Teach our children what editorializing is and why reporters who engage in it outside of the editorial page should not be considered reliable. Editorializing involves using emotive words to sway opinion. For instance, a reporter can say, "The teachers' strike entered week two, as both sides continue to clash over certain issues." While the word "clash" is descriptive, it is not used to encourage readers to feel a certain way about the issue; that is, to favor one side over the other. On the other hand, a reporter who says, "The hard-working, beleaguered teachers continue to struggle against the policies adopted by the school district, hoping to gain more public support as they take to the streets in a strike." is using certain key words to stir emotions in his readers. "Hard-working," "beleaguered," and "struggle" are all used in a way to make the teachers appear downtrodden and deserved of sympathy and support. This sort of reporting is sometimes blatant and obvious, but more often than not, it is rather subtle. Children need to learn to recognize it for what it is, so that they can dismiss the attempt at making them think or feel a certain way about an issue.

4. Teach children to question the questioners. When data is collected, the questions asked while the research is conducted need to be entirely neutral and without potential bias. As an example, let's suppose a political group decides it wants to "prove" that a certain other group is "racist." It does this by calling a random sampling of people and asking whether they identify with this other group, and then asking, "Do you think Hispanic immigrants to America should learn English?" Because more people in the group say "yes" than the population as a whole, the conclusion is, "This group is racist."

This sort of academic dishonesty should not be tolerated, much less perpetuated, and its presence can be determined by evaluating the questions asked. In our example, the problem is three-fold. First, it doesn't ask if a person believes all immigrants should learn English, if it is not their native language, and why he might feel this way. Second, it takes the answer of some respondents and uses it to label the group as a whole - a logical fallacy. Third, it operates off the assumption that a "yes" answer is inherently racist. It does not allow for other perspectives, such as one that believes that language is specifically designed to allow one person to communicate with another and that, as such, speaking the same language overcomes a huge barrier to truly understanding one another. A person with that perspective may be, in fact, demonstrating the opposite of a racist view-point, instead indicating a desire to connect with and communicate with others. His belief that all immigrants should learn English is not based on racism, but on the fact that the only other option would be to suggest that everyone learn a dozen or more languages in order to communicate effectively and fully, a much less viable solution. The "study" however, gives him no room to explain his position and brands him a "racist" for his answer. If that study is validated by the general public, in the form of acceptance through media and other sources, the group involved has been maligned without genuine proof. Our children need to see how often this very thing happens and recognize the signs of improper and unsupportable research being used to discredit or harm others, push certain political issues or candidates, and/or generate popularity for specific policies and ideas.

5. Encourage our children to always go to the source whenever possible. If the source is not provided, treat any information as potentially suspect. The best example of this is the Affordable Health Care act. Many people claim to know what is in it and what it is all about, yet few people actually read the bill or law. (FYI: Yes, I did read it. All of it. It was long and mind-numbing, but, contrary to what some of our lawmakers claimed, it was not too difficult to understand.)

It is one thing to refer to oneself as informed and educated. It is often something else entirely to actually be either. Reading the newspaper or watching TV or visiting websites, without critically evaluating and testing the facts as presented is not "informed." Memorizing some facts long enough to regurgitate them on an exam, writing essays as described above (absent the careful checking of all sources), reading only the required textbook and not fact-checking the material and information presented - these things do not make a person "educated," regardless of the degree or diploma he may earn from doing so. Make sure your children know the difference and make sure they become strong critical thinkers. Our country's future really does depend upon it.

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