Thursday, September 18, 2008

The real thing

My college students are in the midst of a critical thinking exercise. They are supposed to visit three Web sites and decide whether or not they are credible.
Being the eternal optimist, in every class and in every semester, I eagerly await their posts on the discussion board online. And every year I am frustrated and disappointed. I've been sitting at my computer this morning, reading their responses and thinking about how I'm going to respond. And in so many cases, I find myself saying, "You're not in high school anymore." For so many of them, the goal is not learning -- the goal is a grade. Some have a goal of A, and some have a goal of C or even D. In this critical thinking exercise, most of them are just throwing an answer against the Cyberwall to see what sticks.

I've told them that obviously, we know men can't get pregnant, but I want them to look at the site like an alien. If you don't know men can't get pregnant, how would you determine that this site is a fake? I do this because when they choose a speech topic, they will be entering a foreign world where they don't know what is or is not possible. There will be thousands of sources out there from which to choose. Some will be good; some will be biased; some will be wrong. They need to have critical thinking skills to determine whether a site is credible or not. Every semester I have students lose points on their speeches because they use sites that are not credible. So many of them scoff at my warning and saying, "Well, it's just common sense." Here are a couple of the responses:

I just can't bring myself to believe this. Although it does have newspaper articles and other credible sources, I just can't believe it.

The site is not credible because the live vital signs only show results and no proof that a man is actually hooked up to the machines.
Students #1 is a perfect example of someone who will probably use sources that are not credible. She's in a hurry and didn't take the time to actually click on those links to see if they really do lead to the "credible" sources that she trusts.

Student #2 is thinking skeptically, not critically. How could any website prove what he is suggesting? If it were following a woman's pregnancy, how could they prove that it's real?

This is actually an easy site to debunk. If you click on any of the links, you see that they do not go to stories about the pregnant man; the links just go to the home page of those sites. Also, there is no physical address or phone number for the medical center. You can't even figure out what state it's in. If students only took the time to google "pregnant man" or "Dwayne Medical Center," they'd find other sites that say it is not credible. But most students don't think about double-checking their sources.

The DHMO site is a perfect example of how someone can make something look really bad. Everything on that site is absolutely true. But it is a perfect example of bias. So many students think that biased = wrong. Although DHMO does all of those horrible things, it is also absolutely essential for life. As they say in advertising, the truth is irrelevant -- what's imortant is what people believe! Don't be too quick to say that no one would really make something good sound so bad. The government has done exactly that with raw milk. While raw milk has many health benefits, the government has banned it or severely restricted it in many states because big business has convinced them it is just as dangerous as DHMO. By the way, DHMO is water, and as a result of this site, some people have tried to have it banned -- until they learned that it is water.

The skunk site is credible, and a few students pointed out some good things about it, so today I'll be ending that discussion, and I'll add another one: The Lovenstein Institute. That website was created as a result of a hoax email sent out in 2001 saying that Bush had the lowest IQ of any president ever to be elected, according to the Lovenstein Institute. Today, they throw all sorts of interesting stuff up there and mix it with legitimate news, which makes it a little harder to decipher. Since no one has offered any good answers to the DHMO or male pregnancy discussions, I'll leave those up and ask students to continue responding.

This is what I'll be telling my students ... This is the real world. If you're a doctor, you have to diagnose your patients' illness or condition. If you're a lawyer, you have to figure out the best strategy for defending your client. If you're a physical therapist, you have to figure out the best treatment for your patient. If you're a teacher, you have to figure out what works and what doesn't work with your students. If you're an advertising executive, you have to figure out what will sell your products. You can't just throw something out there and wait for someone else to give you the "right" answer. In real life, no one knows the right answer most of the time. You have to use your education and training and critical thinking skills to figure out the best answer. If you choose the wrong answer, your patient might die, your client might go to jail, your students might not learn, your company might go bankrupt. That's the real world. You don't get grades in the real world. You have to think and make decisions, and if you're wrong, the consequences can be much worse than an F.

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