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You’ll Never Believe What This Science Teacher Has to Say About the Internet! It May Shock You

By  Joe St. Peter teaches MS science and HS biology at Colegio Internacional Puerto La Cruz in Venezuela. He enjoys pursuit.

You’ll Never Believe What This Science Teacher Has to Say About the Internet! It May Shock You.

I really wanted to title my article, “The need for teaching healthy skepticism in a world of diminishing internet credibility,” but I want people to actually read the article.

First, let’s start with a Facebook chat that I had years ago. I am paraphrasing because Hondo McMurphy (not his real name) apparently deleted the post.


Figure 1: Simulated Facebook conversation constructed from memory. Images used with permission courtesy of Jerry Stone and Mike Yen.

So I looked it up on Google. If you searched the quote in 2011, the first 10 Google results listed Thomas Jefferson in the snippet. (Thankfully, a current Google search displays the quote as an obvious fraud.) I dug deeper. had the quote listed under their ‘spurious quotations‘ with a reference to the 1986 book where the quote was first found in print. What did I do with my knowledge? I decided not to respond to Mr. McMurphy. Trying to convince others to change an opinion in a social media setting is like trying to teach a horse addition.

But my world exists beyond social media; I get to teach science. I help students make sense of the world around them. What should goals be in a science classroom? Maybe during the Cold War and the race to the moon, the goal of science education was to create engineers. But now? How should K-12 science courses be structured if fewer than 5 percent of the US Labor Force are comprised by scientists and engineers.

The answer is scientific literacy.

Science literacy means different things to scientists:

To Neil de Grasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and proponent of science: “I see science literacy as kind of a vaccine against charlatans who would try to exploit your ignorance.”

To John Dewey, a philosopher and educational reformer, his five scientific habits of mind were the goals of science education:

  1. Logical Thinking

  2. Quantitative analysis

  3. Deductive reasoning

  4. Proper questioning

  5. Reliance on sound evidence

Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and science popularizer, offers his idea of science literacy from an excerpt from Demon-Haunted World: “In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit,” [italics mine].

The common theme, confirming my own bias, is skepticism. I contend that healthy skepticism is the most important goal of science education and the molding force behind proper inquiry.  Teaching the facts of science without looking at the evidence, the epistemology, the history of experimentation that led to the ideas, pushes children down the road of merely accepting authority on word alone. Faith built on authority can be abused. I’m sure you could provide your own examples.

Onto the sector of the world confided to globally accessible and collaborative 1s and 0s. I’m talking about the internet. In a sea of information, there’s tons of garbage. Now more than ever, proper science education requires a focus on skepticism.

I contacted Kevin Slane, a staff writer for BDCwire.

Mr. Slane’s work makes him an ideal representative of the changing digital journalism. His eclectic compilation of stories brings the reader to the world of unautotuned T-Painmute street performers, Daniel Radcliffe’s rap skills, and running Apps and America’s Fastest runners, all published in the span of two days; he has his finger on the pulse of the internet.

I asked Slane about the changes in online journalism. “Anyone is a potential storyteller,” Slane notes; I didn’t probe further into the connotations of this ambiguous remark. Any random person can put a story online or A great story can come from anyone. The meaning is clear though: the digital age is bittersweet.

Slane then discusses the prevalence of digital news. “Social media’s near-ubiquity means that stories are broken, developed, and reported 100% digitally,” and the time that news travels from the journalist to the consumer has rapidly decreased. “Just as 24-hour cable networks turned the newspaper into yesterday’s news, Twitter turned the 24-hour cable network into five minute ago’s news,” explains Slane and as a corollary, the time allotted for even basic fact-checking is diminishing.

But with this digitization, news outlets are better able to pinpoint the desire of the consumers. Instead of carpet bombing and blitzkrieg advertising, “Facebook use big data to allow news outlets to run micro-targeted ads in the hopes that data gleaned from willfully given personal information data offers insights into what a specific person will want to read,” explains Slane. Site visits equal money, so understanding what could persuade an average internet user to click a link is crucial knowledge. “The rise of big data and extremely precise analytics software with A/B testing capability has led to careful optimization of every part of the story package.” By every part, Slane literally means every part; “the default header image, SEO search terms, social media teaser text, even single words in headlines.”

For some news outlets, the truth of a story matters less than traffic. Slane has tweeted an example from Even more reputable news outlets are not immune to clickbaiting tactics.

Slane offers advice to young digital news consumers. “Readers should always be skeptical of anything they read, regardless of the source. If you’re reading something about an ongoing story that that was published ten minutes ago, assume the story is incomplete.” We even have to be weary of ourselves when we judge news sources because “we often succumb to confirmation bias when choosing a news source, so don’t automatically pick sites you typically agree with, or whose tone of voice appeals to you if they’re delivering consistently wrong or exaggerated information.”

So how do we gift students with the desire to learn Sagan’s “baloney detection tool kit” so that they can combat the plethora of unreliable sources?

Lie to them. Confront students with an example where their unfiltered belief in authority leads them astray. When students recognize the lie they’ll learn a valuable lesson. Everyone is capable of lying, so be on your toes. This fostered skepticism is a skill not only for the developing scientist, but also a skill increasingly necessary for the digital consumer.


Kevin Slane is a staff writer for BDCwire, a sister site of devoted to what’s trending in Boston and beyond, which is a nice way of saying he spends all day on Twitter. You can find the full interview here.

 Joe St. Peter teaches MS science and HS biology at Colegio Internacional Puerto La Cruz in Venezuela. He enjoys pursuit.


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