Historically Speaking: Back to Basics

I’ve been thinking about how our elementary school education lays the foundation for understanding the past and present of the world we inhabit. Even as young children we begin to acquire some basic skills for gathering information to help us make sense of our environment.

In this strange era, when many Americans have come to distrust the fundamental tenets of science, the safety and value of life-saving vaccines, and the overwhelming evidence that our current president was fairly elected, I’ve started to wonder if we need to get back to some fundamental premises that underlie our education from early on.

Not being a teacher, I wasn’t familiar with the state of Illinois standards for learning different subjects at different grade levels. Thankfully, anyone can access them online. While a bit lengthy, they are illuminating and reassuring.

In the science standards, the charge is “to ask and refine questions that lead to descriptions and explanations of how the natural and designed world(s) works and which can be empirically tested” (emphasis mine).

In the social sciences, the charge is to “gather relevant information and distinguish among fact and opinion (emphasis mine) to determine credibility of multiple sources. . . Determine credibility of sources based upon their origin, authority and context.”

Sadly, as adults many of us seem to have thrown out these elementary education principles in determining what’s factual in our 21st century world.

It’s been an insidious process. Social media, which has connected millions in positive ways, is also a huge source of misinformation. And it’s misinformation that spreads exponentially, whether it’s about COVID-19 vaccines or the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.

A national study by a consortium of universities found that the more people relied on social media as a news source about COVID, the more they believed misinformation about risk factors and preventative treatments. In contrast, if they got their news from local television stations, news websites or community newspapers (thankfully we still have one!), the less likely they were to be misinformed about the virus.

The original internet, conceived as a way to democratize access to information, has, in many respects, been hijacked to undermine our democracy. False claims about election irregularities and fraud (including from Russian bots) proliferated on social media, fueling the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Nine months later they continue to roil our national politics.

It would behoove us to go back to the elementary school standard: “Determine credibility of sources based upon their origin, authority and context.” And, I’d add, based on the source’s financial or other interest. A cable news corporation that makes millions of dollars from peddling false claims that stoke our discontents or a foreign government that does the same via social media are not reliable sources.

In a jury trial, a judge instructs the jury to apply reason and common sense in considering the evidence in a case. We need to do the same thing in coming to conclusions about the political world in which we live.

Non-partisan groups and credible news sources have found no widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, nor serious irregularities, nor corrupted voting machines. Experienced election officials (including Republicans) in five states that President Trump lost have not been shown to be negligent or incompetent in fulfilling their duties. That it was a fair election was further confirmed when state and federal judges (including President Trump appointees) rejected over 60 lawsuits that claimed election irregularities. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up almost all of them.

Whether in the natural or social sciences, a court case, or certifying an election, facts matter. Adults, unlike school children, are not regularly tested on their command of facts. It’s up to us to gather evidence from reliable sources. A democracy can’t be sustained without the majority of its citizens having a fundamental respect for the truth. How we conduct our elections in the near future may very well be the empirical test of whether truth and American democracy still matter.