Poor Educational Tools: memes of the smartphone and social weed-ia

With a well developed craft, imagination and proper tools, a good chef can cook a delicious meal from any palatable ingredients. While teaching I often regarded different technologies in the same light. The nature of the technology supposedly did not matter. How it was used—that was the key. But I was being naive. A meal could be tasty but not necessarily healthy–the ingredients do matter; so does the technique. Cooking over charcoal introduces carcinogens in food. Similarly, a set of educational activities based on the use of Facebook or other medium can be appealing and popular but will not necessarily help students in the long run. I also contend that social media is a risky way of keeping up with current events, not to mention that it’s a poor prosthesis for human interaction.

There are many ways of generating electricity. Although every method, when applied on a mass scale, has ecological impacts, some technologies are far less harmful than others. That’s quite obvious to most people. Yet it seems far less obvious to people that the same applies to educational tools. Some have a greater tendency to become invisible, not to become an end in themselves and not to take over the ultimate goals, including broadening the horizons of the child, so he can appreciate and add to the viewpoints of a wide variety of people from gardener to plumber, from programmer to poet, from scientist to athlete and from musician to humanist.

Smartphones, especially when they are used almost exclusively with social media, do not fall into that category. Far too many people access the internet exclusively through such devices which prioritise immediacy for the user. Their small screens help make long written essays and the presentation of evidence surrender to short videos, propagandistic images and “memes”. It’s ironic that the  word was originally coined to represent an idea that would survive the individual. Yet currently, to most people, a meme now means a popular “visual message” that spreads through the internet.

Facebook in conjunction with the smartphone is an optimal tool for advertising the ego and consumer items via the transmission of “memes” and other visuals. These serve little more than reinforce prejudices and either oversimplify or totally distort the truth. Twitter is no better, basically insinuating that the world is too busy to read more than 140 characters at a time, and of course it too spreads memes like a field of dandelions disseminates cloned seeds.

In a world where social issues are complex and most people are too caught up in work, child-rearing and over-consumption-cycles to get a good grasp of them, the meme tempts us like any other apparent shortcut. And various organisations are all too happy to oblige. Here is an example of a sneaky meme from ACSH (American council of Science and Health)  and RealClear Science in March 2017 that fooled many people into thinking they were receiving useful advice on which media provide the most unbiased science reporting:ACSH-RCS infographic v8

Although I have criticised Scientific American for recently increasingly relying on more articles from journalists than scientists, National Geographic, Discover, Wired and BBC are far more guilty of the practice. So by what standard is Scientific American deemed to be less reliable than the other four? Ditto for placing The TelegraphForbes and Fox News above the New York Times. It turns out that their bias against Scientific American is that they often feature environmental articles and consistently favour alternate energies, which ACSH does not support.

It was a real slap in the face of the infographic ‘s authors when Nature‘s editors, whose main publication received the highest ranking, called it “a curious exercise, and one that fails to satisfy on any level.” In fairness, I should point out that Nature’s patrons also own Scientific American, so they may have been secretly defending their own interests. But a blog by Mark Hoofnagle, a surgeon, ridicules the graphic, exposing one of its creators, the American Council for Science and  Health, as astroturf.  Such groups and think tanks pretend to be part of the consistently shrinking fraction of the internet’s reputable side. Almost invariably, they are funded by a wealthy group of individuals and industries who are out to oppose a grassroots movement . They mount their opposition surreptitiously, under the guise of a consumer information group or individuals representing everyday people. Not to be easily exposed, they usually hire individuals who hold credentials related to what they are advocating. Well-versed in the vocabulary of the field, they can report a fair deal of factual information. But they make sure to produce a filtrate that does not run counter to the often rigid economic and political viewpoint of their sponsors. Almost invariably, the writers share the convictions of their employers, and so it is not uncommon for them to object vehemently to being labelled “shills”.

ACSH is one of many groups who do not want the United States to take action against climate change, all the while claiming that in fact they are not deniers. Their real stance is made clear in the rude article by Alex Berezow “Al Gore: Still Demented After All These Years“. By design, his views invited applause from rabid climate change deniers. In the comment thread, the author and ACSH president, Hank Campbell (who, in odd contrast to just about everyone else on staff, holds no science degree), make no attempts to refute any of the readers’ unscientific responses. Yet from my own analysis of the comments on numerous other ACSH articles,  both Berezow and Campbell routinely dig deeply into the readers’ feedback to trash any views that are not consistent with their unabashed enthusiasm for fracking, nuclear power, synthetic pesticides, Haber-process-made fertilizers, drinking soda, meat consumption, GMOs, e-cigarettes, Ronald Reagan and unchecked, unregulated economic growth. They also have regular commentators who appear to support the ACSH-cause. One such person who claims to be a farmer has somehow managed to find the time to write nearly 9000 comments, suggesting that the person may be another ACSH employee in disguise. Although I have no evidence that it’s indeed the case, it’s well-known that other astroturfing groups often use fake comments and reviews to promote products.

How do memes and astroturfers survive in societies whose individuals are increasingly educated? There is no evidence that the percentage of critical thinkers has increased in recent decades. Public education at the elementary and high school levels continues to suffer as an increasing number of wealthier parents have abandoned their neighbourhood schools and have sent their children to private schools. Even the latter are not immune from what ails the former: grade inflation, subservience to trendy but unproven pedagogical approaches, and an increasing number of K-12 administrators and teachers with inadequate experience and training.

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