CHICAGO -- If it seems like "fake news" is evolving into an epidemic, it's due to the calamitous lack of a crucial skill: critical thinking.
What's worse is that critical thinking is one of those abilities that most people mistakenly believe they're good at -- leading them to fall for and spread fake news even more.
Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults say they've improved their ability to reflect and use evidence, logic and analysis to make decisions since graduating from high school, according to a new survey by the Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based nonprofit that is pushing the teaching of evidence-based reasoning skills.
Yet almost 50 percent of respondents said they don't typically plan where they'll get their information before engaging in research -- the very practice that suggests they are weak critical thinkers. About one-third of respondents said they will usually use only one source of information when making a decision.
Part of the reason is that while most people think that critical thinking skills are a necessary tool to navigate today's fast-moving, complex world, the very topic can be a dense, impenetrable snooze.
"As I started to do this research, I bought 40 to 60 books, including 'Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies' and, trust me, if you open these books you'll find yourself falling asleep after not too many pages," said Helen Lee Bouygues, the foundation's co-founder and president.
Bouygues took on the Sisyphean mission of bringing critical thinking to the masses after observing her own 7-year-old daughter completing a homework assignment. Though her daughter was sitting inches away from a book that she'd already read about King Francis I of France, she turned to a web search to complete her homework task of finding some basic facts -- Wikipedia was simply easier.
"I realized that my daughter is fundamentally growing up differently than I did," Bouygues told me. "Not only do we need to impart these critical thinking skills to children at an earlier age because of the easy access to information and misinformation they have at their fingertips, but research on neurological brain development is very clear that children are actually capable of learning these skills at a young age. This should give us some urgency about trying to figure out how to get parents and teachers to teach critical thinking in concrete ways that won't put kids to sleep."
Sure, it would be nice if more people had the ability to quickly and easily synthesize different ideas, seek out opposing viewpoints and engage in fact-based debates. But it's also imperative to our democracy and our intertwined fortunes. In a future that will require better skills at teasing out fact from fiction, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots threatens to grow exponentially.
"Our goal is to do this survey every year -- so this one serves as our baseline -- but already we have found that people with incomes over $100,000 per year are about twice as likely as those making under $50,000 per year to believe that it's important to teach critical thinking skills to children," Bouygues said. She also noted that people with higher incomes were likelier to say that it is important to debate with people who hold opposing views and people with lower incomes were likelier to avoid people with whom they disagree.
It will be an uphill battle to give the topic of critical thinking mass appeal, but the Reboot Foundation hopes that it will be able to eventually disseminate simple tips for integrating some of the skills into everyday school and home life.
"We know that parents and teachers are very busy, and we're all just trying to get through the day," Bouygues acknowledged. "But it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to make little adjustments. Have conversations about what kinds of sources of information are reliable. Ask your kids to explain to you how they made a decision that day. Practice having discussions in positive, rational ways."
This is the same advice I give to parents when they ask how they can improve their students' reading or math skills: Forget about highly structured lessons or purchasing study materials, just focus on having meaningful conversations with your kids that focus on them getting the opportunity to explain their thinking.
(It works wonders on adults, too.)