The Other Pandemic: Misinformation And How Higher Education Can Offer a Remedy

Misinformation And How Higher Education Can Offer a Remedy

By Micah Sadigh

As we traverse, oftentimes unsuspectingly, into the darkness of an untethered technology of sharing information – seductive, magical, and in one brief moment, utterly destructive – who would protect us against the “invisible” enemy? At one point of another, we can all become its victims and the damage can seamlessly move from personal to societal to global.

“You saved my life,” wrote a student on a holiday card, “because you constantly told us to consider other explanations and question the source of any information.” Can lives be saved through critical thinking – examined thinking? Can we be saved by resisting the tendency to give ourselves to alluring, tantalizing, fragments of information of spurious origin? Can these falsehoods shape our thoughts about other people and their communities, which may in time “justify” heinous acts?

We have all seen it: someone reveals some misinformation online, a half-truth, of course anonymously. Soon it gains a life of its own – a virus of sorts. In minds devoid of any semblance of critical thinking the virus replicates, and spreads with pernicious social consequences. What further complicates things is that we often do not know who is promulgating such misinformation presented as “facts.” What is their motivation?  And if such a source is unknown to us, one wonders if there are any ethical considerations with regards to that which may end up being a falsity with potential nefarious intentions in mind.

In his exploration of the nature of justice, Socrates tells the story of a simple shepherd, Gyges, who comes to the possession of a ring that renders him invisible. Soon he cannot stop from breaking one law after another, culminating in killing the king and possessing whatever he wishes. Socrates then raises the question of whether a just person who comes to the possession of such a ring is not likely to do the same.1 Now think of such a person who has the ability or technology to remain hidden from any potential consequences of his or her actions. What prevents such a person from acting unjustly? The Internet has gained a cloak of invisibility – in a sense it is a ring of Gyges that can be worn by anyone – and there are few, if any, consequences for the injustices that can be perpetrated by an invisible person. 

“An invisible man is a man of power,” H.G. Wells suggests, while at the same time such a man, or woman, can become plagued with paranoia and madness – invisible, yet no longer human.3 It is true that invisibility can potentially shield us against the scrutiny of others, but is it possible that our deeds are well known to ourselves, no matter how well we dismantle, rationalize, justify, and compartmentalize them in some hidden corner of the mind? “The conscience,” Kant proposes, “follows a person like his shadow when he plans to escape. He can indeed stun himself or put himself to sleep by pleasures or distractions.” But can its voice be completely subdued?2 “That quote frightened me and made me think,” a student wrote to me. “I think there is something true about it.” We decided to take the quote apart to see what made it frightening and possibly true. A compelling idea! Sometimes that is all it takes to begin the process of critical thinking, the start of a dialogue.

The search for truth must be a struggle and not by simply gravitating toward compelling opinion, no matter how attractively or alluringly it is presented.

Bandura’s concept of “moral disengagement,” offers insight into how some may justify destructive behaviors.  It begins by denigrating and dehumanizing others and inflict pain upon them with impunity.  These harmful act may be rationalized as “moral” or “for a worthy cause,” ultimately making it permissible and, no doubt, even repeatable. Once again, the cloak of invisibility can potentially make this more likely since the offender is shielded through electronic means, although the truth that such reprehensible acts have been committed remains true to him or herself. To become better social beings is to protect each other and humanity as a whole in the classroom of life, where the examination of values guides us toward a “higher education”. The search for truth must be a struggle and not by simply gravitating toward compelling opinion, no matter how attractively or alluringly it is presented. “…the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons.”4

Moral Re-engagement through Lessons from Philosophy and Literature

Perhaps one method of cultivating pro-social behavior is through the discussion of works of thinkers of the past who have so cogently and artfully captured the struggles and temptations of being human. They have offered timeless wisdom that can be applied to our world today. In this brief article, there have been mentions of insights offered by Socrates, Kant, Wells, and Mill (and we can easily add so many others).   Such insights reveal much about the complexities of who we are as social beings. To humanize us, we need philosophy and ethics; and I submit to you that all of our disciplines emerged from philosophy and have explicit or implicit references to ethics. As Bandura suggests, “The affirmation of common humanity can bring out the best in others.”5 Literature and philosophy speak to that commonality—not to entertain, but to challenge and inspire, so as to help us think critically for the sake of ourselves as well as others. Not the Internet of invisibility, instead a net of social responsibility and personal accountability.

Cultivating Critical Thinking: Our Best Defense

  1. In nearly every class we teach, there are opportunities to bring attention to the role of critical thinking. The etymology of the word “critical” suggests taking things apart and examining their components, which, at one point, requires putting  them back together (i.e., synthesis) to see if they add up. Therefore, critical thinking becomes the antidote against being manipulated by information at face value, regardless of its source, and offers us the necessary tools to resist the inclination to arrive at erroneous conclusions. This antidote requires frequent boosters!
  2. We should not wait for students to take a course in ethics to discuss its importance and relevance to a specific discipline. Ethical principles apply to the arts as they do to the sciences and everything in between. Oftentimes these principles are expressed implicitly in classroom lectures. How can we make them more explicit? Perhaps by starting or ending a lecture or presentation with ethical questions. This can happen in a classroom or at a business meeting.
  3. History is one of our finest teachers and all of our disciplines have a history behind them. Therefore, historically speaking, how did the various disciplines address their ethical challenges? Considering that every discipline has a pro-social “conscience” and a voice, were they ever compromised and if so, how, by whom or what?  Why does art disappear during certain epochs in history? Why do books disappear? What do they expose?
  4. My students impress me with their sharp-witted knowledge of technology. They teach me little tidbits from time to time. And, from time to time, I ask them some impromptu questions with ethical challenges.  What are the long term consequences of the misuse of technology and how can they be avoided or turned around?
  5. When it comes to the Internet, how can we balance freedom with responsibility, invisibility with accountability? With some guidance and inspiration, students can be challenged to offer meaningful and practical insights into such questions.
  6. Ultimately, the best way to cultivate critical thinking is through dialogue, particularly when the dialogue focuses on addressing values, their roles and impact on our lives. Today, the misuse of the Internet is challenging some such values. Can we safely live in a world where matters of justice and morality are so easily manipulated with misinformation? What can be our defense?

The Internet may be powerful but it cannot determine our lives, for the solution to its potential problems resides within us.

Anything that disconnects us from each other, from society, no matter how technologically ingenious or intoxicating it may appear initially, in time, it will result in suffering.  In the end, it is humanity and our social essence that needs to be protected and fortified. For that to occur, we need to climb the ladder to a “higher education,” a place of higher values, in search of greater wisdom. In the end, critical thinking can be taught not only in classrooms, but also in businesses, and organizations. And when it becomes a way of life, or a way of coping with life, we will all be living in a safer world.

About the Author

Micah Sadigh

Micah Sadigh, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, USA. Dr. Sadigh presents internationally and is the author of Existential Journey: Viktor Frankl and Leo Tolstoy on Suffering, Death, and the Search for Meaning, which was recently translated into Polish, with new translations expected in 2022 and 2023.

References

  • Plato. (1968). The Republic of Plato (360c). New York: Basic Books.
  • Kant E. (2011).  The Metaphysics of Morals (p.189). UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wells, H.G. (2003). The Invisible Man. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  • Mill, J. S. (2002). On Liberty. (p.30). New York: Dover.
  • Bandura, A. (2016). Moral Disengagement (p.91). New York: Worth.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.