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Geoff Johnson: Kids need skills to separate facts from sophistry

Social media is flooded with sophists — from Gen Z and TikTok “influencers” to political leaders — launching verbal attacks fraught with wild accusations, rumours and innuendo
Today’s teenagers, Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, are the first generation to grow up fully online. KATERINA HOLMES VIA PEXELS

Sophistry has gained a stronger foothold than ever before in our everyday experiences and those of our kids.

Sophistry, ambiguity, equivocation, circumlocution — all juicy words, but with the same meaning: the intention to deceive.

In the 5th century Greek-speaking world, particularly at Athens, Sophists were travelling intellectuals who taught “Arête” (excellence or virtue) to anyone who could pay the right fee.

The Sophists of old, much like the sophists of today, were splendid orators, public speakers — basically mouths for hire. Completely devoid of any morality or ethics, these charismatic men dazzled everyone with their clever reasoning but usually fallacious arguments.

They earned reputations as the crowd pullers who could convince anyone that good could be bad or vice-versa or even that day was night.

Which brings us to today’s social media, which is flooded with sophists — from Gen Z and TikTok “influencers” to political leaders — launching verbal attacks fraught with wild accusations, rumours and innuendo against their rivals, using sophisticated (there’s that word again) spin doctors who speak of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

As journalist and media critic Walter Lippman wrote as long ago as 1952 in Essays in the Public Philosophy, “Freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth. It is Sophistry, which is used today unabashedly for propaganda, lobbying, and salesmanship, to deceive a fellow man, to swindle, to cheat, or to pick pockets.”

In today’s high-tech world, sophists’ influence has reached dazzling heights and breadth. They now have limitless tools at their disposal. The internet is filled with dubious sources that appear to be honest and trustworthy at first glance but usually have a hidden agenda.

Fake news headlines abound, from “Judge Sends Entire Trump Family to Jail” to “Trudeau Convicted.”

Then there are click-bait headlines like “X Things You Absolutely Need To Know.” Most aim specifically to spread misinformation or propagate a certain viewpoint or political agenda.

Today’s teenagers, Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, are “the first generation of people to grow up fully online,” writes Alex Boyd of the Toronto Star. “This generation is now well on its way to adulthood, walking the halls in junior high and high schools, navigating a social world that is conducted as much online as it is in cafeterias or on sports fields.”

That’s why teaching kids from an early age to think critically about what they read, see and share online is important, according to Adam Dubé, assistant professor in McGill University’s department of educational and counselling psychology.

In a March 2018 CBC News report by Ainslie McLellan, Dubé emphasized that a child’s or teen’s ability to tell a reliable source from an unreliable one is an essential skill, not just for school research projects, but for life.

“We used to think of the internet as a repository of knowledge … like a digital encyclopedia,” he told the CBC. “Now it’s changed… there’s arguably more misleading information online.”

MediaSmarts, a non-profit, has been regularly surveying young Canadians about their attitudes to the internet and digital media since 1999. It surveyed more than 1,000 Canadians ages nine to 17 in the fall and winter of 2021, and picked up a growing concern about disinformation, coupled with a sense of doubt among participants about their own abilities to recognize and deal with it.

Kara Brisson-Boivin, director of research at MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit that focuses on digital and media literacy, told the CBC’s Jessica Wong in May: “Introducing this at as early an age possible is absolutely critical. I have a six year old [and] we talk quite frequently about the kinds of content we’re seeing online: what is real and what is imagined, how we can know these things.

“There are lessons and opportunities as a family or as a household where you can embrace this with really young children.”

Timothy Caulfield, professor of law at the University of Alberta and research director of its Health Law Institute, advised parents in a recent U of A interview piece that solving the problem of sorting online honesty from sophistry can be as simple as kids or even adults taking a few seconds to think or reflect and question something found online.

Parents and teachers helping kids separate information from misinformation or modern sophistry from fact might consider asking the following simple questions: Where did you hear this information? What are your thoughts about that source? Do you feel it is trustworthy?

Do you feel like it is true? If yes, what information in this do you trust?

Are there some parts of it you do not trust? If no, what is leading you to think this?

If nothing else, the questions could lead to a productive conversation.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.