Friday, May 14, 2021

"Crap Detection 101" - And Why Even The 'Best & Brightest' At Elite Schools Are Unable To Discern Fake News From Facts


Loyola Philosophy class, ca. 1966

"Every man should have a bona fide crap detector operating inside him.  It also should have a manual and crank handle in case the machine breaks down." -  Ernest Hemingway

One of the more astounding revelations in the book AfterThe Fact by Nathan Bomey, appears on page 154: "In an analysis of data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment Exam (CLA+), administered to college students to gauge their critical thinking, problem solving and writing abilities, The Wall Street Journal found that the average graduate at some of the most prestigious flagship universities' displayed little or no improvement in critical thinking in 4 years'."

This test (similar to the GRE before 2001) requires students to assess information by combing through spreadsheets, research papers, news articles and various documents to make a 'cohesive argument'  or to 'evaluate an assertion'.

But it was found that "at least a third of seniors at more than half of the schools failed at the task."  

 In other words, many of these students in our current polarized, conspiracy ideation and  propaganda environment would not be able to tell a fact from a fable.   Such as the drivel spouted yesterday  during a House hearing by a Georgia Repuke-ican moron (Rep. Andrew Clyde) who claimed - in regard to the January 6th insurrection: "To call what happened an insurrection is a bold faced lie. Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people standing in an orderly fashion between stanchions and ropes just taking videos and picturesIf you didn't know that video was from January 6th you'd think it was just a normal tourist visit."

The cracker ass buffoon later actually challenged a reporter who called him on his blather, claiming she'd "taken it out of context"  Making one wonder which part of Trump's asshole this dingbat loser ape just crawled out of.  But more interesting is Nathan Bomey's take on the kind of student who'd most likely swallow that balderdash. We find out they are mainly "strategic learners".  They "show up, take your exam-  and you really can't give them a C - but they don't have an original thought in their head."  They simply never develop the ability to "trek beyond the narrow confines of the syllabus."   Which is pathetic, because that is the domain wherein real learning - and critical thinking - resides.  But alas which too few universities, even elite ones, encourage.

This compares to my experience at Loyola, for example, in the  mid-1960s where critical thinking was emphasized in every course, especially those in philosophy and logic. (See image above).  Even in the standard theology course critical thinking, as in exam answers, was emphasized above regurgitation. E.g. from one of the mid term exams I kept:

How (not how much) have the Qumran scrolls contributed to our knowledge of the history of Judaism? What caution(s) must we keep in mind when reconstructing Israelite history from these scrolls?

But this is not surprising.  It was Loyola's Jesuits, after all - who encouraged those of us in the freshman classes to attend a lecture by foremost existentialist and atheist Jean-Paul Sartre in January 1965.  The difference back then is that inquiry and analytical reasoning -as well as cogent writing, speaking - meant something. It was not something to be smothered or minimized in favor of "career ready skills".  

Flash forward to the current period and we behold (ibid.): "Higher institutions are essentially selling grades and degrees in exchange for nominal performance."   Thus:  "Instead of assessing college students based on their abilities and genuine achievements, educators are rewarding students based on whether they put in minimal effort."

The evidence, according to Bomey, is in the rampant grade inflation.  He cites the research of Duke University professor of geophysics Stuart Rojstaczter, who's been tracking college students' performance for years.  His research has found that "the average grade point average at four year American colleges increased by 0.1 points on a 4 point scale every decade since the early 1980s."  That would represent at minimum a 0.4 increase to the present - a difference perhaps between a C plus and a B.   By contrast: 

"In the early 1960s, fewer than two in ten grades were As. Today it's well over four in ten.  An A, in fact, is the most common grade today, despite scant evidence students have improved academically".  

That, according to the CLA + testing.   So what gives?  As I've written before, universities - even the likes of Harvard and Yale- are awarding these inflated grades so students refrain from delivering lousy teacher evaluations, which in turn would rebound negatively on the schools.  More to the point, both students and their parents expect to see high grades for the high tuition money they're shelling out. Never mind the kid may not have earned those high grades. 

  Thus according to Prof. Rojstaczter quoted in the chapter ('Crap Detection 101', p. 155): "What appears to be driving higher grades over the last thirty -five years is rising tuition. As students pay more and more for a degree they expect more for that degree. And that includes a high GPA on graduation."  

Rojstaczter adds (ibid.): "What we've done on college campuses - with the blessing of college leadership - is instill an ethos where the students are the customers and the customer is always right."

Something I  noted in my book, The Elements of the Corporatocracy, p. 125:

"According to observations of one liberal arts professor - who has seen manifestations of the 'consumer self' in his own university (and talked to colleagues who indicate the same exists where they are). In his words - referring to students and teacher evaluations (Edmundson, M.: Harpers, Sept., 1997, p. 39):

They're pitched into high writing gear....stoked on a procedure they have now supremely mastered. They're playing the informed consumer, letting the provider know where he's come through and where he's not up to snuff."

Yeah, like when the student firmly believes he really deserved that A in physics lab and is prepared to threaten a prof with a terrible evaluation if he doesn't get it. Never mind the high grades no longer mean diddly or squat.  Not compared even to the Cs we may have received back in the 1960s.  

Rojstaczter again: 

"What an A or B increasingly means is you just showed up, you were diligent and you didn't insult the teacher...So if you're putting in the effort you're going to get a B or better.  If you don't put in the effort - horror of horrors - you might get a C which is what used to mean average academic behavior.."   

In other words those Cs we got back in the 1960s would translate to Bs today, or maybe even As in some courses.  Plus we had the critical thinking chops to carry on a lengthy battle against 'crap' foisted on us from any direction.  Today's lily -livered, semi-educated students lack that ability.  They've been softened by their inflated grades to believe they can parse any inauthentic material presented to them, say in social media venues- and see through it. They can't.  

But this is exactly why craven politicos and school boards won't mandate critical thinking in courses.  They're terrified students will suddenly see through their conspiracy ideations,  B.S. or fakery - like that of Rep. Andrew Clyde noted earlier.  Clyde is also a perfect example of the misinformation spread via political polarization.

A recent finding reported in the NY Times, indeed, found that there is abundant evidence that an individual with more polarized views becomes more prone to believing falsehoods. 

Another driver of the misinformation era is the emergence of high-profile political figures who encourage their followers to indulge their desire for identity-affirming misinformation.  In the case of the Georgia cracker Rep Andrew Clyde it is indulging in the fantasy that the insurrectionists were simply "tourists" that day or "patriots" expressing their 1st amendment rights.  Both exposed as poppycock when videos of the havoc and violence are presented.  

Today, given that digital misinformation, disinformation and propaganda have emerged as the biggest threats to our Republic - it is essential critical thinking be resurrected.  That includes training the brains of millions to be "crap detectors" which includes a healthy skepticism at any claim made, followed by vigorous investigation of source credibility.    

This becomes even more critical now as we learn about the emerging tendency to automatically tune out voices because they come from "the other side".  As pointed out by Zeynip Tufekci  in  a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article:

"The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone.  It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”

Needless to say, in a social media ecosystem wherein the sense of identity and conflict is all -consuming, this is a recipe for national disaster.  What it means is "belonging" (i.e. to one's identity group - whether Oathkeepers, QAnon or 'Big Lie' Repukes) is stronger than facts.   It means we now inhabit a post-fact, post truth nation in which truth and fact only have validity if the particular identity group approves.   

As I wrote, a recipe for national calamity and possibly a defeat for any serious crap detection.

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