This post is adapted from a speech I prepared for my public speaking course at college. The speech was, of course, directed toward an audience of college students at a public university.
“We’ve been duped!”
How would you respond if I told you that one of your professors had lied to the class about something while they were teaching? Probably you’d be at least a little outraged, right? After all, you paid good money for this class and you are trusting your instructor to tell the truth! Well…what if I said your professor wasn’t intentionally lying to you; they believed what they said was correct. This makes the situation a little more complicated, doesn’t it? What happened was they failed to accurately represent the full range of evidence and perspectives on a crucial topic, thus leaving you with an inaccurate impression of the truth.
According to a Pew Research Center survey of American adults, 66% of individuals believe scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time (1). That figure is higher in college graduates—76%. What does this mean? American adults, especially college students, are unaware of multiple viewpoints in the scientific community on this critical issue.
As students, we are here to learn from our professors and instructors. We have a rightful expectation that what they are teaching should be accurate and balanced. We should also be concerned with the quality of our sources of information, whether that be from the class lectures or what we hear and read outside them.
Because the academic class structure is a prime environment for the misleading of students, you must employ critical thinking and do your own research on important issues. I ask each of you to consider whether you may have been duped and do your own research, seeking out other perspectives and examining the evidence for foundational issues. I’ll explain the situation that causes this misleading, describe what will happen if we don’t research for ourselves, and finally discuss how and when to search out other sides to the story.
I’ll begin by sharing some observations of our problem of confirmation bias.
The Problem: Confirmation Bias
The academic classroom setting is an often-accidental opportunity for the misleading of students because from a young age we are taught to trust and respect authority figures, and rightly so. However, college is a transition time from child to adult, dependent to independent. As adults, we must learn to discern when a topic is critical enough that we should do our own research before accepting/adopting a certain position. We can’t go through life critically questioning everything, of course, so we need to develop the skill of knowing what issues are important enough to be worth our time.
The problem is, we aren’t doing a good job of this. Another survey from the Pew Research Center shows that white Americans and black Americans have enormously different views on racial equality, with 88% of blacks and 53% of whites saying the country has more work to do on equality for blacks (2).
Additionally, another Pew Research Center survey on political polarization and media habits shows that 47% of consistent conservatives mostly see Facebook posts in line with their views, and 44% of consistent liberals have blocked someone on Facebook because they disagreed with something that person posted about politics (3). Clearly, we have a long way to go in seeing and understanding other perspectives on issues.
We are largely unaware of or improperly understanding perspectives other than our own. This is called confirmation bias (4), and it is a huge problem in our society. If we don’t even know that other viewpoints exist, how are we supposed to study and learn from them? It doesn’t mean that these other viewpoints are necessarily correct, because in fact some of them are mutually contradicting. But if we don’t examine them and the evidence supporting them, we could be duped.
Because of natural bias and selective information given, it is crucial that we as students and young adults take responsibility for doing our own research.
The Warning: Nazi Germany
As a historical example, in the creation of Hitler’s Germany, many factors were at play. Primarily, Hitler was a very charismatic guy, though we might not think of him as so. He believed in what he was promoting and doing (5), and he was actually a very successful public speaker, since he accomplished his goal of persuading people to follow him. He built others’ trust in him by helping restore Germany’s economy and status after WWI (6).
What can we say of those countless hordes of people who joined or supported his cause? Were some of them manipulated? Almost certainly. Were some of them secretly dissenters, but scared to resist? Absolutely. But the vast majority of the people were those who failed to think critically and examine the evidence for themselves. And why did they fail to do so?
These individuals went along with Hitler’s plan either because it sounded great and patriotic—save the Fatherland!—or because of peer pressure and pressure from authorities (7). Their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers seemed to agree with the leader, and besides, if they dared to “make waves” it might affect them and their family negatively. Because no one would speak up, all seemed in agreement. They were duped.
Nazi Germany gives us a perfect example of a persuasive authority figure who people listened to without evaluating the situation for themselves, leading to the Holocaust. But there is a way to solve this problem and make sure we aren’t part of the next horror of history.
The Solution: Do Your Own Research
First of all, let me clear something up. I’m not saying we should reject or question critically every word our authority figures speak. There is a reason our professors and instructors are teaching—they know things! And there will always be someone who knows more than we do or has more experience. We should never pretend we have all the answers.
However, we need to be careful. We need to be careful not to automatically accept that everything we hear is as certain as the hand in front of our face. We must be able to identify when an issue someone is speaking about should be questioned. We should be willing to do research ourselves so we can come to an informed conclusion.
As college students, these years are a time of big changes in our lives. So many areas of responsibility that were once taken care of by our parents now fall upon our own shoulders. This is our time of setting foot in the big old world, and often it feels like a sink-or-swim situation. Our horizons are expanding, and now we must decide for ourselves what positions we take on countless situations.
Don’t be like those voters who show up to the polls not having a clue who the candidates are or what they stand for. Don’t be that person having a heated Facebook debate about something they know next to nothing about. That isn’t the kind of person we want to become.
Rather, this is our time to step out on our own two feet and stand, knowing that what we believe has a solid, sure foundation.
So, have you been duped? How do you know? The only way you can know for sure is if you check out the facts yourself.
Now, I’m not asking you to change your major and become an investigative journalist like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate scandal (7)(8)–unless you want to, of cousre. I’m not even suggesting you all assign yourself a research paper on origins science like this crazy gal right here (yup, that would be me).
What I ask is that, sometime in the next week, each one of you choose an important, foundational topic being discussed in one of your classes or on the news, and read up on it. Examine the evidence and the various perspectives on the subject. Then make an informed decision you can have confidence in, even if that decision is that neither side is conclusive.
We have a problem: We are not doing well at recognizing and understanding other perspectives on critical issues. If we do not do our own research on important topics, especially those taught us by our instructors and other authority figures, we are setting ourselves up to be misled like Hitler’s followers were. However, if we take time to identify important issues and do some reading in the area, we will be more informed and more confident in the accuracy of our positions. Remember, this is a critical part of being an independent adult—knowing where you stand and why.
Toward that end, take some time this week to do some research on a topic that is important to you.
As Author Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and [how] hard it is to undo that work again!” (9) His words speak the sobering reality that it is all too easy to be duped, and yet it can take work and time to undo that damage with the truth. Have you been duped? Determine now to do whatever it takes to ensure you are on the side of the truth.
- “Evolution and perceptions of scientific consensus.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 1, 2015) http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/07/01/chapter-4-evolution-and-perceptions-of-scientific-consensus/ Accessed Oct. 14, 2017.
- “On views of race and inequality, blacks and whites are worlds apart.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 26, 2016). http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/ Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- “Political polarization & media habits.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 21, 2014) http://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/ Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- Nickerson, Raymond S. (June 1998). “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises”. Review of General Psychology. 2 (2): 175–220. http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F1089-26126.96.36.199 Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- Goode, E. (1998, November 17). Insane or just evil? A psychiatrist takes a new look at Hitler. ,http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/17/science/insane-or-just-evil-a-psychiatrist-takes-a-new-look-at-hitler.html Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- “Causes and motivations.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (n.d.). https://www.ushmm.org/learn/introduction-to-the-holocaust/ethical-leaders/background/causes-and-motivations Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- Perry, J. M. (n.d.). Watergate Case Study. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/j6075/edit/readings/watergate.html Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- The Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers. (n.d.). http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/woodstein/ Accessed Oct. 17, 2017.
- “2 December 1906: Paragraph 11,” in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. 2013 http://www.marktwainproject.org/xtf/view?docId=works/MTDP10363.xml;style=work;brand=mtp;chunk.id=dv0073#pa002121