Simon Houpt reports on the ongoing tensions between mainstream media and the Trump administration about factual reporting. He notes that in one exchange about the numbers of attendees at Mr. Trump’s inauguration, a White House spokesperson claimed that their own dissenting view was based on “alternative facts.”

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, history

Key Questions to Explore:

  • What are some techniques a person can use to better distinguish truth from fiction, a lie, or a partial truth?

New Terminology:

Discourse, rationalism, alternative facts

Materials Needed:

Globe article, the Internet, one or two downloaded photos contrasting the crowds at Mr. Trump’s inauguration with the crowd at Mr. Obama’s inauguration. These can be found with a quick web search.

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

A recent Stanford University study claims that young people get most of their information via social media, and that they are clueless about determining what is true or not. President Donald Trump is adding to the confusion by making unsupported claims and attacking the media as spreading “fake news.” As well, one of his spokespersons has based an obviously false claim on so-called “alternative facts.” In rational discourse, however, a fact is a fact. By definition, there can be no legitimate contradictory alternatives.

In a public space where “truthiness” and unsupported claims abound, students can be forgiven for not knowing who to believe, or how to distinguish factual claims from half-truths or outright lies. Rational discourse, the logical, rational exchange of ideas, is not particularly complex or difficult to understand. It merely requires effort and knowledge of basic rules of rationality. In this lesson, you will lead a discussion with your students to teach them a little about how to think more clearly and to distinguish fact from fiction, so they can better decide who and what to believe. You would conduct this lesson in class, using the suggestions below. Students will then work on a similar problem for homework. Suggested answers are in parentheses for your benefit.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Engage students in a discussion about Donald Trump. See if they are aware of the press conference in which a Trump spokesperson claimed to be basing a conclusion on “alternative facts.” Ask students what they think of this. What is an alternative fact? If all situations have alternative facts, how can anyone ever determine what and who to believe? Why does it matter whether people tell the truth or not? (It matters because people will act based on what they think is true, and their actions can have serious negative consequences, harming themselves and/or others.)

Ask a volunteer read aloud the paragraph from the attached article, starting with, “Less than 48 hours earlier…” Ask students to name the contentious issue being discussed, if they can. Explain that it relates to conflicting claims about the size of crowds that attended Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Mr. Trump and his spokespersons claimed that Mr. Trump’s was larger than Mr. Obama’s —the largest in history, according to Mr. Trump. Show students the contrasting photographs, in which the crowds are clearly much larger at Mr. Obama’s inauguration than those at Mr. Trump’s. Ask students whether they would consider this evidence to be conclusive, and why.

Explain that truth claims are evaluated by examining relevant evidence for or against them. The first step is to be clear about what is being claimed:

  • If the original claim was that the crowds in Washington were larger for Mr. Trump than for Mr. Obama, what does the evidence show? (It clearly shows much larger crowds at the Obama inauguration)
  • If the claim was that the crowds, worldwide, were larger for Mr. Trump, what kind of evidence would prove or disprove such a claim? (Estimates by television networks, Internet news suppliers, claims by experts, perhaps)
  • Is it possible that the second claim cannot be proved? (Yes, it is entirely possible)
  • If it cannot be proved, should you believe the claim or not? (The logical answer is that the claim is, at best, questionable, since there is no clear evidence to support or negate it)

Discuss what might be considered relevant or irrelevant evidence.

  • If someone who had been present at the event reported, “I was there and the crowd looked bigger than anything I’ve seen,” would this be relevant evidence? (This is anecdotal evidence, the testimony of personal experience. It can be valuable, but it must be tested against other evidence, such as an aerial photograph that shows more than one person might be able to see)
  • Should the photographic evidence be considered relevant? (Yes, but it must be tested for validity)

In this case, it would seem clear that, if the first claim is the factual claim, then the photographic evidence would seem to be conclusive. Poll students for their opinions on this: Who thinks the evidence is conclusive or not? Discuss dissenters’ opinions and ask:

  • What should be our next step to determine what or who to believe? (Examine the evidence carefully, to determine if it is real or altered)
  • How do we do that? (Look for alternative sources for photos of these events, and compare them; enlarge them to see if they may have been altered or “photo-shopped.”)
  • What if our own efforts are inconclusive? How might we determine the validity of the photos? (We can submit them to experts)
  • What kind of experts would we need to call on to make this determination? (A respected expert in political science, for example, who is familiar with both of Mr. Obama’s inaugurations—remember, there were two—and with Mr. Trump’s, as well. They may well have useful information, such as actual numbers. As well, a digital photograph expert could check for alterations, the accuracy of the weather (clouds, etc.) and any other clues for alteration).
  • What if the sources of evidence are biased, or have a strong vested interest in the claim, for or against? (Bias may lead someone to choose one kind of evidence over another. To the extent that other kinds of evidence are ignored, biased evidence is considered less conclusive. If all evidence is considered and if it proves one view, even if it is the biased view, it is still valid. In short, just because someone is biased does not mean they cannot present or use evidence fairly)

Finally, ask: What is a simple way to fact-check what you see or read in social media? (Use online fact-checkers, such as Snopes or Hoaxslayer. Note that these are considered quite thorough and reliable). Reinforce the fact that by spreading false news or lies, people can be hurt. Most ethicists would consider this morally wrong.)

When we have completed these tests, and if all the research shows that the claim was for the crowd in Washington, only, and that the photos are not retouched or altered, are we justified in believing that the original claim was false? (By most scientific standards, yes)

Next, summarize the process through which you applied a rational process to determining the truth of the claim:

  • Be clear about the “what.” What was the claim?
  • Gather and evaluate the evidence for and against the claim, from both sides of the argument;
  • Determine relevance of the evidence;
  • Determine bias in the evidence or those providing it, if possible;
  • Determine the validity/reliability of the evidence;
  • Examine and evaluate alternative explanations of the claim, if any exist;
  • To get a second opinion, run the claim through and Hoaxslayer, to see if their researchers agree.
  • Decide to believe or not to believe the claim.

For homework, ask students to critically examine two of these common headlines and claims in social media: 1) The White House will not display a Christmas Tree because it is politically incorrect; 2) President Obama was not born in the United States; 3) the 9/11 terrorists entered the United States from Canada; 4) immigrants are a major source of terrorism in Canada.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Discuss the homework assignment, noting any changes in the way students come to believe or disbelieve truth claims.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can apply a generally consistent series of steps to determine the validity of statements, or claims.

Confirming Activity:

  • Students report to class on what they believe are questionable claims by politicians or others.