High School Students and Critical Reading of Science Misinformation on the Internet

Saturday, February 13, 2016
Anita Tseng, Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford, CA
Background: Today’s students spend substantial time on the Internet, and use it as a source of science information. The Internet has become an increasingly popular space for discussion of controversial science issues by more laypeople than scientists through new Web genres such as blogs. With the ease of self-publication and a lack of traditional gatekeeping on the Internet, there is more misinformation about science available to the public. Additionally, new technologies such as sharing functions have allowed media to spread more quickly. The pervasiveness of science misinformation is problematic for students due to limited content knowledge for evaluating science claims, and a greater tendency to accept misinformation without question. Valid interpretation of science texts requires understanding how scientific inferences are made, and evaluating and critiquing the information. Therefore, in today’s information landscape, it is crucial for science students to be critical readers who question unscientific claims. This study evaluated the types of background knowledge used by students and scientists to critically evaluate an inaccurate Web article about science. Methods: To collect data on reasoning while reading, 14 AP Biology students participated in a Think Aloud activity, voicing their thoughts while reading a blog article with inaccurate claims about vaccination safety. To model a general critical reading stance towards scientific claims, I also recruited career scientists who did not have specialized content knowledge in vaccination to participate in the Think Alouds. Discrete thought units were identified from transcript data and qualitatively analyzed for frequency of critiques and emergent themes in background knowledge referenced. Results: While scientists were mostly critical of the article, students evaluated it with both critical and affirmative commentary. For the scientists and a subset of very critical students, there was little reference to content knowledge about vaccination, but more critical comments (average of 44) about the text than the average frequency (30 comments) for students, mostly about the scientific reasoning of the author (42% of critiques) and writing style (44%). Conclusions: The results suggest that even without expertise in the topic of the text, general knowledge of appropriate scientific reasoning and critical reading practices can bolster the ability to find flaws in science-related claims. Implications for science education include increased emphasis on evaluation skills and critique of science misinformation.