Teaching students to separate fact from feeling in the age of truthiness

On the debut episode of The Colbert Report in 2005, the satirical host introduced the concept of “truthiness,” which set the tone for the rest of the series. It’s a concept intended to critique truth claims which prioritize feelings, opinions, or intuitions over evidence-based facts. A related idea is “post-truth,” the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 Word of the Year: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Thanks to ubiquitous access to the fast, searchable Internet, it’s easier than ever to find factual information. But at the same time, professionals in institutions like education and journalism — those whose job it is to cultivate an informed public — are contending with the popularity of things like fake news and other media which fail to draw, or intentionally omit, distinctions between feelings and facts, analysis and intuition, speculation and data. It’s easy to take for granted the idea that feelings are not the same as evidence — a concept articulated at least as far back as the philosophers and rhetors of Ancient Greece and Rome — but as with any other critical skill, it requires practice in applying it to different contexts.

A year after “truthiness” entered popular discourse, Colbert coined a related term: “wikiality,” a wiki-like reality in which truth is determined by consensus opinion rather than fact. To demonstrate the concept, he asked his viewers to edit the Wikipedia entry for elephants to say the population of African elephants had tripled in the previous six months, and claimed credit for helping the animals when the article was changed accordingly. But while Colbert’s dedicated fanbase was certainly able to disrupt Wikipedia’s articles about elephants (not even Babar the Elephant was spared), Wikipedia actually does a remarkably good job of distinguishing facts from opinions, and hoaxes like this are almost always removed within minutes, if not seconds.

Consensus among Wikipedians determines not reality or truth but the extent to which particular changes conform to best practices for neutrality, sourcing, tone, balance, source quality, clarity, etc. Editors on Wikipedia are expected to adhere to some core policies and guidelines. Articles should contain only “verifiable” content and should present all significant perspectives of a subject without including any original research. That means Wikipedia can contain no “gut feelings” and can only include what reliable sources have already published about a topic, summarized neutrally, with any statement of opinion or fringe perspective presented as such and attributed to its source.

When students write Wikipedia articles for class, they are engaging squarely in the space of facts. They must learn how to identify the best sources for a given subject and how to neutrally summarize the different points and perspectives in those sources. And importantly, when they contribute to Wikipedia, they must also be ready to articulate why the sources are reliable and why it’s a clear, neutral summary if/when other editors challenge their additions. These experiences at the intersection of critical thinking, information literacy, and communication with an international community add a particularly unique dimension to the assignment through which students must apply what they’ve learned in a public forum.

Instructors teach with Wikipedia in large part because of how valuable these skills are — but Wikipedia’s many rules and guidelines, which keep the information factual, make it difficult for an instructor who isn’t an experienced editor to successfully lead a class. That’s where Wiki Education comes in; we provide that support so instructors can get the benefits of Wikipedia assignments for their students without having to be long-term contributors themselves. In the fall 2016 term, Wiki Education is supporting more than 275 separate classes working on Wikipedia — more than ever before. Instructors work with us because our mission is to act as their bridge to Wikipedia, providing material, technical, and staff support for them and their students as they adapt to the sometimes complex workings of Wikipedia. Our Dashboard tool, interactive training, brochures, and other resources guide students through the necessary steps and skills involved, and ensures instructors can remain focused on what’s most important for their course rather than learning how to be a Wikipedia pro for their students.

If you’re an instructor interested in the idea of teaching with Wikipedia, consider teaching with us. Wiki Education is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides these resources for free in order to support the best possible experience for students and the best possible student contributions to Wikipedia. If you agree with us that this work is important, we’d appreciate spreading the word via social media (e.g. Facebook or Twitter). Or if you’re in a position to support our work financially, consider donating online.


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