When a College Education Makes Things Worse

Is it risky to become a critical thinker in a post-truth media environment?

Posted Nov 28, 2017

Education is supposed to help. Of course, a college education should expand employment opportunities. A college education should also help people become effective critical thinkers. Education should empower people to evaluate information and come to rational decisions. Creating critical thinkers is the goal of most college educators. But what if becoming a critical thinker is the problem? Instead of helping, an education in critical thinking may hurt in some cases.

Earning a college degree apparently influences a person’s political views. Although Democrats and Republicans differ politically, a college education generally has similar effects no matter one’s starting political perspective. In a recent New York Times article, the results of surveys were used to look at how a college education influenced the political views of democrats and republicans. Overall, a college education apparently makes people more liberal. Both Democrats and Republicans tended to change their views in the same direction with additional education. Keep in mind, big differences remain in the political views of Democrats and Republicans even with a college education. But the interesting thing is that those views typically move in the same direction with more education—call it an education effect.

The education effect works on cultural political issues so that college-educated democrats and republicans are more accepting of marriage equality for gays and lesbians than people with lower levels of education. The education effect works on acceptance of science so that a college education leads both democrats and republicans to be more accepting of the theory of evolution. With education, they both tend to become more progressive on political topics and more willing to accept scientific evidence.

Of course, you could see this as colleges being politically biased and faculty working to turn all of their students into liberal progressives.

A more positive view of these changes is also possible. A college education may lead people to seek out more information. All college-educated people may value information and thus rely on factual knowledge to guide decision-making. Even when conservatives and liberals start from different places, they may move in the same direction with more information and a critical evaluation of evidence. You should see this as a victory for rational discourse in the political system. If we can agree on the evidence, perhaps we can reach a reasonable compromise.

But a college education doesn’t always help by leading people to the same political conclusions.

We need to consider the important exceptions. For some topics, a college education accentuates the existing differences between democrats and republicans. Consider climate change as the critical example. With a college education, Democrats are substantially more likely to worry about the threat of climate change. In contrast, Republicans with a college education are less likely to worry about climate change. According to the surveys reviewed by the New York Times, a college education also increases the differences between the views of democrats and republicans on a few other topics, such as support for government-run healthcare and trust in the media.

Why does a college education exacerbate differences in our views about climate change?

I want to suggest a possible explanation. Effective critical thinking relies on your starting point. If you start with accurate information, then you should reach a reasonably rational conclusion. Of course, if you start with erroneous information, then your conclusion is likely to not be so reasonable. Educated people tend to seek information. College educated people may also tend to think critically about information. But again, if your basic starting point includes incorrect information, then your critical thinking will lead to erroneous conclusions.

I want to raise an important concern about misinformation in the post-truth media world. Stephen Lewandowsky and some of his colleagues (2017) have argued, rather effectively and based on good information, that people are not starting with the same basic information on many political topics. Let’s again turn to climate change. The basics of the science are clear—global warming is happening and humans are a primary contributor to the warming. This warming will lead to changes in the climate and many of these changes will lead to adverse effects. For people who start with that basic information, there is good reason to be concerned about climate change. Many college-educated liberals are aware of this information and that apparently guides their critical thinking.

But some people, including people who sample a lot of information, are exposed to very different information. Many conservatives obtain information from media sources that deny global warming, deny the contribution of humans to warming, dismiss the risks of climate change, and highlight the expenses of addressing climate change. Conservatives thus have a very different starting point for their reasoning process. Lewandowsky and colleagues expressed dismay that many media sources are promoting misleading information about climate change and other topics.

Everything starts with your information in most political debates.

There is a simple reason that even rational, college-educated people will not agree on climate change. Even if they seek out information, they may see the same basic facts. Some forms of media tend to rely on scientific evidence and journalists do their best to base their reporting on traditional journalistic ethics of presenting true information. Other media sources tend to dismiss scientific evidence. Instead, the information presented is consistent with the answer desired rather than the state of the world. In essence, those journalists are intentionally presenting incorrect information. In our post-truth media environment, people may not be able to start their critical thinking with accurate information. We should not expect people to come to the same political position.

I want to highlight another issue as well. We all, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, may share an important egocentric bias. It is easy to critically evaluate ideas with which you disagree. In contrast, everyone finds it more challenging to be critical when looking in the mirror and considering their own arguments. A college education should train critical thinking. Of course, that critical thinking will often be focused on the other side’s argument.

Thus a college education can make things worse. College-educated people may seek information. They may use critical thinking skills to evaluate the information they receive and move toward a decision. But with misinformation as a starting point, they may create a position that is inconsistent with the actual state of the world. They may use critical thinking skills to reach an inappropriate decision.

From my perspective, this will be hard to address. In responding to the argument by Lewandowsky and colleagues, Maddy Jalbert and I argued that getting people to acknowledge and use accurate information will be exceedingly difficult. Their worldview and the preponderance of information they see presents a consistent, but incorrect, position. How do we present truthful information in a way that corrects misinformation? I don’t have an answer yet. But we need one if we hope to have a political environment in which people can once again agree on the basic facts that underlie their discussion.

References

Lewandowsky, Ecker, & Cook (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the post-truth era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. doi: 10.1016/jarmac.2017.07.008

Hyman & Jalbert (2017). Misinformation and worldviews in the post-truth information age. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. doi: 10.1016/jarmac.2017.07.009