Research Cycle

Order Jamie's books online with Paypal or a credit card

Vol 13|No2|December |2016

True or False?
Fake News, Wrong Polls and Big Surprises

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


The above image first appeared in a May, 2016 New York Times article.

How do we know what is real?
How do we know what is true?


First the voters in the UK defied the pollsters
and the pundits by voting to leave the European Union.


Then the voters in the USA defied the pollsters
and the pundits by sending Donald Trump to the White House.

What are the implications for teachers, schools
and social studies education?

Regardless of your political preferences, the act of voting
and the challenges of citizenship have become more complicated
as fake news and distortion have shoved aside more reliable sources.

Unreliable opinion polls have influenced campaigns and voting in troubling
ways. Some people changed their vote or stayed home because of those misleading
opinion polls. Others voted to show their independence.

Does Truth Matter Anymore?

Classic social studies education argues the value of an educated
citizenry making informed decisions based on facts, but American
voters of all persuasions seem to value truth less than ever
before and are quick to believe conspiracy theories and allegations
that have no basis in fact.

In an election with a majority of citizens feeling distrustful of both
major party candidates and a no-holds-barred style of campaigning,
it became difficult to predict the outcome.

There is nothing new about fake news and disinformation, but social media
have intensified, accelerated and augmented the impact of such stories,
especially during a time when many citizens have become distrustful
of government, political parties and traditional news outlets.

Political candidates have always engaged in political theater and done
their best to manipulate the hopes and fears of the populace.

Demagogues, especially, have sought to mobilize the alienated and the

In January of 2008, in an article with the title "The Brave New Citizen",
I made the following prediction:

These technologies bring a mix of peril and promise as they may promote and nurture desirable citizenship behaviors or may do the very opposite, spawning a generation content with the glib, the superficial and the well-packaged.

We must be on guard against the onset of "mentalsoftness" characterized by a preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords as well as vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.

Smart uses of new technologies such as mind-mapping software combined with strong questioning and the pursuit of "difficult truths" can serve as antidotes to the disturbing cultural drift brought on by an uncritical embrace of all things new and digital.

MentalSoftness™ is a term I coined in May, 2000. (See FNO, May, 2000, "Beyond Information Power.").

Combating Mentalsoftness

Critical thinking combined with media literacy may equip students to handle
the confounding storm of fake news and distortions typical of today's
information landscape.

What is a thinker?

A thinker is someone capable of generating fresh ideas, building insight,
making inventions and figuring out how to confront problems. A thinker does
not rely on conventional wisdom and is rarely content to cut and paste
the thinking of others. A thinker is not susceptible to propaganda, fake news
or demagoguery.

The above cluster diagram was produced at the Visual Thesaurus and is published here with the permission of Thinkmap, Inc.

In previous articles I have suggested a linkage between mentalsoftness
and unfortunate school rituals like topical research that require
little more than cut-and-paste thinking.

  • Scooping
  • Smushing
  • A general lack of original thought
  • Susceptibility
  • Surrender

Traits of a thinker

  • Asks for evidence supporting claims
  • Checks the logic behind policy suggestions
  • Challenges the premises of any theory
  • Considers the bias of the source
  • Asks many probing questions
  • Predicts the consequences of actions
  • Waits to verify the authenticity of any report

Strategies to develop thinkers

Schools must leave trivial pursuit behind and engage students
in problem-solving, synthesis and the exploration of essential
questions as well as questions of import.

Note the October 2016 issue of The Question Mark:
"Essential Questions vs. Questions of Import"

My most recent book, The Great Report, is devoted to the development
of powerful thinkers.

The Great Report


  • Creates something new
  • Grapples with a big challenge
  • Explores the unknown
  • Shares insights and understandings that
    are perceptive and original
  • Awakens curiosity
  • Entertains, delights and illuminates

You can read sample chapters and see the list of chapters by clicking here.

Order the print version by clicking below.

Order through the mail with a check, click here for the order form.