Columnist John Sheirer: Critical thinking cure for fake news

  • President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches, Thursday, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.  AP PHOTO

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Donald Trump and his supporters are currently the leading purveyors of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” but they didn’t invent these phenomena. They simply took advantage of a political climate that discouraged critical thinking and promoted sloppy and inaccurate analysis of important issues.

Case in point: For years, my Republican friends have sent me what they call a “news report” claiming that a college professor had a class full of naïve students who were big fans of “Obama’s Socialism.”

The professor told the class, “Let’s test Obama’s plan.” Everyone’s grade would be averaged, and all students would receive the same course grade at the end of the semester, just like “Obama’s Socialism.”

To make a long story short, the students all got progressively lazier and failed the course. The moral to the story is supposed to be that socialism rewards “takers” more than “makers,” so socialism will never work as well as capitalism.

The friends who send me this story always want to know what I think of it because they assume that, as a liberal college professor who voted for Obama, I must be a socialist.

My response is two words that can’t be printed in this newspaper: the first refers to an intact adult male bovine, the second an indecorous word for excrement. Then I apply two more socially acceptable words to their fanciful tale: critical thinking.

First, no reputable college would tolerate that kind of grading system. Any professor who averages student grades is guilty of professional misconduct. The students aren’t mad at socialism. They’re mad at instructor malfeasance. Fact-checkers have pointed out that this supposed “news story” isn’t based on real events, obviously, but is just another made-up raindrop in the monsoon of right-wing fake news.

Second, classes aren’t economies. Grades aren’t money. The analogy is superficial and strained at best.

Third, as most fact-checkers have also noted, the fake grade system sounds more like communism than socialism, although that’s not even a good analogy.

Fourth, the concept of “Obama’s Socialism” is another complete fiction. “Obama’s Socialism” is a made-up, scare-tactic term originated by Republican spin-doctors to scare people away from any government program that actually helps everyday Americans instead of just corporations and the wealthy.

Just for fun, I’ve recently started providing my conservative friends with a different fictional scenario that I made up myself, unlike the one they parroted from their fake news sources.

At the beginning of the semester, the students told the professor that they were all fans of “Trump’s Capitalism.” The professor responded by proposing a class experiment to test “Trump’s Capitalism.” He told the students to put all the cash they had with them into an envelope with their name on it.

“Pass those envelopes up to me,” our fictitious professor said. “The students who submit the most money will start out with an A in the class. The second tier will start with a B, the next tier a C, and so on.” With a sad face, the professor concluded, “If your envelope is empty, well, then you unfortunate souls will begin the class with an F. But you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps to improve your original grade. Of course, if you’re happy with your initial grade, you don’t have to do anything.”

“Wait, that’s not fair,” some students objected, particularly those whose envelopes were light on cash. “Stop complaining and start studying!” the students with fat envelopes called out.

For the first few weeks of the semester, the wealthy students spent class time surfing social media, while the poorer ones took meticulous notes and asked well-considered questions. Eventually, only the poorest students continued coming to class, studying, and doing homework, while the wealthy ones played video games on their dorm room couches all day, content with their grades.

At the end of the semester, the wealthy students all earned top grades, while the poor ones struggled to pass even with strong work on their exams and assignments. And some failed outright because they were stuck in such a deep hole from the start. When they complained, the professor just said, “Hey, that’s exactly how Trump’s Capitalism works. Are you still big fans?”

My friends are outraged: “Come on! That’s a slanted interpretation of capitalism! It’s not really like that!”

That’s the point, of course. My story is an obvious exaggeration of some very real problems that can surface when capitalism is abused. The folks who bemoan my story should at least apply the same minimum of critical thinking to the absurd “Obama’s Socialism” story as well. But they don’t.

Unfortunately, Trump himself accepts as fact the fake reporting of alt-right Breitbart, insane performance artist Alex Jones, and agenda-driven Fox News, among others who discourage critical thinking in favor of following authoritarian pronouncements and foggy reasoning. Trump has become the leader of the fact-free world.

It’s no surprise that Trump’s supporters believe him when he slaps the “fake news” label on reality-based journalism about his administration’s multiple scandals, obvious conflicts, deep corruption, and gross incompetence. But as long as his supporters refuse to think critically, Trump has no reason to even try to make sense.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His most recent book is, “Donald Trump’s Top Secret Concession Speech.” Find him at JohnSheirer.com.