“Fake News” and the Responsibility of Philosophers

”Fake news” is not actually a new phenomenon. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber document in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that it is an invention of the public relations industry that is as old as the industry itself. The First Amendment makes it pretty hard to prevent such efforts to manipulate public opinion. That’s the price it appears we have to pay to live in a free society. It wouldn’t be so serious a problem as it is if people in the field of higher education didn’t fall down on their responsibility to alert alert the public to it.

A recent case in point is an article entitled Study: For-Profits Match Similar Nonprofits in Learning Results,” that ran in the January 11th issue of Inside Higher Education. The third paragraph cites the study as claiming that “[i]n all six comparisons, students at proprietary institutions actually outperformed the students at the nonproprietary comparison institutions.”

Who would have thought that? I mean, really, aren’t the for-profits infamous for having poor learning outcomes? One doesn’t actually even have to look at the original study, however, to realize that something is fishy with it. The first red flag is the fact that the study uses the euphemism “proprietary” institutions rather than the straightforwardly descriptive “for-profits.”

The study is described as measuring “learning outcomes in six areas for 624 students from four for-profit higher education systems, which the study does not name, and then compar[ing] the scores with those of a matched group of students from 20 unnamed public and private institutions that were selected because they were similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance” (emphasis added).

The second red flag is the “matched group of students.” Matched in what sense? That isn’t explained.

The third red flag is that neither the traditional nonprofit institutions nor the for-profit ones are named.

The fourth red flag is that the nonprofit institutions were selected because they were “similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance.” Really? Since for-profits are reputed to have abysmal results in terms of academic performance, they must have searched long and hard to find nonprofits that had similarly abysmal results, if indeed they really did find such institutions, which cannot be verified since they are “unnamed.”

The whole thing reminds me of an old television commercial for Rolaids. Someone dumps a white powder into a beaker of what appears to be water with red food coloring in it, then stirs the powder, which gradually becomes clear again, while a voiceover announces “In this test with Rolaids’ active ingredient, laboratory acid changes color to PROVE Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”

There was no way, however, to prove that the beaker had actually contained acid, or that what had been dumped into it was really Rolaids’ “active ingredient,” or indeed even that the change in color represented Rolaids’ “absorbing” anything let alone acid, not to mention how much acid. I credit that commercial with starting me on the road to becoming a philosophy professor because even as a child I found it outrageous that someone should expect I would take it as proving anything.

One of the chief duties of philosophers, I believe, is to expose errors in reasoning and man were there errors of reasoning in that commercial. I learned very early that commercials were not to be trusted. Most people know that, I think. Most people know to be skeptical when, for example, a commercial claims that some detergent removes stains better than any other detergent ever invented and presents what it purports is proof.

Most people know to be skeptical about claims made in commercials. Unfortunately, most people do not know to be skeptical about claims made in what is presented to them as “news.” That’s why I use Rampton and Stauber’s book when I teach critical reasoning. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a philosopher to alert my students to the pervasiveness of the practice of dressing up propaganda as news.

Back to the education “study.” Even if the study were genuine, the results are pretty much useless because the whole study is circular. That is, the study admittedly sought out “matched” students at “similar” institutions. It thus isn’t surprising that the for-profits come out looking better than one would expect if the selection of students and institutions had been random.

The study was conducted by a group called the Council for Aid to Education, or CAE. The “Executive Summary” (p. 2) of the study makes it very clear where the CAE stand on the for-profits. “The proprietary education sector stands at a crossroads,” it begins.

Proprietary colleges and universities are key providers of postsecondary education in the United States, enrolling over 1.7 million students. However, the sector has seen its enrollment decline since its peak in 2010 due to the growing employment opportunities following the Great Recession, the heavy regulatory burdens imposed during the last six years, and the perception that education at proprietary institutions is not on par with that offered by their non-proprietary peers.

The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) believes this junction presents a critical time to explore the efficacy of proprietary institutions and to document the student learning they support.

If there were doubt in anyone’s mind concerning the study’s objectivity, the opening of the “Executive Summary” should remove it. The CAE set out to show that the for-profits were doing as good a job of educating students as are traditional nonprofit institutions of higher education.

Of course the CAE is within its rights to do this. The problem is not so much the the CAE’s clear bias in favor of the “proprietary education sector,” but Inside Higher Education’s failure to expose that bias. Inside Higher Education purports to be “an independent journalism organization.” This “journalistic independence is critical,” IHE asserts in its “Ownership Statement,” “in ensuring fairness and thoroughness” of its “higher education coverage.”

The thing is, Quad Partners, “a private equity firm that invests in the education space,” purchased a controlling share of IHE in 2014. That is, Inside Higher Education is now an arm of the “proprietary education sector.” So the purported “independence,” “fairness,” and “thoroughness” of its reporting on issues in higher education appears now to be only so much more propaganda in the service of the for-profits.

Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Education protested to me in an email, after he saw an earlier version of this article that appeared in Counterpunch, that he and the people over at IHE had had their own suspicions about that piece and that that was why they had given is only a “barebones Quick Take.”

“What confuses me,” he said,

is why you viewed our minimalist and questioning treatment of the CAE research as evidence that we are in the tank for the for-profits because our lead investor has also invested in for-profit higher education––rather than as proof that our ownership situation has changed us not at all.

I fear Lederman may be right in protesting that IHE had not been willingly shilling for the for-profits. It apparently didn’t even occur to him that the suspicions he and others had had about the study should have led them to do a full-scale investigation of it (an investigation that would have involved actually reading at least the “Executive Summary” of the study to which they included a link in their article) and to publish an exposé on the study as a piece of propaganda for the for-profits rather than a “barebones” article that presented it as “news.”

What concerns me is not so much that the for-profits are trying to manipulate public opinion to make it more favorable toward them. What concerns me is that the editors of a leading publication that reports on issues in higher don’t have the critical acumen to identify what ought to have been readily identifiable as a piece of “fake news,” or the journalistic experience and expertise to know what to do with it once they have identified it as such.

That’s disturbing.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

 

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