“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 education 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.)

 

 

Something to be Thankful For

I didn’t know that Trump had won the election until I woke up on the following Wednesday morning. I had neither the heart nor the stomach to watch the election returns Tuesday night. This was the worst election in my memory, in my lifetime, possibly in this country’s history. I knew watching the returns would be depressing. I wanted to watch something uplifting, something edifying, so I watched the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. 42 may not achieve the same level of cinematic greatness as To Kill a Mockingbird, or In the Heat of the Night, but the story of Robinson’s integration of baseball is a great story and it makes the film deeply moving despite its shortcomings. Watching it reaffirmed my faith in the average American, the average human being.

There have been a lot of apocalyptic predictions about what would happen if Donald Trump were elected president. There’s no question that he will be able to do a lot of damage, but he will not, as so many people seem to think, be able to turn back the clock to the bad old days of a virulently racist, sexist, and generally intolerant past. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t racist, sexist, or intolerant anymore. We are. We are not so bad as we used to be, though, not by a long shot, and nobody is going to be able to turn the clock back on that, not even Donald Trump.

An election-night guest on Democracy Now said that if Trump were elected, all bets would be off. “These young black people,” she said, “who have been lying down in the streets as part of the many Black Lives Matter protests have been able to count on motorists not running them over. Well, if Trump gets elected, she asserted, they won’t be able to count on that anymore.” I’m paraphrasing her, of course, because my memory is not so good that I am able to repeat verbatim what she said. That’s pretty close, though.

The thing is, I believe she’s wrong. Motorists are not going to start running over protestors. It’s not like they’ve had to be forcibly restrained from doing this by liberal law-enforcement officers. As I explain to the students in my applied ethics classes, fear of arrest is not the reason most people obey the law. You couldn’t have enough law-enforcement officials on the street if fear of arrest were the only thing ensuring order in society. Respect for law, for social order, is the reason most people obey the law. People understand its importance for ensuring social order. They want to live in an orderly society and most people, in my experience, feel their fellow citizens, their fellow human beings, similarly deserve to live in an orderly society.

Motorists are not going to start running over protestors because human beings generally abhor homicide. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, wouldn’t run over their worst enemy, even if they felt confident that they could do this without any negative repercussions to themselves. People are not the monsters that those who try to shape public opinion would often have us believe.

One of the things I love about teaching is that it keeps me in touch with basic truths about human nature. The overwhelming majority of my students are conspicuously good, decent people. Even the ones who occasionally cheat, clearly do so out of fear. Inter-cultural, and even inter-racial couples are a common sight on campus. No one seems disturbed by their presence. I’ll never forget an experience I had a few years ago when somehow the conversation in one of my classes had turned to the subject of romantic relationships and one of my male students, when discussing his current relationship casually referred to his love interest as “he.” I hadn’t realized that this student was gay. Everyone else seemed to know this, however. At least they exhibited no surprise whatever at what was to me the revelation of this student’s sexual orientation. There was not the slightest pause in the conversation, no raised eyebrow, no suppressed giggles –– nothing!

Racism, sexism, and homophobia among college students consistently make headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. I don’t mean to suggest that these things don’t exist among college students. They make headlines, however, because it is increasingly clear that they are the exception among college students rather than the rule.

Something analogous explains the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Police have always been killing young black men. Black Lives Matter is not a response to a recent spate of such killings. It is an expression of a growing intolerance of this perennial problem, especially in the face of video proof.

Televisions shows such as The Cosby Show and Will and Grace, not to mention decades of civil-rights activism, have humanized groups that were earlier demonized. Trump’s presidency wasn’t the only significant political change to come out of the recent election, more states legalized marijuana. The growth of the internet and the increasing ease of global communication more generally means many, if not most, Americans now know that a living minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free higher education are not impossible dreams but tangible realities in countries far less wealthy than the U.S. If some Americans think Obamacare went too far, polls suggest many, if not most, Americans think it didn’t go far enough.

We’re not perfect yet and likely never will be. Americans are getting progressively better, though, and we are going to continue to get better even if Trump’s election means the next few years will be ones of fits and starts.

This country has changed. It has changed irrevocably since the days of Bull Connor and death threats to those who would integrate baseball. We are a different country now than we were in our more ignorant and intolerant past. That’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Waking Up to Change” in the 10 November 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

The Scam of Online Learning Platforms

Portrait caricatureThere’s an interview in this morning’s Inside Higher Education with Katie Blot, the president of Blackboard Education Services. Universities pay millions of dollars to Blackboard and similar companies for online learning services that are, in fact, available for free on the internet. Everything Blackboard Learn does can be done through a combination of free blogging services, Vimeo/Youtube, Facebook, traditional email and Skype (and, in fact, done much faster and more efficiently than Blackboard’s lumbering counter-intuitive platform does it). And how is it that university administrators can be so far behind the times that they do not know this and hence are willing to pay millions of dollars for unnecessary services that are then passed on to students who can ill afford to have such extra costs tacked onto their already through-the-roof tuition?

“Are you aware,” reads one of the comments that follows the interview,  “that no single piece of academic software is as loathed as your flagship product?” Blackboard Learn is so awkward and counter intuitive that it requires many hours of training for faculty to be able to use it even to provide the most basic of course services, not to mention the more advanced services that are features of Learn. I had to attend two all-day Learn seminars before I was in a position to use it to teach online (and that was after having attended several such seminars to learn Blackboard’s earlier platform Blackboard Vista).

What an enormous waste of time and resources! Universities have full-time information resources staff to teach faculty how to use Blackboard Learn and those people spend much of their time in contact with Blackboard staff soliciting additional help and information, alerting them to “bugs” in the program and suggesting improvements. Most faculty already know how to use the above-mentioned services that are available for free on the internet and the few that don’t could be taught them much faster and more efficiently than anyone can be taught to use Blackboard. And not only do faculty have to be taught how to use Blackboard, students have to be taught as well, students who already posses all the skills they need to take advantage of courses taught using free services.

So why does Blackboard Education Services even exist? Why are universities paying millions of dollars to this company for unnecessary services and wasting staff and faculty time effectively reinventing the wheel? Why? These online learning platform companies are unnecessarily increasing the cost of higher education at a time when that cost is already unacceptably high. Wise up people!