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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Media Is Unreal: Bring Media Literacy into Science Literacy


Last year, a colleague struggling to find the right word to express her thoughts in a group discussion asked, “What is the opposite of media?” I paused before giving my answer, waiting to hear other thoughts. There was only silence. I answered, “Reality, of course.”

My cousin is a teacher and he does a thought-provoking activity with his classes. First two students stand at opposite ends of a table, each keeping one hand in a cup of water. My cousin eventually asks them to come together and switch their wet hands into a single bowl of water. “What is the temperature of the water?” my cousin asks. Inevitably, one student will reply “hot” and the other “cold.” My cousin asks the class, “How can they disagree?”

Of course, before putting their hand in the center bowl, one student’s hand has been soaking in cold water and the other’s in hot. Temperature perception is relative: their opinion of the water temperature in the bowl is biased by their past experience. My cousin does this student activity as part of a lesson about diversity and cultural competence, but it is an equally good reminder that we construct reality, with better approximations if we correct distorted information.

When we make scientific observations, we try to make them as unbiased as possible, and often rely on tools and instruments for objectivity. In my cousin’s class, a thermometer could have created an agreed upon reality. Similarly, we each need logic tools to realize that all media is a representation of reality – if we don’t bring this realization into our consciousness, we are apt to forget and let our own reality become distorted: fostering a culture of over-consumption, eating disorders, sexual violence, and climate change deniers.

There is no need to blame the media. And giving communication tips to scientists is helpful, but not enough. We are a social species. It is natural for messages to mediate our lives. What is unnatural is the billions of dollars spent in the study, design, and delivery of an overpowering barrage of messages. A society without media savvy will be fooled in a global game of true or false.

I advocate for formal media literacy education, which is defined as teaching the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.

Today it is easy to see persuasive techniques in old propaganda, such as wartime leaflet bombs used to lower enemy morale and encourage defection. But that’s hindsight. Media Literacy Education provides the same clarity with foresight. I first understood the importance of media literacy from lessons about body image from The Center for Media Literacy, Project Look Sharp, and About Face. The cumulative impact of media messages can create unrealistic expectations of beauty, sexual conduct of adolescence, and consumerism.

When I began speaking for The Climate Project (now Climate Reality), questions from audiences typically began with “But I heard on the news that…” followed by unwitting denial of the evidence for anthropogenic climate change. In response, I turned to media literacy principles: they transcend topic and are applicable to any media messages, irrespective of its intent to inform, inspire, entertain, or persuade.

The most amazing thing about media literacy is this: the principles align with types of scientific reasoning. This isn’t immediately apparent because most science education curricula has a strong focus on the scientific method. Less common, but equally important, are different types of reasoning. You need critical thinking skills in science. Science is more than observation. It is more than setting up experiments to test hypotheses. Underlying all scientific methods is a system of thinking.

Media Literacy education is akin to Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit which summarizes fallacies of logic and rhetoric so that individuals can create and identify well-reasoned arguments AND recognize myths and fraudulent arguments. As Sagan wrote in A Demon-Haunted World, “Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam, and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlor magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious, and economic issues in every nation.”

Critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills can be taught through deliberation and Socratic questioning. Similarly, media literacy education is about inquiry and critical thinking, guided by questions related to the audience, authorship, the message and meaning, and concepts of representation and reality. I’ll summarize, but you can find out more from the National Association for Media Literacy Education

Recognize that your media “diet” may be quite high in persuasive messages, so ask yourself questions relevant to corporate marketing and information laundering: Who made the message? Why was it made? Who is the audience? Who paid for it? Who will benefit from it? Who will be harmed by it? What action is this message encouraging?

There are questions we should ask that remind us to resist the normal human tendency to filter information as to retain what we agree with and discard what we don’t already agree with: What is the message about? What values, information, and points of view are explicit and implicit? What information is left out? What communication techniques are used and why? How might different people react and understand the message? How do I interpret the message? What does my interpretation tell me about myself?

Finally, fully examining representations & reality is assisted by asking: When was it made? With what venues was it shared? Is it fact, opinion, or something else? Is it credible and why? What are the sources of information and assertions?

In the US, almost all states now have some curriculum standards related to media literacy. Commonly, media literacy is included in English classes, though it is recognized as dovetailing with topics in health class because the tools are useful for deconstructing messages about tobacco and alcohol, as well as cyberbullying and racial stereotyping. Several years ago, I called for media literacy to be integrated into science education, particularly on the issue of climate change.

Media stems from the Latin word for “middle.” Media messages (this post included) are like middlemen holding up mirrors for us to see our world, but they inescapably hold wavy Funhouse mirrors. All representations contain distortions, not necessarily with intent to mislead or for nefarious purposes (though that is certainly possible too). As long as we stay aware of the presence of bias, our brains are great at adjusting for the distortions and creating a reasonable approximation of reality.

Images: Mike Lynch, ken yee, jbcurio on Flickr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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