WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2023
Or at least, so the New York Times says: It's been a while since miraculous Finland was being hailed by our upper-end mainstream press corps.
This morning, the miraculous nation was back on top once again! These are the headlines which appear atop a news report in the New York Times:
How Finland Is Teaching a Generation to Spot Misinformation
The Nordic country is testing new ways to teach students about propaganda. Here’s what other countries can learn from its success.
According to those headlines, the miraculous nation is teaching its students how to spot misinformation.
How successful have those efforts been? In this passage, Jenny Gross explains, or at least she may seem to do so:
GROSS (1/11/23): A typical lesson that Saara Martikka, a teacher in Hameenlinna, Finland, gives her students goes like this: She presents her eighth graders with news articles. Together, they discuss: What’s the purpose of the article? How and when was it written? What are the author’s central claims?
Her goal, like that of teachers around Finland, is to help students learn to identify false information.
Finland ranked No. 1 of 41 European countries on resilience against misinformation for the fifth time in a row in a survey published in October by the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. Officials say Finland’s success is not just the result of its strong education system, which is one of the best in the world, but also because of a concerted effort to teach students about fake news. Media literacy is part of the national core curriculum starting in preschool.
According to the news report, Finnish schools make "a concerted effort" to teach their students how to spot misinformation—"fake news." Gross takes it as a sign of the schools' success when Finland is ranked No. 1 among 41 nations in this annual survey by the Open Society Institute.
It's mildly ironic when an article about spotting misinformation is based on such a shaky linkage. Why do we say that?
Are people in Finland really the best at "resilience against misinformation?" (Presumably, at spotting misinformation.) If so, are people in Finland good at spotting misinformation because of those fairly recent efforts in Finland's public schools?
We have no idea! For starters, here's the way the Open Society Institute conducts the survey in question:
GROSS: After Finland, the European countries that ranked highest for resilience to misinformation in the Open Society Institute survey were Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland and Sweden. The countries that were the most vulnerable to misinformation were Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. The survey results were calculated based on scores for press freedom, the level of trust in society and scores in reading, science and math.
The survey in question bases its rankings on three phenomena:
1) "Press freedom"
2) "The level of trust in society"
3) Public school scores in reading, science and math (on the PISA)
In theory, it's good to have high public school test scores. In theory, it's also good to have "press freedom," assuming there's some way to define and measure such a thing.
Beyond that, it also sounds like it's a good thing to have a high "level of trust in society," whatever exactly that means. It sounds like those are all good things!
It sounds like those are good things! But which of those three phenomena necessarily indicate that the people of the country in question are able to spot misinformation in news reports? What if the newspapers of some country are full of misinformation, but the people of the country are filled with a high level of societal trust?
Apparently, the Finnish schools are trying to teach Finnish kids to spot and reject "fake news." That sounds like a good thing to do, and these efforts may well produce good long-term results.
That said, we see no particular evidence that these efforts actually are working among the kids in question, or that these abilities have somehow magically jumped to the broader swath of Finnish adults. Beyond that, we see no evidence—none at all—which indicates that adults in Finland are especially good—are best in Europe—at spotting "fake news."
It may well be that they are, of course. But it also could be that they aren't!
All in all, this news report ends up as many such reports do—with several teachers saying their program works really well, and with the New York Times simply assuming that these assertions are true.
Meanwhile, the Open Society Institute has tried to measure three worthwhile societal characteristics, but it isn't clear why anyone should think that their calculations necessarily translate into the ability of a nation's population to spot and reject fake news.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans tend to like superficially pleasing stories. In a report about spotting fake news, it seems to us that the New York Times has purchased a rather shaky assortment of unverifiable claims.