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Ruminating on Fake News, Online Education, and Intellectual Humility

18 June 2018

From 2015 until last month (May, 2018), I was involved with a project at the University of Edinburgh, which aimed to produce a massive open online course (or MOOC) on intellectual humility. One of the central goals of the project was to give various academics who are producing extremely valuable (and profoundly timely) academic research on the science, philosophy, and theology of intellectual humility a platform for presenting their work to a broad online audience. I’m enormously proud of what we produced (in a humble way, of course!), and I’m happy to say that the course has been very well received.[1]

But it is an extremely interesting time to be involved with online education. On the one hand, the technological resources we have at our disposal are truly amazing—affording us the opportunity to provide excellent educational resources to people around the world—and I think the significance of this can hardly be overstated. But on the other hand, public discourse (including online education) seems to be navigating treacherous waters, at least in the United States and parts of Europe. People have grown increasingly skeptical of expertise, and it is now disturbingly easy to dismiss new information, viewpoints, or news stories as “fake news.” After all, if we come across a news story or a data point that doesn’t fit with our particular worldview, or religion, or political allegiances, then we can always go somewhere else online to find “alternative facts” that better fit with what we already believe. The satire news website, The Babylon Bee, aptly highlighted this worry in their recent article entitled, “Report: Anything That Challenges Your Worldview Is Fake News.”[2]

And I think it’s easy enough to see that this poses a special problem for online education. Being educated often means being challenged, letting your beliefs and ideas grow, develop, and perhaps even be revised. (Indeed, that’s plausibly a salient difference between education and indoctrination!) However, if we’re now all too inclined (and all too able!) to dismiss challenging ideas, arguments, or information as “fake news”, then—for a least a significant portion of learners—many educational opportunities will be hamstrung. Dismissing new information, dismissing challenges to our beliefs, opinions, or worldviews, can very easily preclude any further intellectual growth or development. I call this, the Fake News Problem for online education.

So, what’s to be done? I don’t think there is an easy solution here; however, recent research seems to suggest that promoting cognitive character might be at least part of the solution.[3] Admittedly, I’m biased here; given my involvement in the intellectual humility MOOC, of course I’m going to think cognitive character matters.  But there seems to be some real prima facie plausibility to this idea. After all, many of the behaviors that seem to be quintessential examples of what is wrong with online, public discourse—not listening to opposing views, denying the possibility of rational discourse, overly simplified narratives, etc.—can all plausibly be seen as symptoms of intellectual vices (e.g. intellectual arrogance, intellectual carelessness, etc.). Perhaps, then, part of the solution to the Fake News Problem when it comes to online education can be addressed by focusing on the cognitive character of online learners.

Let’s say that this is right. So what? How would focusing on the cognitive character of online learners change online pedagogy so as to address the Fake News Problem? There is a lot to say here—and I’ve only recently started thinking through these issues—but let me at least briefly try to propose two ideas on this score, with the hope of perhaps getting a conversation going.

First, if we think focusing on the cognitive character of online learners will help address the Fake News Problem, then maybe online courses explicitly on intellectual virtues (or the kind of cognitive character we want our students to manifest) should be given a special place in any online curriculum. Perhaps we should be explicit with our students about how they should approach learning. Perhaps we should encourage them to try to develop cognitive characters that are sensitive to evidence, or at least they should try to avoid cognitive characters that are willfully blind to evidence. Perhaps we should encourage students to try to develop cognitive characters that resist overly simplified narratives regarding who’s on their “team” or who’s “the good guy” in a particular debate.

Secondly and finally, if we think focusing on the cognitive character of online learners will help address the Fake News Problem, then perhaps the teachers of online courses should try to demonstrate the kind of cognitive character they hope their learners will emulate.  Perhaps we should try to organize lessons that try to model and anticipate the kinds of struggles students might be experiencing. Does a particular idea challenge a commonly held belief? Perhaps we should seriously engage with how a student with such a belief might be feeling. We should be honest and fair in engaging with the struggle. We shouldn’t dismiss, we shouldn’t minimize, we should try not to simply double-down. Or maybe character can be demonstrated in how course teachers and moderators engage with the discussion boards. It will be tempting for many learners to ignore or belittle minority views; this can be a great opportunity to show character and humanity in the online environment.

So, in sum, given the perils we face in online education—particularly regarding the Fake News Problem— I’d like to suggest that focusing on cognitive character and intellectual virtue might be at least part of the solution. How this will work, however, will require a lot of thought and discussion! Hopefully these ideas are at least a start.

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[1] For the first of the courses we produced on intellectual humility, see here:

[2] See here:

[3] Jason Baehr’s work on the role virtue-theory can play in education seems particularly relevant here. See here: . Additionally, if we take the Fake News Problem to be a subspecies of the problem of disagreement, then arguments in that literature appeal to cognitive character diveleopment in answering the problem of disagreement might help push us in this direction too. See, for example, Catherine Elgin’s excellent piece, “Persistent Disagreement,” in Disagreement (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), 53–68.