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Critical Thinking in the Information Age, Part 4: Thirty Dump Trucks Full of Lies

Being well-informed is not the only important skill young people need to understand the world around them.  Getting the news is well and good, but with diverse and omnipresent media and communication, it can be very difficult to identify the stories and factoids that you should believe from the ones that you should not.

Critical thinking skills are, dare I say it, critical for anyone living in the information age.  So much information comes at us so fast, and all of it seems to have some sort of bias or agenda.  It has never been more important for people, especially young people, to stop and think about what they are reading and watching.

My mother used to tell me to believe “half of what your read, and none of what you hear.” In the age of information, that it might be more appropriate to say “Believe nothing you read or hear until you have thought about the source and context”.  Admittedly, this does not roll off the tongue as smoothly, but it will hold you in good stead.

Let’s look at another example from Facebook…

Earlier this year, Apple, makers of the iPhone, and other devices, sued Samsung Electronics for patent infringement relating to several features incorporated into Samsung’s Galaxy line of mobile phones and tablets.  The details of the case are unimportant for our purposes.  What is important to know is that Samsung lost the trial, and on August 24th, 2012, a jury recommended Samsung be made to pay Apple the sum of 1 Billion US dollars.

Three days after the announcement of the jury’s findings, comments started hitting Facebook and Twitter, similar to the one below:

Apple had received their money from Samsung in nickels.  20 billion five cent pieces were delivered via 30 dump trucks.  The story spread through social networking sites and was eventually picked up by some second tear news sites.  A few days after the court decision was handed down, the internet was buzzing with the story.  A Google search on September 5th, a week and a half after the announcement, showed 27.9 Million hits for “Samsung pays Apple in coins”.  People not only believed this story, they were telling their friends.

It’s scary to think that young people might be taking what they read at face value.  Maybe it is because for generations, the information we read in newspapers and other sources had to be fact-checked and run through editors, and the establishments that published them were held responsible for the veracity of their statements. What was read was considered to be reputable, but that is just not the case anymore.  There is so much of it, and the barriers of entry are so low that anyone with a computer can create news.  Taking a moment to consider what has just been read, no matter what topic, will help everyone to live in a world that is more real.

Reality does not reflect what is on the internet, and this story cannot possibly be true:

  • Firstly, the court decision that started all this was from the jury.  The judge in the case still needs to render his verdict, and a lengthy appeals process will follow.

 

  • Legalities aside, 20 Billion American nickels would be all the nickels.  A 2006 audit by the US mint estimated that there were about 20 billion nickels in circulation.  Even if that estimate was correct, this would mean they gathered up every nickel-every single one in all the pockets, jars, vending machines, and couch cushions, all across the US and the world into one spot…in three days.

 

  • Ignoring the impossibility of getting that many coins in one place (let alone counting them), the story also specifies that they were delivered to Apple’s headquarters in 30 dump trucks. The material from 20 Billion nickels, when melted down, would fill 4 (four!) Olympic swimming pools, a much greater volume than 30 trucks.  But it is the weight that is the real problem.

Let’s do some math:

  • A nickel weighs 5g.
  • 5g x 20 Billion = 100 Billion grams, (220,460,000 lbs).
  • A dump truck has a maximum load weight of 80,000lbs.
  • This means it would take 2756 dump trucks to move that weight.
  • 2756 is slightly more than 30.

This is so far beyond improbable that it moved into the realm of silly, yet it was all over the internet.  How could this be?  I had a friend tell me adamantly that it was true, while waving his mobile phone in my face as proof.  I ignored the story as nonsense from the first, but it still has life online.

The article that started this all, by the way, came from Mexican political satire site El Deforma.  They were kidding and the article they wrote was never meant to be taken seriously.  Somewhere in the translation from Spanish, bouncing around the blogosphere and social networks, getting caught in the echo chamber of “news” sites, and thanks to good old fashioned word-of-mouth, the joke lost its punch line and became, in the minds of those who didn’t think critically about what they read, fact.

Perhaps the notion of an underdog putting the screws to a huge corporation in a playful act of revenge and whimsy makes us all feel a little good; it makes us feel the little guy won’t be pushed around.  That’s well and good, but this isn’t the case.  Samsung is a huge multinational conglomerate that has been operating in their native South Korea and all over the world for almost 75 years.  They are by no means the little guy, nor do they get to be one of the most successful companies on Earth by pulling petty pranks on their competitors.  No one stops to think about this because the words are on a screen, or a trusted friend told them the story, and it feels good, so we all just go with it.

Going with what we feels right is a very good way to get ourselves taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians and other people who want to sway our opinions with made up facts and schmaltzy emotion.  Stopping to think about the motivations of all the parties involved in a story, as well as the source of the story is a habit that more people should be in, and it is a habit that educators need to work to instil in their students.  Critical thinking is going to be the most important skill of the 21st century, and the time is now to practice it with students.

Andrew Baxter is a Secondary School Teacher and Curriculum Specialist with Enable Education.  He is paid fortnightly with sacks of Civil War era pennies and mason jars of Spanish doubloons.  


21st Century Skills 8 Communications 2 Critical Thinking 8 Lifelong Learning 12

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