Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University. He heads the Stanford History Education Group. This organization seeks to improve the teaching of history. It is currently focusing on helping students learn how to interpret online content.

Sam is the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts and Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). The former book won the Frederic W. Ness Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for work that significantly contributed to the “improvement of Liberal Education and understanding the Liberal Arts.”

In this podcast, Sam is going to teach you better ways to discern fact from fiction in online content by using simple and easy methods. According to Sam, “The real question is how to create an informed citizenry in an age when we meet the world through a screen. Figuring this out is neither a regulatory nor a technological challenge. It’s an educational one.”

I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. And now, to help you become a more critical consumer of online information is Sam Wineburg.

sam wineburg fake news

I hope that you’ll be able to use the techniques that Sam discussed to become a better consumer of online information. Remember that:

  • Wikipedia is your friend–especially the sources at the bottom of a Wikipedia entry.
  • Looks are deceiving. It’s easy to make a professional, legitimate-looking website.
  • Even the smartest people are easily fooled by online content.
  • Of all things, don’t believe what an organization says about itself. See what other pages say about the organization, its executives, and its street address.
  • Anyone can buy a .org website address, so don’t let that fool you into believing there’s a lack of profit motivation.

As we enter the election season in the U.S., the problem of deceit and fake news is only going to get worse, so please remember the wisdom of Sam Wineburg. Doing so could save America.

I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People.

This week’s question is:

Understanding factual knowledge and where it fits within a narrative is important. Narratives help us explain the world and give us context to history. Stories lodge facts into memory. #remarkablepeople Share on X

Use the #remarkablepeople hashtag to join the conversation!

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Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People.
Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University. He heads the Stanford History Education Group. This organization seeks to improve the teaching of history. It is currently focused on helping students learn how to interpret online content.
Sam is the author of two books, first: Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, second: Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone). The former book won the Frederic W. Ness Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for work that makes the most important contribution to the "improvement of liberal education and understanding the liberal arts".
In this podcast, Sam is going to teach you better ways to discern fact from fiction in online content by using simple and easy methods. According to Sam, "The real question is how to create an informed citizenry in an age when we meet the world through a screen? Figuring this out is neither a regulatory nor technological challenge, it is an educational one."
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People.
And now, to help you become a more critical consumer of online information, here's Sam Wineburg.
Sam Wineburg:
Ever since 1918, what we've shown over and over and over again is that disconnected and decontextualized facts are very difficult to remember for young people, and for most people.
So, it's not that we don't remember facts, it's that there's a great difference between the ability to use factual information to make a meaningful argument that is something that is of concern to us, and the act of a sixteen-year-old trying to answer quiz questions on a test.
Guy Kawasaki:
Would you say that the "study of history" is flawed then?
The meaningless, I don't know about meaningless, but the retention of facts is difficult, if possible at all, so why even bother? Is it the teaching method? Is that we're just doing the wrong thing, the wrong way? Is there a way to teach facts or is it just, "Don't even bother, let's teach analysis"?
Sam Wineburg:
Well, it depends on what we mean by facts. So let's get clear about it.
Guy Kawasaki:
Sam Wineburg:
It is a fact that Brown vs. Board of Education was a court case that tried to address the issue of segregation in American schools in the aftermath of Jim Crow.
Now, we can also talk about what is the date of Brown v. Board? Was it 1947? Was it 1950? Was it 1955? Was it 1965?
Now, if someone says that it is 1910, then that person clearly doesn't have a sense of the arc of American history. But if someone says it was 1949, well, that is within a range that is meaningful for when these kinds of deliberations went on in American history.
We can do this with a number of events.
Let's take, for instance, I'll give you a story of my son who was preparing for the AP US History exam. And if you know anything about that course, often what's given short shrift is the events of the twentieth century.
So my son was preparing for the AP History exam, and they really hadn't gotten much farther than the Roosevelt Administration and the depression in the thirties. And the teacher was lagging behind and said, "You guys, just read the textbook." And on the eve of the examination, I was sitting and my son was studying, and he said, "Dad, did the Korean War come before or after World War II?"
Now, if a young person asks that question, they fundamentally do not have a narrative of American history.
So it is a fact that the Korean War came after World War II, but to only know it as a fact and not know how the Korean War is part of a narrative of what happened at the aftermath of World War II, where there were only two major world powers left standing. And the Korean War was a new chess board for the Soviet Union and the United States to play out their grievances.
If you don't understand that narrative arc, then knowing just a decontextualized fact about Korea has a very short half-life in memory. There are very few connections within the web of activation of memory for that fact to actually stay in place and be useful to you as you read the news, as you try to understand world events.
We have to think about what is it that makes factual knowledge stay in memory. And one of the most basic things, and I think that any listener who's listening to this will understand this. One of the most basic things is not memorizing them on cue cards, where your hand is over a cue card and you look to see the right date, but to understand factual knowledge and where it fits within a narrative of a story.
Stories are what make facts become lodged in memory.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, arguably with an iPhone, as the title of your book says, your son, other than in the AP test, could look it up and easily figure out that the Korean War came after World War II.
If he took the ten seconds it would take to do that, and contextualize it, would it matter if he didn't even know that arc of history?
Sam Wineburg:
Yes because if you don't understand Korea, you don't really understand Vietnam, and you don't really understand the Cold War. And you don't really understand the relationship between what was called Red China and the Soviet Union.
And so the idea of, and again, this is something that I think is very, very pertinent to current events. I mean, I believe Seoul is thirty-eight miles from the North Korean border. And so you've got South Korea's major economic heart so close to the North Korean border. And this is something that is very relevant to today's world.
So if we want young people to understand, for instance, the United States’ fears of North Korea, their nuclear capabilities, and where this came from, this is usable knowledge. This is knowledge that we have to use as citizens to think about the decisions of our lawmakers.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are you saying that at one extreme, there's this belief that you should memorize facts on cue cards. At the other extreme, it says everybody has an iPhone, they can look up any fact at any incident.
Are you saying something different, which is that you're not stressing memorization, you're stressing analysis and contextualization, which you can't necessarily get from an iPhone just by looking up the date of the Korean War.
Sam Wineburg:
That's absolutely true. You've summarized it better than I could.
This is the pursuit of meaning. For narratives that have meaning to us that help us explain the world. And so when puzzle pieces come together and we see larger contours, all of a sudden it makes sense to us, and it becomes part of what John Dewey called, “The familiar furniture of the mind." Rather than a random puzzle piece that's floating without any connection to anything else.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, using that analogy, you'd have to say that the way history is taught and tested is like Ikea. In that, if you're dropped in a random place in Ikea, you have no idea where the hell you are, and whether the bath department is next to the garden department.
Sam Wineburg:
I would extend your metaphor.
The way history is often taught is when you come back with your pickup truck with fourteen different packages from Ikea, and you open them up simultaneously, and the screws from one package become mixed with another, and you don't know where they fit. And if you look at the way that we've constructed multiple choice tests, one item has nothing to do with the next.
Again, recognize that the multiple-choice test really came into being in around 1914. And then it was used for testing recruits for World War I.
We are still using a crude methodology that was invented in the earliest 20th century in order to understand the capabilities in the 21st century. It would almost be like teaching people how to drive, by first making sure that they know how to operate a horse and buggy.
Guy Kawasaki:
And now, there is some irony here in that you teach at Stanford. And when you look out over your students, isn't the average SAT score 1599?
Sam Wineburg:
Yes, because we cream off the cream at the top. So sure, we select those students who have figured out how to gain the system, often whose parents pony up the $1,500 to send them to Princeton Review, or make sure that they get a private tutor.
And if they are from many of these programs that Stanford very, very, in a positive way has recruited more students who are not from the traditional attendees of Stanford. Many of the programs that the students attend, whether it's Upward Bound or The Posse Program, do SAT bootcamps.
So, yes, you have kids learning how to psych out these tests.
And when really the question that we should be asking is whether these tests are truly predictive of the kinds of intellects that we want to cultivate in today's society.
Guy Kawasaki:
And what's the answer to that $64 million question?
Sam Wineburg:
I'm of mixed mind. I'm of mixed mind, because if we're talking about the American educational system, there is so much diversity in the educational system from state to state, and from public school system to private school system.
But there are really very few metrics that give us a sense of what a young person's capability is, whether they come from Tougaloo, Mississippi, or whether they come from Syracuse, New York.
I am an advocate of not making better be the enemy of best.
So if we had to choose, I would advocate the use of AP Examinations over the SAT, where we actually look at students' capability in content areas, whether it's world history, whether it's calculus, whether it's Spanish, whether it's Chinese.
The AP exams are certainly not perfect. They are far from perfect, and I'm on record as being a critic. But again, I think that we can't be purists here.
Educational change improves by increments, and the idea of all or nothing, or having a total revolution is really utopian. And it's not the way that when we look at educational history, that we've made actual improvements in the system.
Guy Kawasaki:
Before I forget, and I will forget if I don't ask you now, what was your son's score on AP History?
Sam Wineburg:
I think my son who barely cracked a book, but did have some good test-taking capabilities, I think somehow by hook or by crook, he pulled off a four.
Guy Kawasaki:
Maybe it's genetic.
Sam Wineburg:
No, again, this is what's often called cultural capital. Where unfortunately to succeed on these tests, you need to be able to psych out the questions.
We did a test myself, Mark Smith and Joel Breakstone actually, it was part of Mark Smith, a PhD student of mine's dissertation, where he looked at students' responses on the national assessment of educational progress. And what he did was he looked at students who were successful on these kinds of exams, and had them talk aloud as they were answering questions.
Now, The National Assessment of Educational Progress, this latest headline that you referenced, has a series of questions that they claim, "Measure historical analysis and interpretation."
So again, The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is known as NAPE, is a federal testing service. It's often called the Nation's Report Card. And so they designate certain questions as eliciting higher order thinking skills.
Well, what Smith did was he sat down with a group of high school students, some bright high school students, and he asked them to think aloud as they were solving the questions. And so he could get a sense of what were the cognitive processes they were using when they were actually faced with these questions.
And of the 106 responses that he had, where he elicited kids thinking, there was not a single one where students used processes of interpretation and analysis to answer the questions.
They did what they've been taught, which is how to eliminate distractors? How to figure out which one is the wrong answer? How to look for cues within the stem of the question? How to increase the probability if they've eliminated two of the distractors, so that now, if there's only four choices, their chances of getting it right are 50 percent rather than 25 percent.
And he showed that very smart kids circumvent what this test claims to measure by using canny test taking skills.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you have any go-to sites or publications, or even journalists, where you more or less simply believe? Or do you question everything you read everywhere?
Sam Wineburg:
If you question everything that you read everywhere, and there's nothing you can trust, you are a victim of exactly what Russian disinformation is trying to achieve.
So if you look back at the history of Russian disinformation, beginning with Lenin onward, the goal of what the Russians call in Russian ‘dezinformatsiya’ is not to persuade you of one opinion or another. The goal of the whole Russian disinformation campaign is to create what they call ‘muddled thinking’, where the citizen becomes so confused by the cacophony of different opinions that they throw up their hands and say, "I can't trust anything."
So the idea that we can't trust anything is playing into the hands of those people who seek to addle and pollute American democracy.
So no, when I see something that's put out by the Mayo Clinic or by the Center for Disease Control, even though I will not necessarily go to the actual studies and look at them because, listen, there's so many hours in the day, and so many minutes in those hours.
I will tend to believe credible sources because the opposite is what my colleague at Washington State University Vancouver, Mike Caulfield calls, ‘trust compression.’ Where our trust is so narrow that we say, "We can't believe anything." Which makes us completely vulnerable to all of the snake oil salesmen on the internet.
That's when we start to believe that ingesting chlorine dioxide, which is this whole thing where Trump got the bit of a disinfectant, you can go to websites, and I'm not going to say the name of a website.
But there is a report that is very, very good, and I'm just going to pull it up. It is a report on Corona disinformation, very well done, by an organization called Avaaz, A.V.A.A.Z.
And anybody who's interested, all they have to do is to Google a report that's called “How Facebook can Flatten the Curve of the Coronavirus Infodemic”. And what you have there is you have instances of a Facebook card that went viral, 200,000 people saw it. And this particular person is hawking chlorine dioxide, which is typically used to purify swimming pools, as a cure for the coronavirus.
So when you can't trust anything, this person's website is equal to the Centers for Disease Control, which is precisely what our enemies want.
Guy Kawasaki:
I am not making this up okay. So these are my notes. And the first note that I had to ask you was, "I depend primarily on what the Mayo Clinic says about a medical condition. Is that smart or dumb?"
Sam Wineburg:
It's smart.
Guy Kawasaki:
So I pass the Sam test.
Sam Wineburg:
When you listen to a press briefing by the president, do you listen to Donald Trump MD or Anthony Fauci? Who do you listen to?
Here is a man who was ... Fauci was the first in his class, has been dealing with infectious diseases for 30 years, is well-spoken and cautious, and gives us the best, most update medical device. Versus someone who has no medical training, who shoots from the hip, and basically says the first thing that comes out of his mouth.
Guy Kawasaki:
What do you think is Wikipedia's role in this?
Sam Wineburg:
Wikipedia, and I want all of the listeners who are listening and tuning into this to sit down for a second, because they'll hear something unexpected. Wikipedia is a gift to humankind.
Now, here are a few things that many listeners might not know. They might say, "Oh my goodness, this guy is supposed to be an expert on anything. That is the most absurd thing I've ever heard." You cannot trust Wikipedia because ... I want you to fill in the blank listeners. Anyone can, blank. And many listeners will say in their mind, "Anyone can change it."
First of all, wrong. There are seventeen to nineteen, it's always changing, different kind of protected pages on Wikipedia. In many cases, the more trafficked and the more vandalized a site is, the more likely it is that it'd be a protected page where only a high-badged Wikipedian can go in and edit the page.
Try to go in and try to change the page on gun control. Fat chance, unless you are a dyed in the wool, high-status Wikipedian.
It turns out that the gun control entry is probably, I think, it's a pretty-balanced, well-sourced, well-documented Wikipedia entry.
We did a study where we investigated what professional fact-checkers do when they come to an unknown site. And one of the first places they go to is Wikipedia.
Now, what they do on Wikipedia is very different from what the average person does. They often skip the main entry and they go straight down to the references, and they click on something that is more authoritative.
So in the case of an example that we used of an organization called the American College of Pediatricians, we did a study, actually it was the study that was written about in Time Magazine, where we had very smart people, very smart people who massage their own egos because they're so smart. They have Stanford undergraduates, academics with PhDs at four different universities.
And we took that out of their little niche of expertise and gave them a scenario. You come home, your child, or your brother, or your friend, or your cousin has been bullied at school. You want to know what state-of-the-art knowledge of dealing with adolescent bullying. And we said, "Here's a site. And here's this entry. An article called Bullying at School: Never Acceptable. Is this a reliable article and a reliable site?" And people look at it and because they are critical thinkers and critical readers, they start to look at the scientific references, and they try to read between the lines, and they compare the information to what they already know. And they essentially waste eight or nine minutes on the site before they kind of make even sense of it.
Professional fact checkers go to a site that they don't know, and they do something completely different. Rather than staying on the site, they engage in what we call lateral reading. They open up new tabs across the horizontal access of their page.
And they first, rather than wasting time, or even trying to spend time on a site, they go to the rest of the web and try to figure out what does the web say about the site, or about this group.
And what you find immediately with the American College of Pediatricians, when you go to Wikipedia, is that it is not the main group of pediatricians in the United States. It's a splinter group that broke off from the American Academy of Pediatrics over the issue of adoption of children by same-sex couples. They have a rabidly anti-gay agenda.
You go down to the references and you see a letter by Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institute of Health, who says that this group has misused his research and making a case against the LGBT community.
And within forty seconds, you realize this group clearly has an agenda, and it is not an unbiased source of information.
And so this all on Wikipedia, this is what professional fact checkers at our nation's most esteemed publications, both on the left and both on the right do.
Guy Kawasaki:
It's interesting. I was on the board of trustees of Wikipedia.
And I saw firsthand how the sausage was made, and on my way out, because there's a term, this is after Trump was elected. I told him that I thought Wikipedia, which right now is defined as citations and putting this all together what you describe, it can assume a much more important role, because there are people who will never believe the Times and the Post. And there are people who will never believe Fox and Breitbart, but Wikipedia could sit in the middle and Wikipedia could save the world, literally.
And I, to this day, I still believe that. And I wish they would be more ambitious than simply trying to serve Wikipedians.
Sam Wineburg:
I think that Wikipedia stands as a testament to the potential of the internet.
I think we're in a moment right now where we recognize the internet as a force for evil. And it is not necessarily contributing to our wellbeing, particularly as we anticipate a new election.
But again, I think in contrast to that, Wikipedia speaks to the wisdom of crowds. It speaks to people's willingness to extend themselves, not for pay, and not for personal honor, because your name is not associated with it, but for the goodwill of humanity.
And so I want to be an optimist. Any educator, any teacher today who says to their students, "Never go to Wikipedia," is doing a profound disservice to that student. What they should be doing is teaching that student how to use Wikipedia wisely.
Guy Kawasaki:
Thank you.
Because I've had this argument many times with my kids' teachers, and being on the board of trustees, and they're telling me, "Yeah, your kids can't cite Wikipedia." And I said, "They can cite Breitbart and Fox, but they can't cite Wikipedia. Tell me with a logic of how that works."
I looked at this example of the Economic Policy Institute or whatever that was, and I did your lateral recommendation.
So first, I did a Google search for the director's name. And I found out that there's a New York Times article about how he's conflicted about minimum pay because he, in fact, represents a restaurant association.
And then I Googled the EPI's street address. And that is this identical suite number to a PR firm. And I looked at the PR firm's clients, and it's a bunch of white nationalists.
I'm telling you this story because what you said is absolutely true. If you go lateral for a minute or two minutes, it's pretty obvious when something's bullshit.
I'm dominating the conversation for these next few minutes, but I just want to know what's really tactical. So what I did was who is the director, the address, Wikipedia you mentioned, are there any other tactical things that are more than I'm vain? I mean, this is now we're down into like what exactly do I do Sam?
Sam Wineburg:
So you did a lot of good things. And again, recognize that the more complex we make it for the typical user, the less likely that that particular behavior is adopted.
So this is my beef with the librarians of the world, the specialists in digital literacy. When we say that there are ninety things that people have to learn, when we say that there are three dozen Boolean operators that we need to know how to do when we search, what we're speaking to is a small, tiny elite.
It's like saying to somebody, "Before you can drive this car, you're going to have to explain to me the function and operation of the catalytic converter." It's like saying, "Before you wash your hands, in order to ward off the coronavirus, you have to explain to me how the soap suds break down in the leather, the molecules, and enter the protein of the cell of the coronavirus."
No, there are an awful lot of things that we can do without requiring people to brush off the ninth-grade biology of the structure of the cell. Wash your damn hands for twenty seconds and sing Happy Birthday twice. And that is going to help us in a great deal of creating a healthy citizenry.
Similarly, when there are seventeen things that we say that we have to do to teach people to be safe on the internet, if we had all of the time in the world, and we weren't in the middle of an infodemic, where people are ingesting Tide Pods. If we weren't in the middle of an infodemic, we could do a semester course in a webinar, and we could have subsequent follow-ups and professional development.
No, we are triaging right now on how do we decrease the probability that someone will do something extremely harmful and add to the pandemic, all of the dangers and toxicity of an infodemic.
So what you did was great, but let's simplify it.
You've got an organization that claims that they are a non-partisan institute for employment policy. And they've made a recommendation showing that when you increase the minimum wage, you also increase on unemployment, and make it more difficult for people to make a living wage. So an increase in the minimum wage actually causes harm to the very people you're trying to help.
That's their basic message. And they claim to be non-partisan and they claim to do academic research, and they've got research reports on their site from academics, and all of the accoutrements of respectability.
What do you do? You come to the site, it's a very well-groomed site.
Now what the average person does, who, in some case, is actually is following what they've been taught. They'll go to the about page.
And to trust something on the about page of an organization you know nothing about, it's like looking at a buddy's Instagram feed and seeing all the smiles and saying, "Wow, they lead a carefree life."
Now, what we know with Instagram, that that is a cultivated version. A cultivated version of who that person wants to appear to be.
It's the same way with an organization, they can write anything they damn well please on their about page, and professional fact checkers don't even go to about page.
The Employment Policies Institute is Many listeners might think, "Well that there's a .org. .orgs are nonprofits. And nonprofits, they have to go through a vetting process."
Excuse me, excuse me, .org is no more difficult to obtain than .com.
My dog, whose name is Louis, I could do a and obtain that domain with paying $25 in the next minute.
So again, the idea that .org says something is absolutely wrong. .org has been an open domain since the original TLDs, the top-level domains were conceptualized in the mid-90s.
And by the way, we did a study of the hate groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center, where we showed that on a random sample of groups that are designated at hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 49% of them are .orgs. So there you go, forget about .org.
So the first thing that you did was right. Just go to Wikipedia. Does Wikipedia have anything on Employment Policies Institute?
And they do. And in fact, when you go right down to the references, there you see, Richard Berman's name. It's a PR firm, and this guy is a wizard at creating these cloaked organizations that are really shills for industry lobbyists, in this case, it's for the restaurant industry. Which of course, has an interest in keeping minimum wage low.
So, I mean, there's other things that we could do.
Here's a tiny thing that people can do. They will put in the Google Omnibox, that top Google bar, they'll put Employment Policies Institute, not in quotations, and they'll just Google it. And what they'll do is because this group has SEO'ed this site out, and for your listeners who don't know the acronym I just used, it stands for ...
Guy Kawasaki:
Search engine optimization.
Sam Wineburg:
I use the acronym so much, I forget about what it stands for. So it's search engine optimization, which is the gaming of search results, right?
So what users are unfamiliar will do is they'll do that. And the whole first page of the search engine result's page will be filled with different pages of that particular site.
So you could use an easy Boolean operator of the minus sign, so that you get all of the sites that talk about Employment Policies Institute and not get the actual organization.
That's a great little tip.
But if users knew to go beyond the scroll, which we know that the great majority of people don't do, they often will click on the first two or three results from Google. And they will often get snared by the very group that wants to put them in a trap.
Guy Kawasaki:
So you have discussed very tactical tips about what not to believe, but in addition to going to Wikipedia, what else can you do proactively to ...
Now, I don't believe the .org. I don't believe the pretty site. I don't believe the about, I do go to Wikipedia. Wwhat else do I proactively do?
Sam Wineburg:
Again, let's go back to your example of the Mayo Clinic.
I think that when you find corroborating advice by legitimate news organizations, and how do you want to pin me on legitimate news organization?
Guy Kawasaki:
Sam Wineburg:
I'm going to give you two, and they are on opposite sides of the political divide, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
They represent very different interests, and yet both institutions adopt certain practices that separate them from the Breitbarts of the world, or the Daily Kos if we want to be on the left.
First of all, they have ombudspeople who you can register a complaint, and when there is an error, they will issue a correction.
And you can see in the same way that you can look at the history of Wikipedia entries, you can look at the history of corrections and addenda to both articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
So there are safeguards within reputable journalism. And so again, less people think that I'm just a bleeding heart, liberal speaking, no, this is not an issue of blue or red.
This is an issue of having integrity or not having integrity.
And reputable news organizations, whether they reflect a left of center or right of center point of view, have adopted certain practices that hold them responsible to a reading public.
And that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, it used to be The Weekly Standard before they folded on the right, The National Review, which is on the right, The Atlantic, which is left leaning.
And so, again, this idea that, "Oh, somehow fact-checking and correction is a liberal, a democratic enterprise," is absolute bunk.
This is about journalistic ethics and responsibility that we can look at many of these fly-by-night publications, probably the worst and the most disgusting and vile, is Alex Jones' InfoWars known for the hounding the poor people who lost their children at Sandy Hook.
Is this a journalist organization? No, this is the kind of organization that promotes, for instance, chlorine dioxide as an antidote for coronavirus.
Guy Kawasaki:
Would you put The Guardian and BBC in your list?
Sam Wineburg:
Yes. I think they're both reputable. They both have points of view. I would characterize both as left of center. But I think that when you start to see factual claims that are reported in both The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, you can say, "Okay, the probability is that there's probably a there, there."
Guy Kawasaki:
In your view, is Google part of the problem or part of the solution?
Sam Wineburg:
Okay. True confessions and disclaimer for your listeners. Our work has been funded by, our website,, Civic Online Reasoning, which is free curriculum materials for middle school and high school teachers who want to teach students how to be thoughtful in the ways that students encounter the world, which is through a screen, that project was funded by
So lest anyone thinks that I am somehow a stooge or something for Google, they should know that I have been supported by that organization.
Listen, Google is a very large organization. It is a multi-headed Hydra. And I find it ironic that sometimes I am working with one group of Googlers in the Googleplex in Menlo Park, and I'm speaking to people in Google in Singapore and Google in New York, and I am telling them, each other, about what another part of their organization is doing around this issue of disinformation and digital literacy.
Is Google part of the problem? Sometimes it is.
So when Google recently put out that it changed the way that it displays its ads, and they embedded them, the sponsored content within the normal search results, rather than putting them over into the right side of the page, will that confuse people, unsuspecting people? Yes.
And I am forthright to them saying, "I don't think if the goal is to educate people about effective search, while also not hurting your business model”, I don't think that this is a good move. Whether they listen to me or not is another story.
At the same time, to Google's credit, they are working very hard to, take for instance, some of our ideas about lateral reading and about corroborating results across different sites, very seriously. And working on solutions to help people make thoughtful decisions, without appearing as partisan in one direction or the other, but being advocates for quality information.
So I think that it remains to be seen, again, it is in Google's interest, in that sense, we can compare Google to Facebook.
Facebook is basically an app, right? It's an app that has a single kind of purpose, right? Of selling people stuff, and selling advertisements on its own platform.
Google has a very different focus. Google's whole business model depends upon the integrity of the entire internet.
Google is a search engine. So it's whole enterprise, if the internet becomes a place of information pollution, then Google's stock, and I use the word stock metaphorically, will go down.
People will start to not even use the internet because they don't know anything or can't trust it. So it is in Google's interest to maintain the integrity of information on the internet in ways that really don't affect Facebook.
Facebook has a very different focus in the world.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you think, therefore, Mark Zuckerberg is in denial or he knows what's going on, and tough luck his responsibilities to the shareholder?
Sam Wineburg:
I think there's some truth in that. I don't know Mark Zuckerberg, I've never met him. I've not received nor applied for any of the kinds of funding that Facebook has offered.
I've participated, again, in the spirit of full disclosure, I've participated in several conversations at Facebook about some practices that they are adopting to try to clean up some of the mess that they have.
Listen, I think that, for instance, the whole thing about Mark Zuckerberg saying that they were going to allow Holocaust deniers to continue to market their wares on Facebook, is extremely naive. And it speaks to the spread of really dangerous misinformation that very clearly leads to hatred and acts of racism and antisemitism, and supports the interests of neo-Nazis.
So in that sense, I don't know if he's naive or if this is out of cupidity. I don't know.
What I will say, and again, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt because, ultimately, I'm an educator and I'm an optimist. I am cheered by some of the efforts Facebook has made around misinformation around COVID.
So they very prominently are issuing and putting on their Facebook feeds knowledge panels, essentially, about quality information about COVID. And so in that sense, I think that's a positive move.
What I worry about is this kind of ... Well, I'm pausing because I'm debating about whether to use this word. But I'm going to use it because I think if it jars somebody at that company into awareness, it'll do a tiny bit of good, should there be anybody ever listening to it.
And it is that they have an attitude of whoring themselves for political ads.
And so this idea of accepting ads that were clearly the information is false and fraudulent, but still taking it and still promoting, it seems to me to be an act of deep irresponsibility that serves to crumble the very foundations of American democracy.
Guy Kawasaki:
If you could design the educational system, how and when would we start teaching digital literacy and skepticism to kids?
Sam Wineburg:
Well, first of all, I think that's the term digital literacy is a misnomer. It's a red herring that steers us in the wrong direction.
For young people today, this is not digital literacy, this is literacy.
So the answer to your question Guy is, at what age do we equip a young person with a smartphone? Is it sixth grade? Is it fifth grade?
But the minute that we give a child a device that essentially opens up the world to everything, then we have to teach that child how to use that device. It would be like giving your kid the car keys, but never had gone through a user's permit, not even knowing that you got to stop at a red sign, or that you can't cross the double lines.
We wouldn't do that. This is a powerful device that can kill people.
Well, the same thing with a smartphone. you start to do things on that, and you start to believe without having any kind of vetting system for the quality of information, you can do things that are extremely dangerous to yourself and to your family.
And so the idea of sequestering this behind a term like digital literacy is a way of thinking about this issue in twentieth century terms. The literacy that we need is scientific literacy, is historical literacy, is civic literacy. And the way that we become civically intelligent about, let's go pre-corona, about any kind of issue that faces us as citizens, whether it's a wise idea to have a soda tax, whether it's a good idea to raise the minimum wage, whether the universal basic income is an idea and what the research is on it.
We don't go to libraries to pull off books about an issue of public policy. By the time a book is already on the library shelf, in many cases, it's outdated in today's day and age.
The way that we become informed about the issues that affect us, our families, our communities, our states, and our nation is through a digital device.
And so to call it digital literacy, rather than the basic literacy in all of our core school subjects is a way of preventing us from ... It's like looking on the inside of Plato's Cave rather than turning around and seeing the sunlight. The sunlight is that this is not some separate subject taught by the librarian for an hour once a week.
No, this is so basic to how we are as modern people that it fundamentally needs to transform how we teach all of the school subjects. That's my response to your question.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you see this happening in any meaningful way in the near future?
Sam Wineburg:
Well, this is the silver lining of the crisis we're in.
All of a sudden, schools that had built a moat around the internet, that had put in the equivalent of ‘educational alligators’ that open up and show and bare their teeth in front of the internet, and close off the school to the internet, and protect kids from the world rather than actually preparing them for the world are all of a sudden thrown into this situation, where kids are online all the time, and teachers are online all the time, many of them saying, "Well, we weren't trained. We're not prepared to do this. We don't know about .org. We don't know about lateral reading. The kids know more than us."
And in some cases, they do, in terms of operating the devices and kids know how to upload stuff to Instagram and know how to make a TikTok video, and know how to do a whole bunch of things that many older people don't know how to do.
But again, the problem is this appearance, that because kids know how to operate a device, that they also have the knowledge to make thoughtful choices about the information that that device produces.
And those two things do not go together.
I can operate my car beautifully. I can hold a latte in one hand and put my manual transmission in reverse and hold the steering wheel with my teeth and back out of my driveway. But don't ask me how my catalytic converter works.
Guy Kawasaki:
What would you say is the future of journalism?
There's the model that you pay for your subscription, there's the advertising model, there's the foundation model, there's the BBC government model.
How do you see this playing out? How do you see The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian in the next twenty years?
Sam Wineburg:
Not to evade your question, but that one's above my pay grade.
I can't predict the future. I have a difficult enough time figuring out what's going to happen to my 401(k) in the next month, no less what journalism's going to look like in the future.
I'm not sure. I think, obviously, that we're in a time of profound disruption.
What I think is cause for optimism, is that the subscription model of both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal has made both of those companies profitable.
Contrary to what Trump says, the failing of New York Times, wait a second, no, The New York Times actually showed profit last year.
So again, I think that the idea that we can get our news delivered digitally rather than through the laborious process of printing out a physical copy, and having some fourteen-year-old put it on our steps, I think we're seeing a transformation in how information actually gets to the average citizen.
Guy Kawasaki:
A case in point is that Wikipedia running the most God awful, ugly, and disruptive banner ads raises $90 million a year, NPR, same thing. Can I give you an out of the box thought.
So I too share your frustration with disinformation and Facebook running these things, knowing that it's wrong and all that.
And everybody is trying to find artificial intelligence or some solution or rooms full of people looking at porn, or whatever it is. I have a different idea.
So how about that rather than trying to control this information, we put out so much disinformation that everybody has to be skeptical.
To take an extreme example, so now we have liberals putting out stories that Mitch McConnell is against coal mining and Mitch McConnell wants to support immigration, and Mitch McConnell would like the separation of powers.
And we put so much bullshit out that no one knows anything to believe. And we create just worldwide skepticism and analysis. Do you think I'm crazy?
Sam Wineburg:
I don't think you're crazy. I mean, I think that it reminds me of a kind of information approach to a herd immunity approach to information hygiene.
Guy Kawasaki:
Again, that's what I said. I have it on my notes, herd immunity for information.
Sam Wineburg:
There you go. Listen, I think that no one knows the solution right now.
Anyone who claims that they have the solution in their back pocket is a mountebank, is somebody that's just trying to sell you a bag of goods.
We don't know. And the Human Genome Project, which was a rousing success, took billions of dollars of international cooperation among a whole host of nations.
The United States, Germany, including China, a variety of nations that came together to solve an issue. We have an issue of information pollution, and it's going to take a lot of experimentation and a lot of trial and error, and it's going to demand an investment. If we want education to truly step up to the plate, to meet this challenge, there's going to be a huge investment in R&D with educational approaches that bring us up to date with the technologies that have so rapidly advanced our own abilities to keep up with them.
So I think that without that, particularly in this country, we will fall behind. We will be looking to Finland, we will be looking to some of the Scandinavian countries that are doing and allocating resources to this. And again, we will be playing catch up in the educational sphere rather than leading the pack.
Guy Kawasaki:
If you were Dustin Hoffman in the graduate, would you basically be saying literacy instead of plastics?
Is that the key for society?
Sam Wineburg:
I wouldn't use the word literacy.
Again, I'll quote Dan Russell, who is a research scientist at Google, and he's written a terrific book called The Joy of Search.
And Dan says that we need to think about a new R with reading, writing, and arithmetic. And the other fourth R that he says that any modern person needs his research.
We need to have a set of research skills for making thoughtful decisions in a variety of realms. And in that sense, it's not a subject that's taught.
We assume that people will pick it up, but they don't.
Google did a study in 2012, and I think it's still true because I use it all the time, that 90 percent of users of Google search don't even know the macro of control F or command F to find a particular sequence of words on a particular page. They will laboriously go through in a very error filled way, searching for the term that they want without even the most simple macro to alleviate all of the effort that they otherwise would spend.
So we're really behind the eight ball. I mean, when the majority of people don't even know that, then you know that we're not teaching people essentially the digital equivalent of the times table.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, hell. I'm even worse. I know that and I don't do it all the time. That's arguably even worse.
I really enjoyed reading your book. I enjoyed reading that article. I enjoyed testing myself with the EPI.
Since I've started the research for this interview, I thought, "I have to pull each of my four kids and show them how to go lateral." I mean, it is literally literacy and research. It's crucial for them to be successful.
So I thank you. I'm really delighted in what I learned.
You can really learn something if you're the podcaster. Usually the podcaster's trying to teach somebody else something. I learned a lot in this one.
So I appreciate this very much.
Sam Wineburg:
Well, thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
Guy Kawasaki:
I hope that you'll be able to use the techniques that Sam discussed to become a better consumer of online information.
Remember that, one: Wikipedia is your friend, especially the sources at the bottom of a Wikipedia entry.
Two: Looks are deceiving. It's easy to make a professional, legitimate looking website.
Three: Even the smartest people are easily fooled by online content.
Four: Of all things, don't believe what an organization says about itself. See what other pages say about the organization, its executives, and its street address.
Five: Anyone can buy a .org website address. So don't let that fool you into believing there's a lack of profit motivation. As we entered the election season in the United States, the problem of deceit and fake news is only going to get worse.
Please remember the wisdom of Sam Wineburg, doing so could save America.
Okay, here we go. Here are some recent comments.
From Mary, from Florida, actually, she typed it, "Mary frim Florida." But that's okay, she gave me five stars.
"Guy, I started following your podcast because I needed to hear something good during this pandemic time, and I am very happy I did. All of them had taught me to be persistent no matter what, and to follow my dreams. And there was today's podcast with Martha Nino. Wow. As an immigrant that is trying to do the same as her, I felt so touched. And the idea behind the podcast brought tears to my eyes. Yes, we need to ask more ‘why’ and see other humans. If only we could have the whole world listen to this. Thank you Guy. Today, I am more sure than ever to keep on pursuing my career and dreams."
Mary, from Florida, you made my day with that comment.
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Thank you.
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People.
My thanks to Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick, who are behind me all the way. I could not do this podcast without them.
This is Remarkable People.