Only 9% of 15-year-olds can tell when facts are really facts — not opinions

An international study finds the vast majority of 15-year-olds can't tell when they're being manipulated.

Image source: mooremedia/Shutterstock
  • International reading tests administered in 79 countries find most teens to be gullible when consuming information.
  • As learning has moved online, absolutely reliable sources have become scarce.
  • Most teens can't detect the validity of supposed "facts" from contextual clues.

Teen: Dad! This site has those $159 earbuds I want for just $49.99!

Parent: That doesn't sound right.

Teen: I know! Isn't it a great deal?

Parent: I don't see an actual brand name here.

Teen: But they're $49.99!! Less than $50!!

Parent: And the seller is halfway across the world. Um…

Teen: $49.99!!!

The takeaway from this actual conversation is this: The teen hasn't yet learned that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. A study from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) says this is by no means a rare phenomenon. It finds that just 9 percent of 15-year-olds can actually tell when facts are really facts and not just opinions.

In our current climate of rampant disinformation and "fake news," the implications are troubling.

About OECD and the PISA survey

OECD stands for "Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development." It's an international organization that's dedicated to the identification and implementation of policies for tackling the world's social, economic, and environmental challenges. Thirty-six countries are members, and the impact of the group's work is felt in more than 100 countries. The OECD collects data and develops reports, including recommendations, for its worldwide audience.

The Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, is one such report. Subtitled, "What Students Know and Can Do," it's the product of reading, mathematics, and science tests administered to 15-year-olds in 79 countries. The focus in the 2018 tests was reading. The tests were given on computer screens in recognition that this is where most of today's teens do most of their reading.

The very best readers — better than in any other country — come from four provinces in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Though these areas are exceptional within the country, China overall still sits at the top of the list of the world's most advanced readers.

Image source: boreala/Shutterstock/Big Think

Reading is one thing, understanding is another

The world, as the report notes, has changed. Reading used to be about the straightforward extraction and absorption of information from reliable sources. Not so for today's learners, says the report:

"Today, they will find hundreds of thousands of answers to their questions online, and it is up to them to figure out what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong."

Alarmingly, the PISA research finds that less than 1 in 10 of students tested are "able to distinguish between fact and opinion, based on implicit cues pertaining to the content or source of the information."

Only in six nations did students do better than 1 in 7 at successfully identifying actual facts — China, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Singapore, and the United States.

Image source: OECD


The report summarizes reading proficiency by focusing on two of the six-levels in their reading skill assessment scale.

At Level 2, "students are able to identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, though sometimes complex, criteria, and reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly directed to do so." About 77 percent of students on average achieved Level 2 proficiency.

The best readers, comprising just 8.7 percent of the tested teens, performed at Levels 5 or 6 where "students are able to comprehend lengthy texts, deal with concepts that are abstract or counterintuitive, and establish distinctions between fact and opinion, based on implicit cues pertaining to the content or source of the information."

Image source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Hope in AI

The authors of the PISA report see promise in the leveraging of A.I. for helping young people develop a stronger sense of context that would allow them to more accurately assess informational sources.

They suggest "we need to think harder about how to develop first-class humans, and how we can pair the A.I. of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills, and values of people." They do note with caution that A.I. itself is ethically neutral while the humans who program it are typically not. This is one of the concerns being studied for the OECD's upcoming Education 2030 project.

Overall, the PISA findings serve as clear notice that we need to be smarter about teaching. "That is why education in the future is not just about teaching people, but also about helping them develop a reliable compass to navigate an increasingly complex, ambiguous, and volatile world.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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