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How Do We Know Things About The World? (8+)

This is the grade 8+ (ages 13+) version of this lesson. There is also a grade 6-7 version on the site.

Imagine a simple, regular, yellow pencil. Maybe you even have one in front of you.

Now imagine traveling back a few hundred years, before pencils were invented. What would you need to know to make a pencil all by yourself?

You would need to know all the ingredients and components of a pencil. Click the plus signs in the activity below to see each part you would have to make: 

To make something as simple as a pencil requires a lot of knowledge – more than what any one person would know. You would need to be an excellent woodworker, metal worker, chemist, an engineer, and even have knowledge about trees! “Knowing how to make a pencil” turns out to be very complex.

This is the same with all knowledge in our society. We all rely on the knowledge of others, especially the experts who have spent years working on a specific topic. Knowledge is like a web, and each of us is a part of it.

In this way, knowledge is communal, and the effort to understand the world is a collective process. 


Knowledge is a Communal Web 

You know that the earth is round, but how do you know? You probably have not been to space and looked at Earth to personally see the curvature of the Earth. Yet you have this knowledge because scientists with expertise in earth science have confirmed that the earth is round, astronauts who have been to space have confirmed it, and so on. 

There are many different kinds of experts who all contribute to this shared knowledge. Nobody can be an expert on everything, which is why this communal approach to knowing is so valuable. It makes it possible to know things from many different perspectives, with input from many different experts across a wide range of disciplines.

Of course, experts - even groups of experts - can be wrong or make mistakes. Experts even disagree with each other! In fact, it’s through these disagreements that we often learn something new.

However, think about how hard it is to recognize a mistake in a complex PhD-level math equation without math expertise.

Recognizing mistakes and learning from them requires expertise too! The more complex the problem, the more it takes expertise from many different areas, with groups of people working together contributing to communal knowledge.


You have an important role to play in this shared knowledge too. 

The information you consume (e.g. things you read, watch, hear etc) affects how you perceive the world, what kind of things you decide to spend your time learning, and what kind of information you decide to share with others. This is why you have to be careful about the kind of content you consume. 

Did you know: In order to read all the books in existence, you would have to read about 5,000 books every day for 79 years. It would take 17,810 years to watch all the videos on YouTube. Reading all of Wikipedia would take about 16 years of reading without sleep. Reading everything on the internet would take at least 57,000 years.7,40,1,26

Activity: Map out the expertise for an object

Now, compare your list of experts with your classmates’ list. Chances are, you’ll find someone who identified the same kind of expertise as you but using a different object. This is because knowledge is a communal web, so different kinds of expertise overlap in many areas. 

In this example, we looked at objects, but knowledge as a whole is a web. This includes more abstract things like law, theories, and cultural commentary. It is all part of the knowledge web.


Misinformation threatens knowledge

Think back to the DHMO hoax. How easy was it to make water sound extremely dangerous? How silly did that seem once you knew that DHMO was just water? Misinformation works in a similar way. It is very easy to make something sound scary or dangerous, especially when people don’t have expertise on the subject. But what if you could convince someone that our collective knowledge is scary and that experts cannot be trusted?

This is exactly what some misinformation tries to do. They try to make knowledge and expertise sound scary. They do this because if you can make people believe that our collective knowledge is not trustworthy, every other piece of misinformation becomes more believable.

Here are some of the signs to look out for:

  • Are they claiming that all other experts are always wrong?
  • Do they say they know better than other experts and do not need to work with them?
  • Are they attacking the people who have expertise? Do they say:
    • Experts are all being deceived
    • Experts are all lying
    • Experts are bad people and have a hidden purpose
    • Experts can’t be trusted

When you come across these types of statements, be very careful. They might be trying to scare you instead of informing you. 

Always remember that knowledge is communal and complex - real expertise does not come from googling something and reading things on the internet. It comes from years of education, experience, lived experiences, contributing to the community of knowledge, and working with other experts. Misinformation tries to instill distrust in knowledge and the communal effort that makes it possible to understand the world.

Imagine someone claiming that all the experts who create pencils are evil, and that pencils are secretly poisonous. Think about the expertise behind pencils, and how many experts would have to be involved for this to be true! Watch out for scary, sweeping claims.


How the internet makes it easy to believe in misinformation - no matter who you are  

Have you ever Googled something, then noticed that your YouTube recommendations or the ads on Instagram are suddenly all about that topic?

This happens because Google, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and other big sites are constantly tracking what you do online. They do this because they are trying to show you the things you are most interested in.5,14,27

By showing you what you are interested in, they know you are more likely to spend more time on their site. The more time you spend on their sites, the more likely you will click on the ads on the site. The more that you click on the ads, the more that these sites make money. 

If you’ve ever wondered why these sites are “free”, it’s this system that is paying for it.

Generally speaking, if you are on the internet, then companies are collecting data about you - even in incognito mode. The things you click on, comment or like, the groups you’re in, and the people you interact with - all of it is collected as data, influencing the kind of content you’re shown. In many ways, they know more about you than even your closest friends.

This means that what you see on the internet is tailored to you. The news you come across, the opinions you see, the viral videos - these are shown to you but not necessarily to everyone else. The internet looks different to different people. Here is an example of two different people searching for self-help books. Google has collected data about who they are and their interests, so the suggestions are different. 

How does this affect your experience with misinformation?

  • If you start interacting with misinformation or bad influencers, you will see more content just like it.
  • You will start to see misinformation that is tailored to you and what will most likely convince you.
  • This will make it more likely that you start believing misinformation because studies show that the more often you see something false, the more likely you are to start believing it.22
  • You will also get a false sense that many people believe the misinformation.
  • To avoid this, you need to recognize misinformation early and avoid interacting with it.

Remember that everyone is vulnerable to misinformation. By being vigilant about the kind of content you consume, you are protecting yourself.

All lessons & quizzes are free!

 This was just one of the lessons in our Navigating the World of Online (Mis)Information section. There are over 500 lessons on Kids Boost Immunity just like this one on a variety of subjects. Each lesson includes a quiz and every time a student scores 80% or higher on a quiz, we will donate life-saving vaccines to UNICEF Canada. Sign up now!

To see other example lessons, click here.

  Apr 18, 2024