Critical Thinking Education Can Help Fight the Spread of COVID Conspiracy Theories

Focusing on developing critical thinking skills early in life can help reduce the spread of misinformation

(Kristen Frier)

A recently published study conducted by the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University found that, of the 2,000 Canadians surveyed, 46 per cent reported believing in at least one of four conspiracy theories or myths about COVID-19.

The four myths include the idea that the coronavirus is a bioweapon engineered in a chinese lab (26 per cent of survey respondents believe this), that it is a cover-up for harmful health effects caused by 5G wireless emitters (11 per cent), that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for the coronavirus (23 per cent), and that putting saline up your nose can help prevent infection (17 per cent).

Fundamentally, a conspiracy theory is an idea rooted in an uncompromising distrust of conventional sources of information. Every conspiracy stems from the notion that somewhere, someone is lying to you about something, whether that’s the shape of the planet, the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations, or the veracity of the information being shared about the origins of COVID-19.

Pair this (often understandable, if not justifiable) suspicion of major sources of information, news, and leadership with an ingrained ignorance of the tenets of research and academic rigour and you get conspiracy theories. Once someone becomes attached to a conspiracy theory, they often bond their credibility and identity to the truth of their claim. Defending the theory in the absence of supporting evidence or in the face of contradicting evidence is actually defending their ego, reputation, and social standing. It becomes personal, and it’s no longer about the pursuit of truth — it’s about the pursuit of a way to maintain one’s self-esteem by establishing feelings of intellectual or moral superiority.

Skepticism is a helpful mindset to adopt when looking for the truth. Choosing not to fully believe that something is true without verifying evidence for oneself is a genuinely important aspect of critical thinking. The problem is that, sadly, without adequate education on how to think critically, a lot of people don’t actually understand how to parse fact from fiction effectively, even when the evidence supporting one claim over another is overwhelming.

A possible solution to this is to prioritize teaching critical thinking skills and proper research techniques and methods earlier on in life. If more high schools offered introductory philosophy courses like critical thinking and logic, more people would be given the chance to build a foundation for these skills, which they can utilize when forming their opinions later in life. Science education is already a mandatory part of elementary and secondary school curricula. Adding a unit or module which comprehensively focuses on covering the importance of gathering evidence and verifying claims in order to support premises and conclusions would not be too much of a stretch. Stressing the reliability of the scientific method and the importance of empirical decision-making could help reverse the spread of misinformation.

Ultimately, the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories can be tied to a few different factors such as people’s reliance on social media platforms for news, active perpetuation by state propaganda, and a lack of public understanding about how to conduct research and independently verify claims.

In order to combat this, we need to start by implementing preventative measures like education campaigns, otherwise these problems will likely continue to get worse.