On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch armed himself with an AR-15 rifle, a shotgun, a handgun, and a knife and shouldered open the door to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. Once inside, he leveled the rifle at an employee, who fled just before Welch fired three shots. 45 minutes later, Welch surrendered to police, claiming he had simply come to “self-investigate” online claims that the restaurant was harboring child sex slaves as part of an elaborate pedophile ring involving high-ranking political figures such as Hilary Clinton, John Podesta, and George Soros. Unsurprisingly, no such children were found at Comet Ping Pong or anywhere else.

Although Welch’s attack was the most notorious incident stemming from the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy, it was just one of hundreds of times believers assaulted or harassed employees of Comet Ping Pong and other businesses identified as supposed co-conspirators. However, the wildly implausible and thoroughly debunked theory remained a largely underground phenomenon until the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, when it reached a more mainstream audience as part of the even broader “QAnon” conspiracy promulgated on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. In response, both Facebook and Twitter altered their algorithms and began issuing bans to reduce the viral spread of misinformation.

Those conspiracy theories, as well as hundreds more related to Covid-19 and the 2020 presidential election—and the increasingly aggressive actions taken by social media companies to control them—are striking examples of the speed at which misinformation can spread online. To combat that, it is more important than ever to educate people in critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, and Dr. Stephanie Preston (Professor of Psychology, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience [CCN]), has been doing precisely that for decades. In her classes, she teaches students to critically evaluate scientific claims and evidence. With her latest project, which is made possible with generous support from the Martin and Ruth Jaffe Research Fund, Preston and her collaborators aim to reach a much larger audience. The team has two goals. First, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of how and why people use (or do not use) evidence-based reasoning to evaluate claims. Second, they plan to use that knowledge to design a set of practical online tools to help the public develop those skills.

Preston began the project in 2019, in collaboration with Dr. Priti Shah (also of the CCN Area), who shares Preston’s passion for studying and promoting evidence-based reasoning. The project involves several phases, each of which builds upon the knowledge gained in the previous phases. Preston explains: “For our first product, we worked with our graduate student Hwayong Shin (Political Science) to develop a scale to measure people’s evidence-based reasoning. The scale has determined that there are at least three factors influencing individual differences in this tendency. The first is people’s passion to seek evidence, which most people agree or strongly agree that they are interested in. But there is unfortunately also a factor where many people devalue or disbelieve science for a variety of reasons: because they think scientific evidence isn’t credible, or they don’t care, or they think it’s biased, or they think it’s incomprehensible. That is a barrier we need to overcome.”

As Preston describes, though, there is also a third factor: namely, the degree to which people rely on authority figures to help them determine what is true. “Say somebody in your social network or a political figure or a celebrity tells you that something is true: do you just believe it because you trust that person and they are your guide for decision-making? Or do you prefer to rely on evidence and question that authority?” Preston asks.

That third factor was of particular interest to Dr. Martin Jaffe, who passed away in 2020 and whose donation made this project possible. “Dr. Jaffe believed strongly that education was one way to reduce people’s reliance on authority,” Preston says, “and he believed it would also have the effect of making people more tolerant. Things like xenophobia, racism, and sexism are all promoted by authority figures, and they are not generally supported by the actual evidence. Dr. Jaffe wanted to improve the world and people’s tolerance for differences by helping them understand how to use evidence, which was an admirable goal. He had many theory papers about this idea of evidence versus authority, but we were interested in using the project to not only educate people in evidence-based reasoning—because that is so crucial—but also to test Jaffe’s theory that improving this capacity would make people more tolerant. We are excited to take up the challenge of demonstrating with evidence whether that is true or not.”

In the upcoming phases of the project, Preston and her team will draw on their evidence-based reasoning scale to design and test a series of online modules intended to help people improve those skills. Consisting of 5 modules, each one a 15-minute video with accompanying tests and assessments, the course will first be tested on students at U-M. After the team makes any necessary refinements based on the data gathered from the internal trial, they will run a larger trial though Amazon’s crowdsourcing website, MTurk. Finally, if all goes well, they will post the revised course online, where it can help teach critical thinking skills to the public.

Dr. Jaffe’s donation is particularly important for these upcoming phases because it allows the team to raise production values on the project, thereby making it more engaging—and ultimately more effective. “Right now,” Preston notes, “we have hired a professional screenwriter. We also hired a student at Michigan who is designing these really cool professional animations in Adobe. It takes a long time to make these videos because 15 minutes of video includes dozens of clips of whiteboard drawings, an actor who has to perform as host, and professional animation. It takes a lot of time to put it all together, and we are very grateful to Dr. Martin Jaffe and Ruth Jaffe for this money, which allows us to hire professional people who can make much more engaging material than an academic would normally have the ability to make.”

Ultimately, Preston hopes that the project will simply help more people rely on evidence-based reasoning when evaluating claims, something that everyone—no matter how educated—can do better and more consistently. “Based on our research,” she says, “a tip for everyone is just this: whenever you consider a claim—whether it comes from the media, talking to peers, or somewhere else—take a moment to decide if there is any motivation from the source to promote that perspective, and consider what is the evidence upon which the claim is based. Considering those two things—what is the source’s motivation, and what information are they basing it on—can go a long way toward resolving false claims and avoiding the pitfalls of attractive-seeming but untrue claims that we come across all the time. It’s a constant struggle for everyone that will never end, and more information and claims are made every day, so we kind of have to just be excited about the idea of putting on our thinking caps and digging deeper instead of dreading that effort and making it seem like homework. Our goal is in part to show that it is actually fun and like a game to find the holes in things because you are skilled at the endeavor.”