I’ve spent years trying to help people make sense of the world around them and particularly to make sense of the numbers that describe that world. But for the past few months, I’ve been wrestling with a new challenge: can I do the same thing for nine- to 13-year-olds? I’m hoping that I can help these young people become “truth detectives”, discerning what’s true and what isn’t in a time that can seem bewildering.
This might seem an unpromising task. Most adults struggle with complex statistics and many feel powerless to evaluate almost any claim in the form of a number. An unnervingly large minority doubt straightforward claims. For example, the fact that the main Covid-19 vaccines are effective and have a very low risk of serious side-effects, or that the Earth is a near-spherical body orbiting the sun. If the adults can’t cope, what hope do pre‑teens have?
Children, after all, can be pretty gullible. Take the widespread belief in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s a charming fiction invented by an advertising copywriter in the 1930s, designed to make children with few friends feel better about themselves. It’s transparently absurd. Santa Claus is magical enough to deliver presents all round the world in a single night, so he is hardly likely to need some kind of strange nasal fog-lamp. Yet, young children believe in Rudolph.
It’s easy to lose hope and to conclude that those impressionable young brains will be helpless in a world full of disinformation. I take a different view. Children may not have the reflexive cynicism of many adults, but that’s a strength, not a weakness.
Many of the most corrosive lies currently circulating have taken hold not because the conspiracy believers will believe anything, but because they start by trusting nothing. In order to believe that Covid-19 was a con or that the 2020 election was stolen, one must first disbelieve traditional media outlets, scientific journals and institutions of longstanding. All three, alas, sometimes give us reasons to doubt them, but those reasons shouldn’t lead people into a dogmatic rejection of anything the “mainstream” says. That defensive doubt might feel smart, but it’s really a cognitive surrender born out of a sense of helplessness and despair.
Young people think very differently about the world. They ask questions — so many questions! — listen to the answers they receive and are constantly trying to make sense of it all. Like adults, they can sometimes twist their logic to win arguments or to fit in. But while many adults do this all the time, children are actually trying to understand the world, something some grown-ups stopped doing a very long time ago.
When advising people how to make sense of the world, I emphasise three C’s: calm, context and curiosity. Calm, because our emotional reactions to the numbers we see in the news are often stronger than rational thought; we should notice those reactions and try not to let them overwhelm us.
Context, because numbers are meaningless without it; we need to understand whether they are large or small, rising or falling and the methods behind them.
And curiosity, because the most important step in understanding the world around us is to want to understand. All too often we seize on factual claims to win an argument or signal loyalty to a viewpoint, rather than because we are eager to know more.
So how do kids fare in the quest for calm, context and curiosity? They often lack context, it’s true. But that helps with the calm: they tend not to invest so much emotion in arguments that make adults frightened or angry. And they’re wonderfully curious: they want to understand what’s going on, they hoover up new ideas and they never stop asking who, how and above all why.
We adults underrate the value of this curiosity. We find those questions by turns cute, irritating and perilous. What if children stumble upon facts that might scare them? But children can handle the truth; even my excellent book editors occasionally needed to be reminded of that. At one stage, for example, in my new book The Truth Detective, I discussed the lessons we’ve learnt about information and disinformation from research into the health risks of cigarettes. My editors worried that young readers with parents who smoked would be frightened or upset to hear cigarettes cause cancer. I’m pleased to say I was able to persuade them that the truth was more important than a comforting silence.
Nor is the information ecosphere quite as fiendish as we adults sometimes fear. There are online echo chambers of hate and rabbit holes of conspiracy thinking, it’s true. But there are also vivid, accessible guides to every topic imaginable, from the trolley problem in moral philosophy, to the ingenious engineering of how petrol pumps automatically switch themselves off. It’s never been easier to find fun, clear and deep perspectives on the complex world around us.
The chief obstacle is deliberate ignorance: we don’t ask questions because we don’t care to know the answers. That’s why I’ve long argued that curiosity is so important — and why young readers are often better equipped to be truth detectives than their parents.
Michael Blastland, the statistically savvy journalist who co-created the More or Less programme I now present on BBC Radio 4, recently reminded me why it’s useful to think of our quest for understanding as being detective work.
“The sleuthing is part of the joy,” he wrote, “something I think journalism can miss.”
Trying to understand the world can indeed be a joy. And journalists are not the only grown-ups who sometimes forget this.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 March 2023.
My first children’s book, The Truth Detective is now available (not US or Canada yet – sorry).