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November Issue

Vol 25|No 2|November 2015


© Photosphere

Making Smart Choices with Technology

During the past decade, information technology has made great strides when it comes to supporting wise choices in the marketplace — whether it be the selection of a doctor, a restaurant, a college or a book. There has been a major shift toward what might be called "amateur" information. This shift can be both a blessing and a curse, since the accuracy and reliability of judgments may be questionable.

This article explores the pros and cons of such data while suggesting how teachers might equip students with the thinking skills to make use of such sources wisely. This challenge was addressed previously in the May 2011 issue of FNO in an article entitled "Learning to Trust the Amateurs Somewhat" - Chapter Sixteen of my 2011 book Lost and Found, but the information landscape has shifted even further since then, so it is timely to consider this opportunity once again.

What's wrong with experts?


Except the fact that almost everybody has loved a movie that was panned by the movie critic of a distinguished source like The New Yorker. Almost everybody has been disappointed by a restaurant with many stars and rave reviews. Almost everybody has found a prize-winning book to be forgettable. Many can tell stories of doctors whose bedside manners were sadly lacking in warmth and empathy.

This article argues that we must show our students how to base their decisions on a blend of expert and amateur judgments. The most important decisions in life - such as medical treatments - should be well-anchored in expert opinion and data. But even these will benefit from input that comes from patients, clients, diners and other readers.

How good is expert research?

The old adage "Don't believe everything you read in print!" still holds true today, but it needs to be revised to ""Don't believe everything you read in print or online!"

The New York Times on October 31 printed an article, "Unexpected Honey Study Shows Woes of Nutrition Research," by Aaron E. Carroll, in which he claims that, "Almost everything we 'know' is based on small, limited studies, and the limited conclusions are often overblown."

Unfortunately, as Carroll points out, the popular press is quick to publish the overblown conclusions as truths. In fields such as education and health, the same phenomenon is all too common.

When should women start mammogram screening?
The experts disagree, as the Mayo Clinic states:

Not all organizations agree on mammogram guidelines. For instance, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force mammogram guidelines recommend women begin screening at age 50. The American Cancer Society, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and other organizations recommend that women begin screening in their 40s. Some organizations recommend screening every year and others recommend screening every two years. (full statement)


While we hope that our students will not confront such health choices so early in life, we can predict that most will eventually face them, and it is during their school years that we must equip them with the thinking skills to weigh the advice of experts against each other while taking all advice "with a grain of salt."

One leading commentator on such challenges is Dr. Jerome Groopman, who has been publishing articles in The New Yorker since 1998 providing guidance on seeking second opinions and challenging medical advice.

Making the right medical choices is harder than ever. Whether we’re deciding to take a cholesterol drug or choosing a cancer treatment, we are overwhelmed by information from all sides: our doctors’ recommendations, dissenting expert opinions, confusing statistics, conflicting media reports, the advice of friends, claims on the Internet, and a never ending stream of drug company ads.

Source: Your Medical Mind: How To Decide What Is Right For You


photo © Jamie McKenzie

YELP is also a verb!

One of the promising but often maligned sources of information about choices is YELP. Back several decades, one tended to make restaurant choices relying upon expert reviewers in printed travel books or their first Web sites. Fodor's comes to mind as a prominent example.

While the experts are still worth reading, sites like Yelp allow us to consider the reactions of regular Joes and plain Janes. Whether we seek a doctor or a restaurant, a judicious reading of amateur comments can be extremely enlightening. And YELP is a great site to help students learn discernment because they may have personal knowledge of local restaurants that will allow them to challenge the veracity of reviewers' comments.

A teacher can raise the general issue of amateur information with the class prior to sending students to read 30 reviews of a local restaurant. As they read, they are asked to rate each review on 3-4 criteria that will help them to assess veracity.

    1. How well did the reviewer back praise or criticism with specific details and evidence?
    2. To what extent did the reviewer seem calm and logical as opposed to angry and irrational?
    3. To what extent did the reviewer seem knowledgable about food and dining?
    4. Did the spelling, grammar and word choice of the reviewer inspire trust?
    5. Did you feel a connection with the reviewer — shared values and preferences — or did they seem to have quite different tastes and attitudes than you?


    © Jamie McKenzie

How did YELP become a verb? Sometimes an angry customer will take out their wrath by writing a rant against the offending waiter, restaurant, college aid officer or doctor. Students must learn to balance such tirades against the full array of reviews. Was this bad experience an exception or was it the rule?

It turns out that this thought process also prepares students to compare historians and biographers. Reading three different biographies of Captain Bligh may give them quite different views of the man, just as YELP reviews may do for restaurants, universities and doctors.

Once the students have tested out reviewers of a favorite restaurant, they might simulate a search for a doctor or a good college in their own town or some other city, applying the thinking skills they learned to the comments they find about these new challenges.

If relying upon the testimony and information available on medical or university Web sites, they will rarely encounter much negative information, but sites like YELP provide comments about office attitudes, scheduling challenges and campus safety that official Web sites would rarely disclose.

Commenting on a Denver college, one former student made the following statement:

Great professors, small classes, great majors, variety of locations, well priced (for instate)

PARKING ( really stupid), all the crime that's been going on lately, the financial aid department ( no one knows the answer and no one cares to help), not feeling safe walking to my car.

After reading the comments of 31 students who range in their ratings from 5 stars (11) to 1 star (6), a prospective student ends up with a rich portrait of day-to-day life that offers a judicious mix of pros and cons.

The same approach works with doctors, though YELP may provide more information about the "soft side" of medical practice than the skill of the doctor. Some patients will accept a bad office experience and a cold bedside manner if the surgeon is renowned for skillful use of the scalpel. At the same time, data on the success of some doctors is sometimes skewed by what is called "cherry-picking." Claiming great recovery rates for cancer patients who arrived with promising conditions while turning away more critical patients is a deceptive process difficult for a patient to uncover when searching for a doctor.

Students must learn that many YELP reviews are suspect because a patient or a student with a bad experience will spend a half hour YELPING. Sometimes a happy patient or student will not bother to write a review. They should also note that there are people offering to write fake reviews of restaurants and other businesses for as little as $5 a review.

"Spotting the fakes among the five-star reviews" is a PBS interview with fake review writers and commentators that will quickly alert students to this problem.

Would I enjoy reading this novel?

Those who buy books on sites like Amazon know that their past reading and buying experience leads to recommendations from Amazon that are supposedly based on what is known as "relationship software." The software is supposed to suggest books that will please you as much as the last novel you loved while steering you away from books like the novel you hated so much you could not finish it. "Easy to put down!"

Students should come to understand that "relationship software" is being used for everything from cat food and books to pants and hats. While software might have some understanding of our preferences, the company often has special partners to whom it might wish to steer business. This steering is based more on cash than affinity.

And here is where the customer reviews may prove a blessing. When Amazon suggests a book, it pays to read some customer reviews of that book.

Just now I went to Amazon and found them suggesting I buy "Pretty Girls: A Novel."
It comes highly recommended by some very cool people:

Lee Child says it’s “stunning… certain to be a book of the year.”
Kathy Reichs calls it “extraordinary… a major achievement.”
Jeffery Deaver says that fiction doesn't get any better than this.
Gillian Flynn says of Karin Slaughter: “I’d follow her anywhere.”

They are lining up the pressure to buy the book.
And then you may see that 57% of the readers gave this book 5 stars. Impressive.
I like to skip to the 1 star reviews:

"Gross, gory, misogynistic"

Enjoying a book is a very personal matter, and the reviews of other readers can often tip you off to aspects of a book that would make it a page-burner rather than a page-turner. Not that burning books is acceptable, but "trashing" them is often appropriate.


The basic theme of this article is the value of showing students how to consider a mix of expert and amateur opinions when making choices. It turns out that veracity is difficult to find. Virtual truth is on the rise — truthiness, as Stephen Colbert defines it: "The quality by which one purports to know something emotionally or instinctively, without regard to evidence or intellectual examination".

Discernment is not a word most adults use or understand, but I would argue that all students from grades 3-12 should learn this word, and more importantly, come to practice the thinking and questioning skills that are the foundation of thoughtful, wise choices.

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