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Sort Fact from Fiction, Faster

When I get asked questions about education, I tend to talk about the ‘Three Cs’.

The importance of three core skills in the future of education and employment came out of an ICAEW project I was involved with a couple of years back. A panel and I agreed that what we really wanted young people to be able to do when they reach the workplace can be boiled down to three things:

  • Curate: Discover and qualify information
  • Create: Synthesise something new from that information
  • Communicate: Sell their new idea to their peers

Not only do I think these skills, combined with a solid work ethic and a good disposition, define a valuable employee today, I think they are also some of the most defensible human traits in the face of rising automation.

It was particularly the skill of Curation that came to mind as I was writing the last post about how scepticism is the best defence from digital security threats. Scepticism is a hugely important component of Curation. It is scepticism which allows an individual to begin to challenge claims and differentiate between sources. If you can develop a sceptical ‘sixth sense’ in people then you can speed this process, allowing snap judgements about the quality of a source.

Take the example of the four-foot-long rat supposedly discovered in Hackney last week: a good sceptic would immediately question that.

Why?

I think it comes down to an understanding of media. In my first proper job after university I used to run a lot of media training programmes, teaching people how to deal with the press. We taught hundreds of people across Europe the basic principles of understanding what was newsworthy and how to communicate it through press releases and interviews.

A phrase that will be familiar to anyone who has been on this sort of session is ‘man bites dog’. What it means is that the press are interested in things that are out of the ordinary. A dog bites a man? Well so what: that’s what dogs do. But if a man bites a dog? Well that’s unusual, and hence, newsworthy.

For the very reason that a four-foot-long rat is newsworthy, it should also set off the mental alarm bells of the sceptic — to say nothing of the journalists who happily published the story.

This same rule applies to many of the ruses used to con people in digital scams. It just takes a few moments thought to realise when it. Widows of African leaders wanting to move money out of their countries through you? Friends being mugged in foreign countries and using Facebook to ask everyone to wire them money? Both clearly men biting dogs.

Some of these things are innately ridiculous. Others do require a bit more knowledge or context to be revealed as such. Like the Microsoft technical support scam. But you don’t have to teach people much about business, computers or the internet — no more than should be the basics of any education* — for these too to start to smell a little fishy.

Teach people media literacy, and give them a broad education in the way the modern world operates, and I think we can develop in most a very healthy innate scepticism.

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*Note that the accelerated nature of the modern world means that by ‘education’ here I don’t just mean at school age. Lifelong learning will become an absolute expectation for all of us and needs to be supported as such.

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Tom Cheesewright