British Association for American Studies


Research Skills as Survival Skills in the Post-Truth Age

On the day that Oxford Dictionaries announced that they had awarded the Word of the Year 2016 to ‘post-truth’ I was leading a research skills workshop for A-level students who were about to begin work for their Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).[1] Oxford Dictionaries explained that they chose the word after ‘much discussion, debate, and research’, and it struck me that these were all things that were sadly lacking in the development and dissemination of post-truth.

Discussion, debate, and research was the very thing I was trying to encourage in the students in my workshop, and I was not disappointed. I was heartened by the students who all seemed receptive to rigorous research methods and scepticism towards source material. Surely this is the best response to the insidiousness of post-truth.

2016 has had plenty of depressing moments; Michael Gove’s assertion that people ‘have had enough of experts’ is certainly one of them, especially for those of us striving to more fully understand the field in which we work, and to continue gaining expertise.[2] There is nothing wrong with engagement, and the long endeavour to become an expert, and it should be encouraged.

In recent years, not all subjects have been encouraged in equal measure; dire warnings that the humanities were ‘under strain’ and ‘in crisis’ were made as STEM subjects garnered political praise and public prestige.[3] However, now more than ever, we need the kind of critical thinking which is the foundation of the humanities.

Critical thinking is an essential part of the Extended Project Qualification. I confess that I had not heard of the EPQ until I recently joined the Widening Participation team at The University of Manchester. The EPQ has replaced General Studies (which was in its infancy when I was at sixth form), and is the equivalent of half an A-level. Students select their own topics according to their own interests, and I have been amazed at the ambition and enthusiasm being applied to these projects, which have ranged from the consequences of artificial intelligence for a globalised workforce to the Pendle Hill witch trials in Lancashire.

The EPQ process is rightly vigorous, as one examination board states the qualification demands that students ‘select information from a range of sources, analyse data, apply it relevantly, and demonstrate understanding of any appropriate connections and complexities of their topic’.[4] It is in these skills, in the blossoming of scholarly endeavour, and the development of critical thinking that a defence of the truth can be made.

The research skills which are encouraged in students taking part in the EPQ will of course be useful, indeed essential, if they chose to go onto higher education. More importantly those research skills will be an armoury to be used against post-truth. In this way research skills, can – and will – become the survival skills of our age. As educators, we must rally our troops to fight against the belief that political rhetoric is reality, and that assumptions are facts.

The EPQ encourages students to think about what they read, and where that material has come from. They are also taught to consider whether that material is appropriate and where it stands in measured scholarly discourse. Crucially students are also lead to consider if the material they read and use is based on demonstrable evidence.

In one of the activities in the research skills workshop students look at a range of sources – newspaper articles, an opinion piece, part of a scientific journal, and work sponsored by the oil industry – to think about how they could use, or reject, this material to answer the question ‘Is Climate Change a Myth?’ The students thought about bias and purpose, and while there was some debate both about the answer to the question and the usefulness of some of the source material, it was measured and considered. Ironically, one of the statements issued by the Trump campaign which claimed that climate change was secretly invented by the Chinese for economic gain, has been used as an example of post-truth.[5] As the 16 to 18 year olds I was working with demonstrated, the only way to respond to post-truth is with critical thinking and a consideration of the evidence.

There are many ways of resisting post-truth and its implications; resistance can come through both outreach and outrage which, hopefully, will begin to mobilised in the coming weeks, months and years, and will be discussed in this USSO series. One of those forms of resistance, critical thinking, is one that we as students and educators practice daily. It is work worth doing, and it is worth doing well. Critical thinking, comprehensive research, and reasoned arguments should be encouraged in the next generation of students; not only to help them pass their EPQ, or because they may become scholars and academics, but because they need to become truly engaged citizens of the world who will question the so-called truth before their eyes.


[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

[2] Sky News, Michael Gove interview with Faisal Islam, 3rd  June 2016.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/us/humanities-studies-under-strain-around-the-globe.html?_r=0 and http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/

[4] http://www.aqa.org.uk/programmes/aqa-baccalaureate/extended-project/the-aqa-epq

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-not-deleting-climate-change-denial-tweets-despite-chinese-hoax-global-warming-claims-a7332396.html