Barbie and Critical Reading Skills


bucket_eMy daughter brought home a Barbie, I can be…President book from the library the other day. These books and I can be dolls are an attempt to deflect some of the scathing criticism that Barbie has received for being a shallow role model. In this book Barbie runs for class president, and low and behold, the President of the United States visits…a female president.

I pointed out to my daughter as we read that we have never elected a woman president of the United States, so this book is really fiction. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have a female president; it just hasn’t happened yet.

Then, a few pages later the writer of the book decided to list the duties of the President. “The President makes the laws.” My husband and I just about jumped out of our skins.

Apparently the writer never watched any School House Rock. No, the President does not make laws. Drafting legislation is reserved for the legislative branch of our government. The Congress drafts and passes the bills, which the President (executive branch) then signs into law or vetoes, but the President does not make laws (draft legislation). And of course, the Congress can always override a Presidential veto. That is part of the system of checks and balances which is critical to the function of our government. The judicial branch is the other CRITICAL part of the checks and balances system, but that’s another blog.

The thing that troubles me is that many people will read this Barbie book and not think twice about the sentence “the President makes the laws”. Many young girls will read this book and think that is an accurate description of the role of the President. How difficult would it have been to have an editor or a fact-checker look over this book before it was published?

When I read to my daughter, I try to be careful to point out if an author makes a mistake. We discuss dubious conclusions drawn from happenstance occurrences or weak correlations when authors make them (or things that are just plain wrong).  I ask questions “How do you think that is possible?” “Can you think of another explanation?”

I am really concerned about the tendency to make a headline and dramatic conclusion of a single scientific study that may have a sample size of 10 and only show a weak correlation when the wind is blowing from the East, while ignoring the other 50 years of research in the field, all of which points to a different conclusion.

We live in a world where we are all reporters. Which can be good—sometimes you get a more full story as events unfold.  And, it can be bad when one person tweets an uninformed statement based on half a story, and suddenly everyone retweets that erroneous statement, and NO ONE (including professional journalists) checks what the reality of the situation actually is.

Personalized internet news sites allow us to slant what we see so that we only see the things we agree with, never challenging our world view. In some ways, we were more informed, more challenged and better able to evaluate news stories and data when we had access to only three networks and a few newspapers, and our way of figuring things out was sitting on the front porch talking to other people.

I embrace the information age and new technology, it brings us much. However, all of the advances are nothing if we lose our ability to think. So the next time you read an article or a book and the author is leading you toward a particular conclusion ask yourself: Is there another interpretation? How is this possible? Is this really what is going on?

©2014 Michele Arduengo.  All rights reserved.

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