MacGyver. Bart. Doogie. Theo. If you were a boy in middle school in the early ’90s, the playground arguments over who was the coolest guy on television featured some predictable characters. I’ll admit I thought these guys were pretty rad but, at the time, the television personality I most wanted to be was “the kid with a report due on space”:
Archive for the ‘epistemology’ Category
SOCRATES: In the matter of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding, and whom we ought to fear and reverence more than all the rest of the world: and whom deserting we shall destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice; is there not such a principle?
CRITO: Certainly, there is, Socrates.
-Plato, Crito, 47c-d [trans. by Benjamin Jowett] [link]
It seems that Wikipedia is getting into trouble with the experts…again. As he explains in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education), Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse, an academic with years of experience researching the Haymarket Affair (i.e., an expert on the topic), ran into difficulty editing the Wikipedia article on the event because his suggested improvements constituted original research, contradicted the scholarly majority opinion, and lacked sufficient source attribution. Basically, Messer-Kruse attempted to correct commonly believed factual inaccuracies and was summarily shot-down.
If David Weinberger is to be believed, the Internet hasn’t just changed how we access information, it has altered the very meaning of ‘knowledge’. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Weinberger claims that “for the coming generation, knowing looks less like capturing truths in books than engaging in never-settled networks of discussion and argument.” Supposedly, the networked, collaborative, and social nature of the Internet has changed our very understanding of knowledge to the point that knowledge is no longer tied to concepts of truth, objectivity, or certainty. Instead, as Weinberger argues in his recent book, Too Big to Know, “knowledge is a property of the network” (p. xiii). That is, the Internet has profoundly changed what it means to be a fact, to be true, or to be known. This book has been making the rounds among librarians, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to explain Weinberger’s argument and what librarians should–and should not–take away from it.
|Courtesy of Brandon Doran CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0|
I really kicked the hornets’ nest with my last post, and library constructivists are going out of their way to defend what I believe to be an indefensible position. I should point out that on the constructivist view my arguments for realism are an equally valid viewpoint, so why the fuss? I should also point out that I find it odd that, when pressed, the most common constructivist retorts I’m seeing are: “But, look at all the oppression in the name of science!” Should I even dignify such naïveté with a response? Of course there is oppression in the name of science, but that has nothing to do with science. Really, if you can name it, someone has probably been oppressed by it, and that includes social constructionism. Completely abandoning rationality and objectivity because bad things have happened in the name of rationality and objectivity is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Tell you what, here’s a bit of Latin you can get as your next bitchin’ tattoo: cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. Better yet, tattoo it on the baby, so you don’t forget. (Bonus if you add “4 Lyfe” after it.)
|“Pokemon 4 Lyfe”
Bob Jagendorf. CC BY 2.0
NKESR stands for “Use Common Sense, Dummy”
Why am I a metaphysical realist to begin with? I suppose I could give a personal history of the courses I took and the lectures I’ve given, but you kind of had to be there. Instead I’ll take an old lecture I gave in a philosophical problems class and blog-o-tize it for mass consumption. (Skip it if you really don’t want to read about Kant.)
Start with Kant, who held that things that exist independently of our minds cannot be known “in themselves”. These objects (noumena he called them) are only experienced through representations in the mind. In fact, according to Kant, all we have direct access to are our mental representations of external objects (he called these phenomena). Some philosophers ran with this idealism and created theories to the effect that we can have no knowledge of the world outside of ourselves and our own minds. But, Kant had a trick up his sleeve. Our mental representations are remarkably well structured. Things like causality, extension in space or the fact that things persist through time are inescapable constraints on how we see the world (he called these schema). Where do these constraints come from? His answer was that they come from the external objects themselves. So, we may not have access to the physical objects in themselves but we do have access to the causal and relational properties between them.
Filtered through a few centuries, Kant’s theory leads to Kantian Epistemic Structural Realism. This is the view that we cannot know anything about physical objects in themselves, but we can know their causal and relational properties. For example, I may not be able to see atoms, but I can describe the way they interact, make predictions, and use atoms to investigate other aspects of nature. So, scientific theories are just accounts of the causal and relational properties of objects, and not of the objects themselves. Yet, this is still a realism because it acknowledges that certain relationships do in fact obtain in some external reality, even if the objects themselves cannot be directly experienced.
Now, for one last twist. Scientific experimentation is remarkably consistent in its results. Actually, the successes of science are the best evidence that reality is not a social construct. In fact, as Putnam put it, realism is the only attitude that doesn’t make the successes of science miraculous. (See this article for a brief overview). In reference to Kantian structural realism, I think that the remarkable consistency and predictive power of our scientific theories is the best evidence that the objects they describe really do exist. The causal and relational properties described by our theories are so powerful, that the objects in those relations must be real. So, call this neo-Kantian Epistemic Structural Realism (NKESR). That’s what I believe. There are some good criticisms of this position, especially Arthur Fine’s Natural Ontological Attitutde and Bas van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism. These are criticisms that I take seriously, though answering them exceeds the scope of this post.
(Update 5/25/11: No sooner did I post this than PNAS published an article somewhat corroborating Kantian psychology: apparently intuitions about Euclidean geometry are innate and independent of social constructs…including language. Neat!)
So, the simple version is just that whatever reality is actually like, socially constructed or not, if you jump out the window, you’re going to fall. It just so happens that the best account for why this is the case is that there really is an external, physical world. To quote a contemporary realist philosopher, “What they eat don’t make us shit…Real talk.”
|“Girl, concepts are just freely repeatable elements
in propositional representational contents. Real talk.”
So, what is knowledge?
Everything I just said was about metaphysical realism (ontological realism). How we should describe reality is a separate, epistemological issue. The question becomes, “What can we know about the world?” I should take a second to say what knowledge is, in order to set up epistemological realism. Knowledge is non-accidentally true belief. To say that you know that the head office of the American Library Association is in Chicago means that
- You believe the ALA head office is in Chicago,
- It is true that the ALA head office is in Chicago, and
- You are justified in believing that the head office of the ALA is in Chicago.
You see, we can accept that there is a mind-independent physical reality, but that doesn’t tell us what we are justified in believing about that reality (inversely, we can be realists about our theories, but not about physical objects. cf. instrumentalism). Epistemic social constructionism tells us that all beliefs about reality are equally valid social constructs and that though there may be genuine facts out there, there is no privileged way of representing the world. Boghossian (2006) describes it this way:
Of course, the world doesn’t just inscribe itself onto our minds. In trying to get at the truth, what we do is try to figure out what’s true from the evidence available to us: we try to form the belief that it would be most rational to have, given the evidence. But is there just one way of forming rational beliefs in response to the evidence? Are facts about justification universal or might they vary from community to community? (p. 58)
Most of the more persuasive constructionists follow this type of epistemic constructionism; Richard Rorty is a prime example of someone who follows this line. According to Rorty, facts aren’t socially constructed and relative at all. The same facts hold for everyone, everywhere. This is a metaphysical realism. BUT, Rorty hastens to add that there is not a privileged way of representing the world. We can create wildly different epistemic systems based on the same evidence, and all of these systems are equally valid. So, it isn’t that facts are relative, it’s that facts about rational belief are relative. For the epistemic constructivist, knowledge is still justified, true belief, but justification is relative to a particular community. As Boghossian puts it, “different people may rationally arrive at opposed conclusions, even as they acknowledge all the same data” (p. 59)
On the flip-side, epistemological realism tells us that there is, in fact, a right way and a wrong way to represent the world and we can accurately represent the world as it really is. So, what is the right path to knowledge? I for one follow a reliablist account of justification: a belief is justified if it is the outcome of a reliable, truth-conducive process. Since the scientific methodology is the most reliable, truth-conducive process, the scientific methodology gives us a true account of reality. And just to be clear, a scientific methodology is not the same as the hard sciences. The scientific methodology is just the application of logic, reason, empirical evidence, experimentation, etc. to questions of fact. So, for example, on the question of which is better, the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification system, we use logic, reason, and analysis to examine each carefully. The context, the social agreements, the ingrained biases…these are still relevant and important factors that we must consider as evidence or “experimental controls”. When I want to figure out which to adopt in my library, there is a fact of the matter that one is better than the other in my situation, and I can figure it out through reason. If I were a constructivist about knowledge, I may appeal to tradition, to holy scripture, to what feels right, or some other method of justification, since none are superior. As a realist, I appeal to reason and evidence. Since I want to be done with the philosophy part of this post, I’ll just direct you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need more, because I’m supposed to be talking about libraries.
|Courtesy of nualabugeye. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0|
Libraries and Objectivity
- Metaphysical realism: There are mind-independent facts about the way the world really is.
- Epistemological realism: We can, in fact, accurately represent the way the world really is.
- Reliablism: We are justified in believing the truth of our representations if those representations are the product of a reliable, truth-conducive process.
- Scientism: Scientific methodology (reason and evidence) is the most reliable, truth-conducive justificatory process.
Librarians who want to treat all knowledge and truth as socially constructed are adamant that we need to get in on the construction business and assist our patrons in creating their realities. I’ve already said what I think about that. My proposal is that libraries enter the demolition business instead. We need to use the tools of reason and objectivity to tear down cultural biases, falsehoods, and misconceptions. We need to provide society with the tools to stand up to misinformation, disinformation, and deception. We need to blast a big-ass hole in the wall and let our patrons become educated and enlightened so they can stand up to whatever society throws at them. It’s that whole speaking truth to power, truth-shall-set-you-free thing that guided us through the liberalism of the 1960s. Let me give some brief examples:
Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tell you that realism will force libraries to only collect what the librarians have deemed to be acceptable knowledge. Far from it. Libraries should provide access to as many varied viewpoints and perspectives as possible, because these perspectives are the evidence we use to determine what is true and what is false. My library makes available books and articles in favor of intelligent design and in favor of evolution. A constructivist would say that the library collects these contradictory positions because both are equally valid accounts of the world. A realist would say that only one theory is correct, but in order to determine the truth, you have to consult all of the evidence. So, as realist librarians, we are committed to making available the widest possible selection of viewpoints because each is another bit of evidence for or against the way the world really is.
Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tell you that realism will turn reference librarians into authoritarians who pass judgment on what counts as acceptable knowledge. First, our epistemic commitments are distinct from our moral commitments, and reference librarians have a moral obligation not to assume how or why patrons will use the information they seek. All we can assume is that information seekers often do have the goal of acquiring true beliefs (Fallis, 2004). By directing patrons to the viewpoints most relevant to their information need, we can be assured that we are providing them with the relevant evidence. Second, we have to avoid focusing on information wants and instead focus on information needs. When a patron asks for information, we should avoid simply handing over all and only the materials that meet that specific request. Realism entails that information exists independently of what we believe, so the realist librarian focuses on identifying a patron need and satisfying that need with the best resources available. Obviously, what the patron wants will usually be a part of the information need, but other viewpoints may be relevant, and it is the reference librarian’s job to acknowledge that they exist.
For example, when a student asks for books and articles that prove that homosexuality is immoral, I won’t take the constructivist approach and hand over only what will confirm the student’s preconceptions. I’ll take the realist approach and direct the student to books and articles about homosexuality and morality, which include competing theories, and I’ll let the student use that evidence as he sees fit. Hopefully, the student will critically examine all of the relevant arguments and come to understand the way the world really is (Which is that homosexuality is not immoral. I am inflexible on this, so constructivists, don’t even try to argue the point.) I should add that this applies to all information needs, regardless of what the reference librarian believes. If a patron wants to show that homosexuality is immoral, he needs to look at all the evidence; if a patron wants to show that homosexuality is not immoral, she needs to look at all the evidence. Put another way, the scientific approach is to critically examine all the relevant evidence in order to form true beliefs.
Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tall you that realism will lead to artificial hierarchies and divisions in how we organize information. They routinely criticize the supposed rigidity of the “ontologies” librarians impose on information and offer the “wisdom of the crowds” as non-discriminatory and emancipatory alternatives. The Semantic Web, folksonomies, even Wikipedia as an authority control…these are purported to be the way of the future. In contrast, the realist cataloger knows that these crowd-sourced options are incredibly powerful tools, but she recognizes that information has a life outside of what we believe.
Don’t listen to postmodernists when they tell you that realism will force library instructors to adopt an authoritarian stance and force students to adopt one and only one predetermined method of research. Realism in instruction begins with the acknowledgement that research skills are not monolithic; there are several methods of access and evaluation. However, there are better and worse ways of accessing and evaluating information. These evaluative tactics have to be themselves evaluated, and this is only possible if research is directed towards something fixed, such as information that exists independently of what we believe. One of the most common forms of research you’ll see among college students is research ex post facto. Students decide on a thesis, write their arguments, and then look for articles that support their position. This method of research becomes a means of corroboration, rather than a means of discovery. As I showed in my last post, this method of “research” is consistent with constructivism…perhaps even preferred by constructivism. If social agreements are the path to knowledge creation, then it only makes sense to seek out agreement and adopt it as justification. But, from a realist stance, this simply will not do. The scientific approach begins by abandoning preconceptions and letting the available evidence guide us. Students should collect information first, synthesize it, and let it determine whether the thesis is or is not supported. The scientific method is to adopt a hypothesis, test it, and either confirm it or change it in light of the evidence. This is the realist approach to research and information literacy.
I should add that, over the past week, I have repeatedly seen critics and supporters of realism mistakenly confuse constructivist epistemology and social constructionism with constructivist and constructionist learning theories. Mixing and matching these is a flat-out category mistake, but it occurs with alarming regularity. For the record, I am only critical of the epistemological theories. Philosophical realism is entirely consistent with constructivist teaching techniques (as Socrates no doubt would have lead you to conclude.)
|“Damn, Crito, bust off my sizzurp!”|
This ain’t a scholarly paper
This is just a cursory explanation of a realist foundation for librarianship; there’s a lot more to be said, for sure.
I’ll probably wind up posting more on realism in the future, but for now I’d like to end this long post with one final observation that was just pointed out an hour ago in the comments to the last post. As Paul H. points out,
Even a thoroughgoing realist can admit that language is a social construct. A realist might say that we construct a language to enable us to talk about objective reality; the fact that the language is socially constructed doesn’t affect objective reality. For example, French people have a different set of agreements for their language than English speakers—we can all admit that—but the French and English speakers are still talking about the same reality, we can say they agree with each other or disagree, etc.
Paul is absolutely right. Realism does not deny that there are social constructs. Languages, libraries, the internet, governments…these and more are excellent examples of social constructs. All realism posits is that these socially constructs are aimed at something real and objective, and they can be evaluated accordingly. So, I’m not denying the weak sense of social construction. I’m not denying that social factors influence us all the time. This weaker sense of constructivism is uncontroversial, uninteresting, and it doesn’t add anything valuable to the conversation about the theoretical foundations of librarianship. If anything, I’m discussing the stronger form of constructionism in order to avoid creating a straw-man argument.
So, If you disagree with me, I say “Awesome!” Let me know how and why. I’m not a terribly good philosopher, so I may have jumbled things up a bit. I’m also pretty green as a librarian, so let me know what aspects of library science I need to work on (I know cataloging is one area). This blog is my source for peer-review, where I can bang out an idea and see if it sticks well enough to write a more formal treatment, so feel free to chime in.
- Boghossian, P. A. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Fallis, D. (2004). On verifying the accuracy of information: Philosophical perspectives. Library Trends, 52(3), 463-487. [link]
- Fine, A. (1984). The Natural Ontological Attitude. In Leplin, J. (ed.). Scientific Realism (pp. 83-107). Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Goldman, A. I. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. New York: Oxford.
- van Fraassen, B. (1976). To save the phenomena. Journal of Philosophy, 73(18), 623-32. [link]
|“Knowledge”, courtesy of Halans. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0|
[An aide to President George W. Bush] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (Ron Suskind, 2004)
Social constructionism, constructivism, post-structuralism, standpoint epistemology, deconstructionism….ever heard of these? Chance are, if you’ve taken a look at some of the recent literature in the philosophical aspects of librarianship, you’ve come across these and/or similar theories. Variously lumped together under the aegis of postmodernism, these theories are distinct, yet they are united through a common belief that we have no epistemic access to a mind-independent reality. Some of these theories go even further and claim not only that we can’t know anything about the world outside of ourselves, but that there isn’t even an objective, mind-independent reality at all—reality is subjective. In effect, these theories advocate various forms of relativism. I’ve criticized this type of relativistic thinking in previous posts, but perhaps it’s time to clarify. Specifically, I want to explain why relativism, in all of its forms, is harmful to librarianship. This type of thinking is self-refuting, it impedes learning, it disenfranchises those who most need our help, it obstructs social progress, and it erodes the value of libraries in society.
The dominant form of relativistic theory in librarianship is constructionism. Generally speaking, constructionism is the theory that our concepts and beliefs about the world are constructed rather than discovered. Constructionist theories deny that the external, mind-independent world (if there is one) is the source of our claims to knowledge. Everything we think about the world around us is the product of some sort of constructive process. However, there are a few forms of constructionism, and I don’t want to mix them up. You see, the first big question for constructionists is “who is doing all of this construction”? We can make a neat division between social constructionists and constructivists.
Social constructionists believe that societies, institutions, or other social groups are the determining factor in how we construct our world-views. On this account, knowledge, information, and truth are determined by large-scale social negotiations and conventions. So, for example, the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true only in virtue of the fact that the scientific community has agreed that it is true. There is no external fact of the matter about electrons, there are only contingent social agreements.
On the other hand, constructivists believe that individuals, alone or in small groups, are the ones constructing knowledge, truth, and information. So, you accept the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true because you have chosen to agree that it is true (either agree with someone else, or agree with yourself). Your belief is constructed by conversation, communication, or some other discourse and it is entirely contingent on what you agree that reality is like. As Protagoras said, “man is the measure of all things.”
In both cases, knowledge is constructed, rather than discovered, and an objective reality (if there is one) has no causal effect on what we believe to be true about the world. It is a separate question whether there even is an objective reality at all. As presented above, constructionist theories are committed to the view that our claims to knowledge are based in contingent, social or interpersonal agreements. But, some constructionists go even further and make the claim that reality, itself, is constructed. The idea is that there is not a mind-independent world “out there” at all. The distinction I want to make is between constructionism about our beliefs and knowledge and constructionism about reality and fact. Fact-constructionism implies knowledge-constructionism, but not necessarily the other way around.
Fact-constructionism describes those theories that hold that truth is a relative concept. This shows up quite often in conversation, for example, when you hear phrases like “that’s true for you”. The general idea is that there are no objective facts in the world and all truth-claims are relative to a particular culture, individual, historical period, or other source of subjectivity. It follows that the objects we talk about in the world (and the facts corresponding to them) are subjective constructs. To take an overused example, truth relativism requires us to accept that the geocentric model of the Solar System (with Earth at the center) was (or still is) true for many cultures, and the heliocentric model of the Solar System is true for other cultures. Because of this difference between the facts that different cultures (or individuals) accept, there is no independent fact of the matter. The truth of how the Solar System is arranged depends on your outlook.
Knowledge constructionism admits that there may in fact be an objective, mind-independent reality, but that there is no privileged way of accessing that reality. In effect, there are many competing yet equally valid forms of rationality. There is more than one “way of knowing”. So, Western science is just one of many epistemic systems, though there are others out there. For example, the Ptolemaic view of a geocentric universe was founded in an epistemic system based in scriptural authority. The Copernican heliocentric system was founded on the epistemic value of empirical evidence and a rudimentary scientific method. In deciding between scriptural authority and empirical evidence, proponents of epistemic relativism suggest that each is an acceptable means of describing the world, and neither is necessarily better than the other.
(I admit to painting in fairly broad brush-strokes here, but I think these are charitable interpretations of constructionist theory. If any constructivists or social constructionists would like to correct my descriptions, I’d be happy to include revisions.)
|Courtesy of the Library of Congress|
Ideologically, the appeal of the doctrine of equal validity [that all claims to knowledge are equally valid] cannot be detached from its emergence in the post-colonial era. Advocates of colonial expansion often sought to justify their projects by the claim that colonized subjects stood to gain much from the superior science and culture of the West. In a moral climate which has turned its back decisively on colonialism, it is appealing to many to say not only–what is true–that one cannot morally justify subjugating a sovereign people in the name of spreading knowledge, but that there is no such thing as superior knowledge only different knowledges, each appropriate to its particular setting (2006, pp. 5-6)
To post-colonialism, I might add that the history of oppression in the name of absolute knowledge also includes the subjugation of women, minorities, non-heterosexuals, and lower economic classes. Absolutist, objective facts are routinely pointed to as a means of disenfranchisement and maintaining power. So-called “scientific” theories about racial intelligence, women’s ability to think rationally, or that homosexuality is a mental disorder are often held up as evidence that objective thinking has routinely lead to oppression. Since these theories have since been abandoned, so the argument goes, it must be the case that the scientific worldview doesn’t get things right, and therefore there is no “superior knowledge only different knowledges.”
Constructionist theorists often describe their positions as liberatory or empowering, and they portray themselves as a counter to the positivist, conservative, fundamentalist, oppressive, authoritarian theories that adopt an objective stance towards reality. Positivism, in particular, is often held up as the scapegoat for what ails society and constructionism is the only alternative. Is it any wonder that many librarians would want to gravitate towards “anti-positivist” theories?
Libraries and social constructionism
Libraries are at a watershed moment. The past two decades have seen a technological and informational revolution not seen since the so-called Gutenberg Revolution. The democratizing effect of the internet has found librarians shying away from their old roles as the archivists and arbiters of knowledge and the rise of social media has found us celebrating the participatory culture. Indeed, the new information landscape is so democratic, so participatory, and so complex, that it has lead librarians to reconsider the very meanings of the terms “true” and “knowledge”. How can there be a single, objective fact-of-the-matter to which libraries are somehow privileged, when the participatory internet seems to accept all claims to knowledge?
I think the fear is that if we adopt objective, realist theories of truth or knowledge, then we will be situating the library above the flow of information on the internet, thereby distancing ourselves from the information-seekers we depend upon. If librarians cling steadfast to objectivity and realism, we will be casting ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner of information, thereby standing in the way of a free and open information exchange. Here’s a sampling of this fear in the literature:
Without this suspension of truth in librarianship, the accumulation of past and present knowledge could be compromised. This compromise can take various forms, such as eliminating whole collections or suppressing information that does not share the present majority view, be that view scientific, religious, or political. (Labaree and Scimeca, p. 63)
Cultural diversity and recruitment practices within academic libraries are currently limited by the profession’s dominant worldview. Moreover, unmodified Enlightenment worldview values of rationalism and individualism necessarily condition the profession’s overall understanding of diversity and fairness. (Weissinger, p. 37)
By scientizing itself, LIS may be attempting to intimate a relationship with the so-called “hard” sciences. From a critical theorist’s perspective, this suggests that the claim to legitimacy by service is being replaced by a claim of legitimacy that is inherited by relying on empirical method: an appeal to the a priori truth and universal application of the methods. Moreover, social and linguistic distances are increased between user and LIS because reliance on technical performance to imply responsibility removes LIS from the role of a responsible agent. (Benoit, p. 463)
When one discourse takes up a dominant position in relation to others it potentially means that marginalized groups within, for example, an organization are forced to use tools that have been created to further the interests of other more “powerful” groups. (Sundin and Johannisson, p. 35)
The modern library experience for both librarian and user is structured by the values of order, control, and suppression…Such an experience is ultimately grounded in a positivist epistemology which renders the library an emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place. (Radford, 1998, p. 621)
The recurring theme is that objective, fact-oriented approaches to knowledge are destined to lead to alienation and disenfranchisement. Information will be suppressed, collections will be decimated, cultural diversity in the workplace will suffer, LIS practitioners will abdicate themselves of responsibility, the powerful will continue their oppression, and the library will become an “emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place.” With this sort of characterization of realism in the literature, is it any wonder that librarians are attracted to constructionist theories? I’ll answer these criticisms of realism in the next post, but for now I’d like to turn my attention to the problems of constructionist thinking.
Where it all breaks down
What really happens if constructionist theory is adopted as the foundation for library science? Would we achieve the liberatory results we so desire? Quite the contrary. Constructionist epistemology is no cure for librarianship, it is a cancer. Let me explain.
(1) Fact-Constructionism is self-refuting.
Let’s assume that fact-constructionism is the correct theory to adopt. The theory entails that there are no universal facts, everything is socially constructed. But, isn’t the pronouncement that “all facts are socially constructed” an absolute statement? The only way that fact-constructionism can survive is to admit that it is not a universal theory, thus allowing realists to continue being realists. Of course, this is the sledgehammer approach, Paul Boghossian offers a more precise and even more damning criticism: constructionism leads to a theory that “consists in the claim that we should so reinterpret our utterances that they express infinitary propositions that we can neither express nor understand.” (Boghossian, p. 56). For example, look at Lankes’ Conversation Theory. His brand of constructivism asks librarians to think of knowledge as ”a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants” (Lankes, p. 32). So, the claim “electrons are negatively charged” is to be interpreted as “According to the agreement we have reached, electrons are negatively charged.” But, isn’t the description of this agreement an absolute statement? We can’t have that! So, we have to reword it as, “according to the agreement we have reached, there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” Oops! Still absolute! One more time: “According to an agreement we have reached, there is an agreement we have reached according to which there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” The infinite regress is unavoidable; at some point there simply have to be mind-independent, objective facts. Any theory that is based in acceptance, agreement, or assent as the foundation for truth will fail in this respect.
(2) Constructionism impedes learning
Paradoxically, knowledge-constructionism is purported to be a boon to education, even though it actively undermines the learning process. (I should be clear: there is a distinction between constructivist epistemology and constructivist or constructionist learning theories. This distinction is consistently ignored, which leads to some fairly significant problems.) Consider the student who comes to the reference desk inquiring after books or articles that prove that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can and should be treated (I have had this request). Assume that this student was raised in a devout Christian home, home-schooled, and has otherwise always lived within a community that believes that homosexuality is a a mental disorder. It follows from constructionism that this student knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder. His community of discourse has discussed homosexuality persistently and consistently, the relevant agreements have been reached, and so their belief constitutes knowledge. But, if the goal of education is to learn, and learning is knowledge creation, then I, as a reference librarian, would be acting against this student’s best interests if I provided anything that contradicted his “knowledge”. So, all I can do is hand him a pre-1974 DSM-II and a few articles from fundamentalist websites and send him on his way. Here’s my question: how can a student be expected to learn when everything he or she believes upon entering the library is already knowledge? Put another way, how do we define ‘learning’ without appealing to knowledge?
I suppose the constructivist might respond: “But, it’s about creating new knowledge.” But, this doesn’t make sense. If prior beliefs already constitute knowledge, why change them? Unless we adopt a realist stance and distinguish between “is true” and “is believed to be true” or “knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder” and “believes that homosexuality is a mental disorder”, all claims to knowledge are equally valid and there is no point in learning.
(3) Constructionism disenfranchises those who most need our help and obstructs social progress
Of course, as librarians, we must operate within the socially constructed bounds of our profession. Our social agreements with other librarians dictate how we are to act as librarians. Indeed, if constructivism is true, our entire code of ethics is a social construct. To that end, the desegregation of libraries during the Civil Rights Era must have been unprofessional and against our code of ethics. If our social group had agreed that public libraries should not be integrated (as was the case in libraries throughout the South), then any librarian who checked-out a book to an African-American was violating his or her responsibilities as a librarian. And the black patrons who sought to improve their own knowledge? Well, according to constructionism, they should have just “agreed to disagree” with the white majority and been content in their own indigenous knowledge. As Boghossian puts it, clearer that I can:
if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful (p. 130)
If it really is social agreement all the way down, and there is no privileged way of knowing about the world, then who is to criticize epistemic systems that are founded in tradition and scriptural authority? For the constructionist, there can be no substantive criticism of entrenched social agreement, hence there can be no social progress. And if there can be no social progress, the mission of libraries is reduced to little more than a warehouse of artifacts for maintaining the status quo. [Yes, this is what social constructionism and constructivism really entails. If you can't tell how much this pisses me off, I think we're almost at 2,500 words.]
(4) Constructionism erodes the value of libraries in society.
Since social constructionism and constructivism stand in the way of social progress, disenfranchise the oppressed, and impede learning, in the constructionist world these cannot be core library values. So, in their absence, what is left of the library? Well, the value that libraries provide as a source of entertainment is intact. Likewise, the value of libraries as a meeting place is maintained. But, these are hollow values and they make the library little more than a public park or town hall. These are good things, but they are a far cry from the once and future mission of the library as a place of knowledge and learning, a place where our community can better itself through education.
|“Beach House” courtesy of skagman CC-BY 2.0|
A library built on sand
I’m adopting this metaphor from Noretta Koertge’s 1998 A House Built on Sand, because I think it is the perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with social constructionism. For as fascinating as some constructivist theories are, and for as compelling as their social ambitions can be, these theories lack a meaningful foundation. In fact, that lack of a foundation is often a point of pride. But, once we start down the path of social construction, we have to give up any sense of the library as a place of knowledge, learning, or social progress. These are foundational concepts, and constructionism will not allow them to exist without being subjected to intersubjectivity and bias. Where libraries were once viewed as the bedrock for an enlightened society, constructivism erodes that cultural solidity and replaces it with shifting uncertainty. And that uncertainty opens the door to doubt, which I would hope libraries would like to avoid.
Surprisingly, one of the best defenders of the profound importance of objective knowledge and rational foundations is one of the architects of social constructionism: Bruno Latour. Yeah…that Bruno Latour. In recent years, Latour has turned his back on postmodern studies in general and social constructionism in particular, and he dropped quite a bombshell with his 2004 article “Why has critique run out of steam?” I started this post with a rather long quote from a Bush aide (thought to be Karl Rove), and I’ll end with another lengthy quote, this time from Latour:
I’d like to believe that…I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectiﬁed facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast? In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive conﬁdence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. (Latour, p. 227)
In the next post, I’ll try to defend objective knowledge as the most intuitive, progressive, and flexible approach to librarianship. Rather than take the constructionists at their word and believe that objectivity is undermined by hidden biases, cultural differences, power struggles, or whatever other social forces are out there, it is much simpler and liberating to understand that biases, cultural differences, power struggles, and other social forces are undermined by objective knowledge. This is the real power of libraries.
Some things I pulled off the shelf while thinking about this post
Criticism of social constructionism
- Boghossian, P. A. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Koertge, N. (1998). A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Meiland, J. W., & Krausz, M. (1982). Relativism, cognitive and moral. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Sokal, A. (2008). Beyond the hoax: Science, philosophy, and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sosa, E., & Villaneuva, E. (2002). Realism and relativism. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Windschuttle, K. (1997). The killing of history: How literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past. New York: Free Press
Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.
Social constructionism in library science
A short list of recent articles in scholarly publications. This is just what I’ve read in the past year, and I’m sure there’s more out there:
- Andersen, J. and Skouvig, L. (2006). Knowledge organization: A sociohistorical analysis and critique. The Library Quarterly, 76(3), 300-322.
- Benoit, G. (2002). Toward a critical theoretic perspective in information systems. The Library Quarterly, 72(4), 441-471.
- Campbell, D. G. (2007). The birth of the new web: A Foucauldian reading of the semantic web. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 43(3/4), 9-20.
- Haider, J. (2007). Conceptions of “information poverty” in LIS: A discourse analysis. Journal of Documentation, 63(4), 534-557
- Huang, S. (2006). A semiotic view of information: Semiotics as a foundation of LIS research in information behavior. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 43(1), n.p.. [link]
- Labaree, R. V., & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical problem of truth in librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 78(1), 43-70.
- Lankes, R. D. (2011) The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Olsson, M. (2007). Power/knowledge: The discursive construction of an author. The Library Quarterly, 77(2), 219-240.
- Radford, G. P. (1992). Positivism, Foucault, and the fantasia of the library: Conceptions of knowledge and the modern library experience. The Library Quarterly, 62(4), 408-424.
- Radford, G. (1998). Flaubert, Foucault, and the Bibliotheque Fantastique: toward a postmodern epistemology for library science. Library Trends, 46(4), 616-34.
- Sundin, O., & Johannisson, J. (2005). Pragmatism, neo-pragmatism and sociocultural theory: Communicative participation as a perspective in LIS. Journal of Documentation, 61(1), 23-43
- Weissinger, T. (2003). Competing models of librarianship: Do core values make a difference? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 29(1), 32-39.
As I outlined in previous posts, I’m interested in the relationship between truth, information, and information literacy. The feedback I’ve received has been enormously instructive and the project seems to be headed down some interesting paths. However, one concern stands out above all others: is the concept of truth even relevant to librarians? I thought it might be worthwhile to say a little something to the effect that, even if the concept of truth is invisible to our patrons or to the everyday practicalities of librarianship, it is still relevant to the profession.
Truth is relevant to information literacy broadly conceived, but I’m not sure librarians play much of a role in information literacy. I wouldn’t send physics students to astrology books, but outside of factual questions, which I rarely get, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to the point where truth as such played a role in what I was doing with students.
As I read it, there are two main arguments here. One is that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. The other is that truth doesn’t play much of a role in librarianship. Maybe I’m naive in thinking that information literacy and truth apply to librarianship, but I’d like to think otherwise. So, I’ll try to say something to the effect that truth is relevant to information literacy and information literacy is relevant to librarians.
Then again, academic librarians come in all shapes and sizes and librarians engaged strictly in collection development, cataloging, ILL, or other activities may have a different take on IL than reference and instruction librarians. So, perhaps I should limit my discussion to academic, reference and instruction librarians. But, it should be noted, no matter what aspect of librarianship you’re in, information is a relevant concern, so the argument still stands: the concept of truth is relevant to librarianship. We are information professionals and it is incumbent upon us to have an understanding of the object of our trade: information.
Following the analogy to its conclusion, it’s clear that what counts as relevant with respect to information will depend on what role we’re playing. Certain issues are only relevant to librarians when they act like economists: drafting policies, creating curricula, tackling ethical issues…in other words, surveying the profession and the information ecosystem in general. However, just as a stockbroker or banker uses economic theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting investors, so to do librarians use information theory (among other things) to develop practical solutions for assisting patrons.
So, there are two types of relevance: relevant to librarians and relevant to patrons, and both are important. Looking back at my interest in the nature of truth, information, and information literacy, I’ll concede that none of it is going to be very practical or show direct relevance to my day-to-day dealings with students. But, I’m hoping that it will be relevant to the economic side of librarianship, and help me to understand the increasingly complicated nature of information in libraries.
It’s been a few weeks since my last post about the nature of truth and it’s role in information literacy. Liam was violently ill, nieces and nephews came to visit, loads to do at work…you know the drill. But, I do have several aborted posts that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t seem to finish. I have long attempts at addressing issues ranging from the problems of pragmatism in library and information science to why the “articulation problem” rests on a misunderstanding. Along the way I took another stab at answering the many concerns raised by the Academic Librarian. Here’s an effort at answering what I think is his biggest issue with the role of truth in information literacy: is a philosophical inquiry into truth even relevant to librarianship?
Academic concerns, or confusions?
I’ll start by listing the issues Bivens-Tatum raises in his initial post and subsequent blog comments. I’m trying my best to abide by the principle of charity, so I hope this is close to the original intent…
- Inquiring into the nature of truth is redundant. (“The library is part of [a] larger academic enterprise that already assumes [a realist conception] of truth“)
- A philosophical theory of truth “still doesn’t explain why academic research takes place, or why academic libraries collect things.”
- Librarians should remain neutral with respect to the truth of the information they collect (Librarians should hope “for “truth” in the aggregate, not in the truth of any given work“)
- Librarians do not “play much of a role in information literacy“ (The job of a librarian “is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation.”)
- Truth is simply not a relevant concept in librarianship; what librarians “teach has more to do with certain academic standards” not truth. (“‘truth’ isn’t a direct professional concern of ours”)
From truth to information literacy to academic libraries
Here is a reconstruction of the argument from my previous two posts…the argument I’d like to make for the relevance of truth to academic librarians:
(1) For any term C that entails necessary conditions (c0, c1, …, cn), if C is relevant to subject S, then cn is relevant to S.
(2) Information literacy is relevant to academic librarians.
(3) Information1 is a necessary condition in defining information literacy.
(4) Subconclusion: So, information is relevant to academic librarians.
(5) The concept of truth2 is a necessary condition in defining information.
(6) Conclusion: So, the concept of truth is relevant to academic librarians.
Again, I realize that this may come across as unreasonably technical, but I want to make a sound argument. The argument above is valid, so if I can show the truth of the premises, then I have made my point. I hope that (1) is uncontroversial…it makes sense as a general epistemic rule. I also hope that (3) is uncontroversial given that information literacy seems to have at least some relation to information. Obviously, (4) follows from (1)-(3). I admit that (5) is an open question, but if it is true, then (6) follows. Proving (5) will let me prove (6), which is the whole point of my research.
Moreover, this presentation makes it easier to show how Bivens-Tatum’s concerns fit in. Specifically, he is objecting to (2) and (6). We can strike the objection to (6) on the grounds that it doesn’t address the argument itself. This leaves premise (2) and the objection that librarians don’t play much of a role in information literacy. I actually find it hard to believe that academic librarians don’t see the importance of information literacy Given the extensive work on information literacy coming out of the ALA and ACRL, the nature of library instruction programs (at least as I have encountered them), and the extent to which reference librarians engage directly with the research process, it seems that information literacy is a direct concern to academic librarians.
Then again, I forget that academic librarians come in all shapes and sizes and librarians engaged strictly in collection development, cataloging, ILL, or other activities may have a different take on IL than reference and instruction librarians.3 So, perhaps I should limit my discussion to academic, reference and instruction librarians. But, it should be noted, no matter what aspect of librarianship you’re in, information is a relevant concern, so the argument still stands: the concept of truth is relevant to librarianship. We are information professionals and it is incumbent upon us to have an understanding of the object of our trade: information.
But what is relevance, anyway?
The real objection to the role of truth in librarianship has to do with relevance, but what is relevance anyway? Perhaps everyone agrees that truth is relevant to librarians, but we all disagree about what type of relevance we’re dealing with. For most librarians, relevance is a practical issue and the idea is that X is relevant to Y if and only if X yields beneficial consequences for Y. Call this pragmatic relevance. But, pragmatic relevance comes in at least two flavors: relevant to patrons and relevant to librarians.
Patron-centered pragmatic relevance (PCLR) is the idea that an idea or project is relevant if it yields direct beneficial consequences for patrons. This is an incredibly popular position (#echolib, anyone?) and probably the majority view. Recent examples of this pragmatism are seen in the heavy criticism leveled at elements of librarianship not directly relevant to patrons. John Dupuis’s Stealth Librarian’s Manifesto is one of the more recent and clear-cut cases of PCLR. Michelle Boule’s Being Articulate and Finding Context also comes to mind in the way it points to technical vocabularies and theories as a hindrance to librarianship. With PCLR, again and again, relevance to patrons is hoisted as the banner under which every aspect of librarianship must pass. Your patrons don’t get it? Then get out of the “echo chamber”!
On the other hand, library-centered pragmatic relevance (LCPR) is the idea that an idea or project is relevant if it yields direct beneficial consequences for librarians and librarianship. The idea here is that librarians are professionals and projects in service to the profession are relevant, even though patrons may have no idea these projects ever occur. MARC records, metadata, and OpenURL resolvers are instances of library project that are not relevant to patrons. Another good example would be the IL standards drafted by the ACRL. The standards themselves are invisible to non-librarians. Yet, these standards help direct library information literacy programs, so they benefit our patrons indirectly. Assisting patrons is still the normative goal, but the tools and theories for doing so are oriented towards the librarians.
So, we can focus on the consequences our theories have for patrons or we can focus on the consequences our theories have for the profession. Or both.
Librarians serving librarians
This is where I make the controversial claim that not every aspect of librarianship is going to be directly relevant to non-librarians, nor should it. (and the philosophy of librarianship is a perfect example). Some of what we do is going to be directed at policies, technologies, or curricula that are inherently library-centric. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think that this is something we should do more often, not only so that we know what we’re talking about but also so we can figure out where we’re going as a profession, what policies we should adopt, and how we should handle thorny issues like censorship, fair use, and privacy. These and other issues merit discussions that may only be directly relevant to librarians, though indirectly relevant to patrons.
What does this mean for my interest in the nature of truth? Well, Bivens-Tatum expressed the concern that neither information literacy nor truth are relevant to librarianship. I think this objection may be correct in the case of patron-centered pragmatic relevance and incorrect in the case of library-centered pragmatic relevance. From the patron side, I agree that we don’t need to carve out 15 minutes of class time to discuss epistemology. We don’t need to lecture students on information theory or the realism vs. relativism debate. These are patron-centered approaches to information theory and they are obviously absurd. But, for librarians who work with information, understanding the nature of information is highly relevant in how we develop the profession. So, a philosophy of information (i.e., an inquiry into whether information is necessarily true) is relevant to librarians, who can then create policies, curricula, etc. that are relevant to patrons.
For next time
All that’s left is to say something about premise (5): the concept of truth is a necessary condition in defining information. I think that information is necessarily true, but it will take another post to propose an account of what information is, a second post to discuss whether information is true, and yet another to explain how this can strengthen our information literacy programs (not to mention our commitments to freedom of information, privacy, and other issues.). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can pull it off.
(1) i.e., information as an object of inquiry
(2) i.e., the property ‘is true’
(3) Wilder’s 2005 article in the Chronicle may be partly to blame, though his arguments were as ill-informed then as they are today.
Today, I declined an invitation to present at a conference. Unfortunately, with my LOEX presentation and a (possible) poster at ALA, I simply don’t have any more money left for travel (until July). That being said, I thought it might be fun to take the presentation I submitted and turn it into a paper…using my blog to document the writing, research, and thought processes. So, over the next few weeks I’ll hash things out here and see what happens…starting with the proposal itself.
My proposed paper
So, this is the proposal that was accepted:
TITLE: Is misinformation information? Information fluency and nature of truth.
ABSTRACT: One of the primary IF skills is the ability to critically evaluate information.. Unfortunately, this task is complicated when students must distinguish information from non-information. This presentation focuses on a semantic definition of information and the need to address false information as a part of any IF pedagogy.
INSTITUTIONAL LEVEL TARGETED: Program/Degree
TYPE OF SESSION: Individual
DESCRIPTION: One of the primary goals of Information Fluency (IF) is the ability to collect and critically evaluate the information relevant to a particular need. Unfortunately, this task is complicated by the ever-expanding amount of data available digitally and the difficulty in distinguishing information from non-information: misinformation, false information, contradictions, and other types of non-information are abundant online. Moreover, certain subjective conceptions of truth negatively impact students’ abilities to sort true from false information. This presentation focuses on the importance of addressing misinformation and false information as a part of any successful information fluency pedagogy. Taking a cue from the philosophy of information, a semantic definition of information will be advocated as a framework for evaluating the IF curriculum. Further, a non-subjective conception of truth will be explored as a means of demarcating information from non-information. Competing theories of data, truth, information, and knowledge will be explored and critically evaluated for their applicability to information literacy programs.
Genesis of an idea
A few things motivated this project:
- For all the talk of ‘information literacy’ it’s surprising how few people can give a coherent definition of ‘information’,
- Does information track the truth, and if so, how does that affect the concept of information literacy? (put another way, is “false information” a contradiction and what does that mean for IL?)
- I have a general worry about anti-realist conceptions of truth that show up in common approaches to information literacy.
- ACRL standards don’t mention truth, but Standard Three requires an account.
2. Is misinformation information?
This is something I’ve yet to decide on, so it is the most active area of inquiry. I’m really partial to Floridi’s work in the philosophy of information, and he advocates that truth is a necessary condition for information, but I simply haven’t read enough to make a decision yet. As it stands, I take information to be well-formed, meaningful data (with a few important corollaries). Now, is information well-formed, meaningful, factual or true data? I get stuck here because I agree with a minimalist, semantic conception of truth, but I’m not sure that all well-formed, meaningful data are necessarily semantic things. I’ll hash this out one way or the other in coming weeks.
3. Truth in Librarianship
4. ACRL Standard What?
The terms “true” or “truth” or “fact” never appear in ACRL Information Literacy Standard Three. But, the need for a robust account of truth are implied. For example, Standard 3, Outcome 2(a) stresses the ability to examine and compare “information from various sources in order to evaluate reliability,
validity3, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias”. 2(b) points to the “structure and logic of supporting arguments” These evaluative criteria…by definition…must be comparative. Accurate compared to what? Bias away from what? Reliability to what end? Without a robust account of truth or fact, the whole nature of evaluation becomes pointless or, worse, relativistic. So, in the coming weeks I’ll discuss how and why a realist approach to truth and information is the only way to meet ACRL Standard Three.
So, there you have it. I’m taking a presentation I won’t be giving, hashing it out on the blog, and turning the result into a paper for eventual publication (fingers crossed!). I’ll start by addressing the four points in greater detail (maybe one a week?), but things may change. I may change my mind in light of new evidence or argument, I may get stuck on one point and give up, I may forget the whole thing entirely…we’ll see what happens.
1 Labaree, R. V. & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical concept of truth in librarianship. Library Quarterly 78(1): 43-70.
2 Budd, J. (2011). Meaning, truth, and information: prolegomena to a theory. Journal of Documentation, 67(1): 56-74.
3 Information can’t be valid; only arguments can be valid. Logic 101.
- If a fact is true, but has no citation…wikipedia entry may be removed. What is truth? Social agreement/peer review (@adellefrank)
- What is truth right now even experts are having a hard time agreeing (@mfrisque)
- “Always open to deliberate manipulation by an organized subgroup…so form a subgroup to prove your truth” Bruckman (@adellefrank)
- Bruckman said, “but there’s a strange correlation between our perceptions. Our best guess at reality is what we agree is true. (American Libraries)
A proposition X is true if and only if social group S has agreed to accept that X. Call this the naïve consensus theory of truth. Unfortunately, at the heart of this theory is a simple conflation of “is true” with “is believed to be true”, which is the calling-card of relativism. Are we really to accept that both young-earth creationism and Darwinian evolution are true, because they are accepted by certain social groups? Belief systems ranging from a geocentric universe to aether theories to the genetic superiority of Caucasians have, at various times, been accepted by sizable social groups, but that doesn’t make them true. (A point-by-point refutation of the naïve consensus theory of truth would take me too far afield, and the philosophical literature has adequately handled it already, cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need a refresher).In sum, social agreement simpliciter is an insufficient metric for determining the truth of a proposition. It would be intellectually dishonest to ascribe this straw-man view to Bruckman.
A proposition X is true if and only if X is consistent with the negotiated linguistic rules of social group S. Call this the neo-Wittgensteinian theory of truth. For example, look at the Wiki article on the tallest buildings in the U.S.; was the World Trade Center taller than the Sears (Willis) Tower? Well, are we measuring to the top of the antenna? Highest occupied floor? Highest architectural feature? Highest above sea-level? This is a clear-cut case wherein the truth of the claim “X is the tallest building in the United States” is a function of the various definitions accepted by competing groups. So, the meaning of the predicate “is the tallest building” is a function of the linguistic rules of a particular group (e.g., architects, politicians, engineers, or tall-building enthusiasts). Moreover, the very terms “floor”, “antenna”, and “architectural feature” vary in meaning, depending on which social group you ask. Ultimately, we can’t escape that language is a social construct, so it follows that “is true”, as a predicate in the language, must be a social construct. This is a complicated position, and warrants a lengthier discussion, but the brief response is that the extension of a term is one thing…the truth of a proposition is another. The extension of a term is often determined socio-linguistically (see, e.g., Putnam on the division of linguistic labor or Kripke’s causal theory), but that does not mean that the truth of a proposition containing that term is also a socio-linguistic construct. In fact, if the socio-linguistic determination of extension translated into the social determination of truth, it would entail that the various social groups are incapable of communicating with one another because “truth” becomes limited to intra-theoretical discourse. Put another way, if we want to talk about linguistic frameworks other than our own, we must be realists about truth. Read Putnam’s The meaning of ‘meaning’ (1975) for a better explanation.
A proposition X is true if and only if belief in X is warranted under the accepted justificatory mechanisms of social group S. This is akin to Habermas’ consensus theory of truth. Briefly, the consensus theory holds that truth is determined by appeal to the methods of justification described in the discursive practices of a community. For example, the statement “electrons have a negative charge” is true because the scientific community–through a common discursive practice–came to the agreement that electrons are, in fact, negatively charged: scientists agreed on the proper tests, the nomenclature, and the theoretic framework for the atom and the result is that it is true that electrons are negatively charged. Likewise, according to the Wikipedia article, Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf in 1929, and this is true because the many, many editors who have crafted this article have worked within a discursive practice (i.e., Wikipedia article creation guidelines) in which their agreement that Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf in 1929 (as determined by external sources) is sufficient to show that it is both a product of a rational justificatory mechanism and that it is, in fact, true. But, in point of fact, this consensus theory is not a theory of truth at all. Rather, it is a species of process reliabilism about justification. The common discursive practice of the scientists is not ad hoc, rather, it is the description of a series reliable justificatory mechanisms (the scientific method, experiment and observation, falsifiability, peer-review, etc.). That scientific claims are agreed upon is one thing, that they are agreed upon because they are justified is quite another. We can say that we are justified in believing the truth of certain propositions in Wikipedia because they are the product of a reliable process (appeal to external sources), not simply because there is simple, social agreement. Put another way, truth is not the product of social agreement, social agreement is the product of truth. We should not care how many people have edited an article, how many people are monitoring it, or how many sources are provided. All we should care about is whether the methodology that leads to agreement about the content in the article is a methodology that tracks the truth. Further, what makes certain content in Wikipedia truthful is not social agreement. In fact, social agreement and poor research routinely perpetuate falsehoods in Wikipedia. For example, it was a faulty justificatory mechanism that insisted Jaron Lanier was a filmmaker, despite evidence to the contrary. Where Wikipedia tracks the truth it does so because it follows a process for justification (seeking verifiable, external sources) that has been found to be reliable at tracking the truth and that avoids mere social agreement. But, being justified in believing that X is not the same as X being true, as any first-year philosophy student will tell you.
Moral of the story?
Really, I’m surprised I even had to say that. But, then again, look at the tweets listed above.
I regret having missed the last LITA forum, primarily because I saw that Amy Bruckman would be speaking on the nature of truth in the age of Wikipedia. Her keynote, How Wikipedia Really Works, and What This Means for the Nature of “Truth”, is, sadly, not available online, so all I have to give you are these Twitter highlights praising the relevance and instructiveness of her presentation and this article from American Libraries. Granted, I cannot access Bruckman’s original lecture, so it would be irresponsible for me to discuss her position. Instead, I’ll direct my attention at the tweets and descriptions offered by her audience members.
First, a pair of problematic tweets:
- refereed journal articles out of date the minute they are published, wikipedia updated/corrected every second (@amyddiane)
- A peer reviewed journal is out of date the minute it is published. Wiki articles on popular topics are updated constantly. (@mfrisque)
Of course, the fallacy of the constant edit is undermined by Wikipedia’s own article editing guidelines that stress the importance of verifiability, not truth, in establishing the accuracy of content. Put simply, one criterion for inclusion in Wikipedia is that the information comes from a reliable, approved external source…preferably a peer-reviewed article.
And this fallacy is not limited to Wikipedia. There are countless examples of blog posts praising Twitter as a wonderful source for news and information because it is a live stream. This is simply wrong. Twitter is a wonderful source for real-time data, but it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which tweets are accurate. Twitter as a wonderful source for news and information and it is a live stream, not because it is a live stream.
Again, my point is not that currency is unimportant. Currency is very, very, very important. My point is that the tweets listed above seem to conflate currency with accuracy, proffering real-time updates as a cure for the hopelessly out-of-date world of academic publishing when, in reality, this is simply a non sequitur.
Perhaps, though, the claims about constant updating are more relative; Wikipedia is simply more accurate than competing resources, due to its currency. This, too, is misguided. Again, certain content areas benefit from constant updates and others do not.
Given the length of this post, I’ll quit here and save the other problematic tweets for the next post.