Sense & Reference

Post-truth and information literacy

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CC0, Public Domain

So there’s this phrase being bandied about: “post-truth.” As in, we live in a “post-truth era.” Popular use of the phrase is over a decade old, but its recent ascendancy lead The Oxford English Dictionary to name it Word of the Year for 2016; here’s the OED definition: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. I mean, we’re at the point where Trump supporters racists are literally saying that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Armchair political scientists and ersatz media commentators are having a field day using post-truth politics to explain everything from contemporary political discourse to Brexit to identity politics to the rise of neo-Nazism to the presidential election and everything in between. “We’ve let sentimentality take precedence over facts and look where that got us!” seems to be the rallying cry.

As you’ve probably noticed, librarians are all over post-truth. Librarians are adamant that information literacy can help combat the post-truth world of fake news. School librarians have been singled out as key players in combating post-truth. School Library Journal is advocating for news literacy toolkits. The Annoyed Librarian wrote something or other. And the hot-takes on Twitter are all over the place. “The post-truth era needs information literacy and that means librarians need to step up!” seems to be the rallying cry.

There’s only one problem with that: information literacy has never been about truth.

by Jason Eppink, CC-BY

Go ahead and search the ACRL Framework, search the ACRL Standards, search the AASL Standards, search the SCONUL Seven Pillars. Across all of the major statements of information literacy, the word ‘truth’ never appears a single time.1 The word ‘fact’ is used only once: in the AASL Standards where it is qualified as “superficial.” Information literacy is not about truth or facts. Go back and read the old ACRL Standards and you’ll see that the closest the Standards get to truth or fact is in vague mentions of evaluating reliability, validity, and accuracy in Standard 3.2.(a). These aren’t unpacked and it’s hard to say how we’re supposed to evaluate and what constitutes reliability, validity, or accuracy. So while the old Standards may not be consistent with post-truth, they don’t exactly provide any guidance on how to reach truth or fact. Of course, this isn’t the case with the Framework. The Framework not only fails to mention truth or fact, it seems to be perfectly consistent with post-truth: authority is constructed and should be met with skepticism; scholarship isn’t about truth, it’s about negotiating meaning; the world of information is a negotiated commodity where powerful forces are routinely marginalizing voices; and so on.

That the Framework is (superficially) consistent with the world of post-truth politics and fake news should come as no surprise. For the past decade there has been a healthy body of literature casting doubt on any connection between information literacy and truth. As Simmons (2005) argued in a widely cited paper, “As a profession, we cannot remain comfortably in a modernist paradigm of certainty and unified truth when our surroundings have shifted dramatically to a postmodern paradigm of ambiguity and multiple truths.” (emphasis added). A decade later, Tewell (2015) demonstrated how “critical information literacy” has encouraged librarians to argue that there are multiple ways of knowing, that students should construct their own knowledge, that all facts are contested, that knowledge production as an inherently political act, that information is a social construct, and so on. This critical turn is and has been an intentional pivot away from objective truth and fact and towards an increased awareness that so-called “facts” cannot be separated from the social processes that construct them.

But, I’m getting off-topic. I’m just trying to say that, to date, discussions about information literacy have tended to be ambivalent towards truth at best. The few times truth is invoked directly, it’s typically in theoretical contexts urging us to reject the very idea of “truth” as some sort of positivist bogeyman or relic of the Enlightenment. And yet, we still make implicit references to truth as we urge students to focus on external markers of credibility, like publication titles, author credentials, peer review, funding models, and whatever.

Here’s my overall point: if the world of post-truth and fake news is going to be a concern for librarians, then we have to frame information literacy in such a way that it puts truth front-and-center: information literacy cannot address post-truth until it has addressed truth itself. I’m not saying that we have to couch everything in terms of true and false; I’m not advocating for some folk, quasi-positivism here. No, we have to be judicious. Sometimes we need to question the truth or falsity of what we read. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that the rhetoric of “truth” is masking something unsavory. Sometimes we need to call-out falsity. Sometimes we need to reject prematurely naturalized truths. But at all times, if we’re going to address the post-truth world as librarians, we need to defend the idea of truth. I posted something the other day about conditional probability and information literacy and the need for a more robust treatment of how we reason about information. This post continues that project. Some things are true, some are false. Somethings we can know to be true with a high degree of probability. Some things not so much. But we always have to keep the idea of truth in mind. If we’re going to address post-truth, truthiness, fake news, misinformation, disinformation, or whatever else, we need to start talking about the role of truth and facts in information literacy. I think we, as librarians, have a sort of tacit agreement that truth is a part of information literacy, but at the moment that isn’t really reflected in our discourse and I’m hoping that can change. I just want to see librarians start to discuss the nature of truth or at least explicitly mention truth when they discuss information literacy. Is that too much to ask?

 

by Tim Abbott, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Simmons, M. H. (2005). Librarians as disciplinary discourse mediators: Using genre theory to move toward critical information literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(3), 297-311.

Tewell, E. (2015). A decade of critical information literacy: A review of the literature. Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1), 24-43.
[1] Here’s the philosophy bit you can ignore if you so choose:
So, ‘true’ and ‘fact’ are technical terms that need to be distinguished. Truth doesn’t exist in the real world, it’s a property of sentences. To say something is true is just to say that the sentence expressing it bears a certain relationship to reality. So, the sentence “The integer 3 is a prime number” is true because the proposition ‘the integer 3 is a prime number’ corresponds to the fact that 3 is prime. When we talk about actual reality, we’re talking facts. So, to say “the integer 3 is prime” is true is just to say that the sentence corresponds to the fact that 3 is actually prime. Of course, the propositions we really care about aren’t so cut and dry. The claim, “millions of illegals voted in the election” requires us to unpack a lot of terms: what does “illegals” refer to, what does it mean “to vote,” what do we refer to by “the election,” and so on. Can we define those terms and relations in such a way as to make the original claim correspond to some actual state of affairs? It gets complicated and we have some not-insignificant work to do. So, you see, there is a bit of a chasm between the truth of claims like “3 is prime” or “water is H2O” and claims like “millions of illegals voted” or “Bernie would have won the election.” Advocating for the concept of truth is decidedly not the same as advocating that determining truth is easy.

 

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