In my last post I outlined an informal project regarding truth and information literacy. A few days later, I saw this interesting response from the Academic Librarian. As always, he raises some great points, not the least of which is the way he explains exactly what’s wrong with the historicist conception of truth (and I agree almost to the letter). But, towards the end of the post, Bivens-Tatum raises several questions about the relevance of truth to librarianship and information literacy. I wish I could say that I understand his concerns, but I find them very confusing and/or confused. I’ll attempt a response, but, just so I don’t accidentally misrepresent his arguments, I’ll quote at the paragraph level and offer plausible interpretations for three criticisms I’ve been able to extract. And, I’m aware that I may be completely and idiotically wrong, so don’t hesitate to tell me!
Problem #1: Information literacy is about evaluating and accessing information, not truth.
“We can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it. Nevertheless, I wonder whether truth is really the business we’re in, even when we’re working with students and helping them evaluate sources. By inculcating standards of information literacy, are we concerned with truth? Or rather, do we get to the level where a concern with truth is appropriate?
With students, we’re often helping them to find and evaluate scholarly sources, not assessing the factual accuracy of a statement. When doing this, is truth our standard? Is truth the standard of scholarship at all, especially in the humanities? Or is it something else? Maybe I’m not putting this right. Truth might be the ultimate standard, but how far along that path would we ever go with students? Even assuming information literacy is a meaningful goal for everyone to achieve and that it requires a theory of truth, how far towards information literacy do librarians ever take students? And if we don’t take them very far, do we need a theory of truth?”
There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs, and there are a few ways to understand these concerns. I’ll try to be organized and address each possible way of understanding Bivens-Tatum’s line of questioning.
(Interpretation #1): The concept of truth is not an appropriate part of the information literacy curriculum.
There’s a confusion here between (1) telling students “These are the facts,” and (2) telling students “There are facts and this is how you find them.” Put another way, there is a big difference between an instructor teaching a concept of truth and an instructor having a concept of truth. I’m concerned with the latter. I don’t intend to argue that we need to carve five minutes out of our instruction session to address the distinction between realism and antirealism; I intend to talk about how competing theories of truth shape the way we as educators understand information literacy.
(Interpretation #2): The concept of truth is not relevant to information literacy.
Bivens-Tatum agrees that “we can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it.” But, he doesn’t think that truth is relevant to information literacy? I don’t understand this. Our conception of truth is a determining factor in how we identify appropriate standards for evaluation; evaluation is a core aspect of information literacy. The very concepts of authority, accuracy, reliability, and bias are radically different depending on whether you adopt an objective or a subjective theory of truth. For example, a philosophical realist about truth might describe the accuracy of a source in terms of how often the statements made by the source actually do describe the world (i.e., are facts). On the other hand, a cultural relativist about truth might describe the accuracy of a source in terms of how often the statements made by the source match up with prevailing beliefs of the cultural group to which the source belongs. In a nutshell, do we teach our students to look for fact-based resources or widely-believed resources? So, yes, when we teach information literacy we are concerned with truth. Of course, we’re concerned with a lot of other things, too, but truth is definitely something that guides how we evaluate authority, accuracy, etc..
(Interpretation #3): The concept of truth may be relevant, but librarians only get the ball rolling and never actually get to a point where truth is of concern
I agree that (except in the case of ready reference questions) librarians don’t take students all the way to the point of adjudicating whether a particular claim is true. That’s the job of the faculty, the students themselves, or someone else. But, even though information literacy instruction doesn’t directly cover the concept of truth, any information literacy initiative that’s worth it’s salt will mention evaluating sources, which entails accuracy, reliability, authority, etc. Moreover, we should take a step back and ask whether libraries have anything to do with knowledge or information at all. Knowledge is justified, true belief, so if you believe that libraries are concerned with knowledge (collecting it, organizing it, teaching others how to locate it, etc.) then truth is a concern by definition. Whether we think information must track the truth will also determine whether truth is a concern in information literacy.
For a detailed analysis of just how important truth is to evaluating sources, I highly recommend the Winter 2004 issue of Library Trends, specifically the articles by Don Fallis (“On Verifying the Accuracy of Information“) and Birger Hjorland (“Arguments for philosophical realism in library and information science.”)
Problem #2: There are many conflicting accounts of what is true, librarians should stay neutral and only judge whether a source meets accepted criteria for scholarship.
“Librarians are typically there for the initial stages of research, when it really is a search for information. For students in the humanities, I suggest finding a good recent scholarly book or article on the topic and chasing footnotes. “Good” would typically mean an article from a good press or journal by a reputable scholar. Would such a book or article be “true”? Almost certainly not in its entirety, because there is bound to be a similarly reputable work that will disagree with the interpretation of various facts, if not the facts themselves. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the situation that Lebaree and Scimeca find themselves with true and false documents in a library. When evaluating a single scholarly source at the level we do with students, we’re not dealing with truth or falsity. We’re concerned with whether the work meets certain standards of scholarship, which are designed ultimately to discover truth, but which never guarantee the truthfulness of any given work of scholarship”
A few points should be made here. First, books or articles cannot be true. Only propositions can be true. However, books or articles can contain true propositions. Second, the mere fact that a multiple sources disagree on the facts does not mean that we shouldn’t care what the facts actually are. Sure, some books in the library make claims that are patently false, but we should still retain them because although the primary information in the books may be unusable, the second-order information is quite valuable. For example, the first printing of the DSM-II includes the false claim that homosexuality is a mental disorder. As primary information about homosexuality, the DSM-II fails and is not an appropriate source for psychological research. But, the second-order claim “According to the 1968 printing of the DSM-II, homosexuality is a mental disorder.” is true and the book is relevant to, say, a research paper on historical attitudes towards homosexuality. Just because an information source is discredited does not mean that the information source is not valuable.
Here’s a question for anyone who works the reference desk: when students request assistance researching medical issues, do you routinely direct them to the books on homeopathy (LoC class RX!)? Do you direct physics majors to the astrology books? I know you don’t and I know that your reasons for not doing so will somehow involve either factual content and verifiability (i.e., an objective account of truth), or commonly accepted social practice (i.e., social constructivist account of truth), or some other account of truth. What I mean to say is that we do have theories of truth that play into our decisions. Usually, competing theories agree and truth can take a back seat to other concerns. But, every now and then the issue of truth becomes the deciding factor in the sources we recommend.
Finally, I agree that we are primarily concerned with whether a work meets certain standards of scholarship that aim at the truth. I also agree that we can’t necessarily guarantee that a work of scholarship does make all and only true claims. But, there is a big difference between understanding what ‘truth’ means and whether a particular statement is true.
Problem #3: Our job is to build collections and give initial advice on searching, so truth is irrelevant.
“Or so one might argue. If that’s the case, if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that “truth” isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.”
This is extremely reductionist: there is obviously more to librarianship than collection development and giving basic research help. In any event, we should ask ourselves why libraries are important and why we perform research. To what end do we seek information? The answer is knowledge, specifically, justified, true beliefs. Don Fallis (2004) explains,
the goal is to acquire beliefs that correspond to reality. Philosophers typically take this to be the goal of information seekers…John Locke, for example, explicitly states that the reason that we should proportion our belief to the evidence is so that we will end up with true beliefs. Library and information scientists, however, are much less likely to take this to be the goal of information seekers. Jesse Shera, for example, says that “false knowledge … is still knowledge, it is knowable and known.” However, as a number of library and information scientists have recently argued, information seekers often do have the goal of acquiring true beliefs. For example, a student writing a report on the Eiffel Tower wants to know how tall the Eiffel Tower really is. In other words, she is after the truth. Similarly, a parent wants to know whether a particular treatment for a child with a fever really is safe and effective. In fact, it does not really make sense for someone to bother about verifying the accuracy of information unless acquiring true beliefs is her goal. (p. 468)
Even if we admit that not all information-seeking behavior is directed at determining the truth, we have to admit that a large percentage of it is. And, if librarians are to develop policies about how to organize information, develop procedures for handling morally difficult reference requests, instruct others in appropriate evaluative techniques, or any other of our duties, then we need to understand this thing called ‘information’ and how it relates to ‘knowledge’. Given that truth is integral to knowledge (and perhaps to information, too) it follows that truth is a professional concern.
I hope this isn’t taken as an attack on Bivens-Tatum. I’m only trying to understand his concerns. I also want to point out that I want to keep my discussion to information literacy. Collection development, censorship, privacy, and a host of other library concerns are impacted by our conceptions of truth, but I have a bad habit of getting lost on tangents, so I’m going to try to keep this discussion strictly to IL. I should also reiterate the is/ought distinction: I may advocate that truth is a certain way, but how we ought to act is a separate matter. So, don’t worry about setting flamethrowers to discredited books. Re-read the first half of Bivens-Tatum’s post for a great explanation.
I’ll try to get another post on truth up pretty soon. Perhaps I’ll do a case study or use some practical examples to show how the interpretation of truth we adopt will influence how we approach information literacy. Perhaps I’ll write a more cohesive narrative (rather than a response) about the relevance of truth in info lit. I’ll think about it.
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