Archive for the ‘misinformation’ Category

Graffiti of the work propaganda written in Greek

Konstantinos Koukopoulos on FLickr, CC BY

I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.

As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.


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By secchio. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but I’ve been playing some blog tag with the Academic Librarian. Well, it turns out I’m “it” again, so I guess I need to say something about information literacy. Specifically, I want to address this recent post claiming that librarians do not play a significant, direct role in information literacy.

A drop in the bucket
The gist of the Academic Librarian’s last post is that information literacy, like a liberal education in general, is built over an extended period. Information literate students don’t get that way from a few hours with a librarian; they become information literate as the result of the “cumulative effect of the efforts of many people directly and indirectly influencing the lives of students, and the students themselves working and practicing those skills.” In a nutshell, when it comes to information literacy, the role that librarians play is extremely limited and “it seems pretentious to think that librarians’ direct effect on information literacy teaching is going to be significant.”

I suppose I have to agree with his assessment: when considered in the long term, it is pretentious to think that a librarian is going to have a primary role in making students information literate. If we take a holistic view of information literacy, we’re looking at a skill set that takes years (a lifetime?) to develop, not a couple of hours in the library. As an analogy to education in general, Bivens-Tatum points out that it is unlikely that “a given professor teaching semester-long courses has a huge effect on the overall education of most students.” At best, educators can provide a foundation to build upon, but the real learning goes on outside the classroom. I agree with this. But, what are we to make of it?

A bucketful of drops
I’m trying to figure out what is being implied by this “grand scheme of things” observation. Am I to believe that librarians (or just a few of us) are spending too much time and energy on something that only amounts to a drop in the bucket of a student’s education? By the same logic, why should we pursue a liberal education in the first place? The day you studied Plato’s allegory of the cave in freshman philosophy, the day you learned about the equal angle theorem in geometry, the time you talked about Caesar crossing the Rubicon in history class…each just a drop in the bucket compared to a your entire education.

By Pranav Singh. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

A bucket of fish
And yet, comparing a single class to a lifetime of learning is a red herring. In the context of information literacy, it’s misleading to say that librarians don’t play much of a role when compared to a skill that takes years to master. For one thing, it directs attention away from the importance of the foundations. Bivens-Tatum agrees that “done right and timed well, even minimal amounts of research instruction can give students a good foundation to build upon”, yet he doesn’t think it is very important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t understand. What is a good foundation, if not something important? Sure, the multiplication tables I learned one week in 1988 are a drop in the bucket compared to my entire education, but I couldn’t have made it very far without them. Foundations are like that, it’s easy to minimize their importance in retrospect, but without them there wouldn’t be any retrospect. Perhaps the problem is that whereas Bivens-Tatum views information literacy programs as drops in the bucket, I view them as links in the chain. Sure, that one link may be long past, but without it, the chain couldn’t hold any weight.

By …-wink-… CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Moreover, this minimizing of librarians’ roles in information literacy ignores that many librarians can and do play rather large roles. Just as an example, the librarians here at UTC helped write the curriculum for freshman English, and we made sure that the standard, two semester course (reaching 78% of our freshmen) met the ACRL information literacy standards. This bears repeating: the librarians helped write the curriculum. Students have library homework, writing assignments are tied to ACRL standards, paper topics are vetted by librarians, research consultations are a fact of life…the list goes on. Students simply cannot pass either semester of freshman composition without meeting a certain minimal threshold of information literacy in accordance with ACRL standards 1 through 4 (we’re working on 5). And that’s just freshman English! I could write pages about all the work we do here at UTC, but my point is simple: rather than take a passive, supportive role in student education, we have successfully cultivated a culture of information literacy across the curriculum.

In sum, librarians can play a larger role in information literacy than the Academic Librarian gives credit. We lay the foundations without which there would be nothing to build, and we can and should take an active role in the curriculum. We have to start thinking of ourselves as links in a chain, rather than drops in the bucket. I thought this was obvious, but it isn’t. And perhaps this is just the naïveté of a new librarian only 18 months on the job, but I can’t help thinking that librarians can and should play a significant role in shaping the curriculum and seeing students through from orientation to commencement, no matter the difficulty involved. We do it here at UTC; with 10,000 FTE and only eight librarians here in the reference and instruction, we still manage to leave a mark on almost every student. Sure, there will always be students who don’t need us. Some students are self-sufficient learners. I know I was…I rarely even entered the library until grad school, I just bought all of my books and used the journal collection in the philosophy department. Others just don’t give a shit in the first place and will graduate degreed, but incurious and uninterested. But, that’s how education goes. The thousands of students who do spend time with librarians, or with the fruits of our labor, more than make up for the outliers.

Back to the beginning
This entire conversation originally started when I outlined a project that will hopefully show that a realist conception of truth is the only way to meet Standard Three of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards. Believe it or not, I’m still working on the project (hence my recent reading list posts). But, as to this question of worth, I suppose the Academic Librarian and I will have to agree to disagree. I think information literacy plays a large role in librarianship and he thinks that it plays a minor role. I haven’t found his arguments convincing, but neither has he been convinced by mine, so it’s best to move on. Give me until after this week’s Tennessee Library Association conference and I promise I’ll get something interesting up.

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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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CC license by Idiolector

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.



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:

  1. For all the talk of ‘information literacy’ it’s surprising how few people can give a coherent definition of ‘information’, 
  2. 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?)
  3. I have a general worry about anti-realist conceptions of truth that show up in common approaches to information literacy.
  4. ACRL standards don’t mention truth, but Standard Three requires an account.
1. Information and information literacy

The term “information literacy” is well established in librarianship, but I think that there’s still a need to discuss what, exactly, information is. The most common approaches within the field are summarized nicely in John Budd’s (2011) “Meaning, Truth, and Information“.2 Unfortunately, his survey of common approaches almost completely ignores the semantic conception of information as it doesn’t suit his self-described phenomenological hermeneutics of librarianship. One of my upcoming goals in the blog is to take a look at the semantic conception of information as a better foundation for the information in information literacy.

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

Surprisingly little has been said about truth in librarianship. In 2008, Labaree and Scimeca published an article in Library Quarterly that discussed the concept, but their proposed “historicist” concept of truth is…for lack of a better term…stupid1
Wait…I just thought of a better term: ridiculous. 
In an upcoming post, I’ll pick apart their approach as an example of the sort of fact-value conflations and anti-realisms that lurk around the edges of information literacy. I’ll even go so far as to say that these theories actively undermine information literacy. (constructivists and historicists…beware!)

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.

Coming soon
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.

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