This morning, catching up on the Sunday New York Times (which often takes me the better part of a week), I felt as if a lot of synapses were firing, making connections in unexpected places. It started with an op-ed piece by Jeffrey M. Zacks, a Washington University psychology professor who studies the way we tend to absorb beliefs from the movies. “Our minds are not well equipped to sort good sources from bad ones,” he writes, because we forget where we originally encountered information. A vivid piece of make-believe might be more easily recalled and consulted than a whole shelf of carefully-documented histories studied in class.
There was also an “op-chart” on falsehoods around the world that gain popularity in spite of being counterfactual. It’s spooky seeing what nonsense gets spouted. What the chart doesn’t mention is that correcting the record doesn’t necessarily help. People reading about why the thing they believed is actually incorrect often come away more persuaded than ever that the false thing is true.
There were two articles about how people act differently online than when dealing with people face to face. “The Epidemic of Facelessness” by writer Stephen Marche argues that we lack empathy when we can’t see faces, which contributes to people behaving badly online. (It also reminded me that after an exercise examining how a controversial idea evolved over time, students concluded there was an epidemic of alarmist articles with the word “epidemic” in the title.) I have been hearing variations on this argument since the invention of the internet and, as a veteran online blabbermouth, I find it problematic. Online communities often develop highly-refined ways to encourage good behavior and a group sense of cohesion and responsibility, though those negotiations can break down when the platforms being used are more interested in attracting eyeballs than entire people. Besides, men who gang up to threaten women with rape and dismemberment when annoyed aren’t simply suffering from an empathy shortage, they’re being pretty deliberate about it. Still, the whole issue of how we negotiate discourse in these digital arenas is important because we spend a lot of our lives there.
Finally, a piece by Times staffer Anna North, "What Your Online Comments Say About You," looked at research on comments appended to news stories and how they might promote disinhibition, influence what the readers take away from an article (for example, believing a new technology is more risky than reported after reading argumentative if uninformed comments) and whether the trend by some publications to disable commenting altogether is the right move or not.
The reason these all connected for me is that librarians think a lot about how to help students find and evaluate sources. The emerging Framework for Information Literacy (now ready for prime time and all dressed up in html!) encourages us to think more about sources not as things to choose and then analyze but as a process of decisions we make within a negotiated and contextual world of competing and complementary expressions of ideas. We tend to focus on academic discourse – in fact, one of the frames is “scholarship as conversation” – but it’s not just in scholarly publications where ideas are debated. Most of the ways our students will interact with information will be in non-scholarly forms of discourse.
So I’m pondering, yet again, what practical ways we might help students embrace the ideals of scholarship – that we make careful observations, examine the sources used to build an argument, handle data with integrity, and allow our minds to be changed if our initial questions lead us in an unexpected direction – so that our graduates can call on those values when they are reading the paper or watching a YouTube video or thinking about what a witness said during Congressional testimony. None of these articles had an easily identified literature review, a clearly-labeled methodology section, or footnotes, which is the case with most of what we encounter as we try to make sense of the world. Still, we need to be able to critically evaluate evidence, track down sources (which all of these articles referred to one way or another) and make up our minds so that we can bring our own informed ideas to the conversation. That's information literacy at work.
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