Like a lot of people, I’m scratching my head over Americans’ apparent capacity to believe six or more impossible things before breakfast. Donald Trump (and others in public life) attract a following in spite of saying things that are demonstrably false (there was no television news report that showed thousands of people in New Jersey cheering the fall of the World Trade Center) or likely lies (as when Trump claims that when he twitched his arms convulsively and said “you should see this guy,” the guy being a reporter with a disability, he was actually gesturing about ethics in journalism). Yet Trump keeps doing well in polls.*
He’s not the only one who bends the truth to his will and gets away with it. Too often I hear people explain this credulity by saying “Americans are stupid.” I don’t think, by and large, that they are. What I think has happened is that a sizeable percentage of Americans simply don’t trust social institutions that we have turned to in the past for arbitration. That includes the fourth estate and scholarship. But it's not just distrust of institutions; now I’m wondering whether basic epistemological assumptions about how we should make up our minds – say, through weighing evidence and critically analyzing arguments – are up for grabs.
I’ve seen theories that go beyond “Americans are stupid.” It could be that our current information landscape is as polarized as our politics, that changes in the way we get information tend to cocoon us in a like-minded bubble of affirmation. Google and Facebook are designed to show us things that fit a personal pattern to “improve our experience” , and keep us clicking, so we get stuck in what Eli Pariser calls a Filter Bubble. These systems also seem mapped to consumer choice behavior – we’re encouraged to shop the internet in search of products that satisfy our individual tastes. Others point to the rise of Fox News and the blurring of news, entertainment, and opinion in news media, where news consumers are able to find content that matches their political beliefs, turning political discussion into dramatic tournaments of winners and losers. I wonder, too, how much the political climate that led to the defunding of public higher education, encouraging private-sector-style competition for paying customers, has influenced distrust of educators, scholars, and scientists – and their methods. Or it could simply be psychology. In a culture where winning is so important, it’s striking that a majority of Americans feel their side is losing. We also tend to cling to our beliefs even in the face of the evidence. In fact, being presented with factual counter-evidence can strengthen our original beliefs.
From a librarian’s perspective, I'm wondering how can we address a situation where the basic epistemological foundations of our practice are up for debate. For academic librarians, the new Framework for Information Literacy has a strong emphasis on context and on making meaning rather than finding and evaluating it in finished form. It’s not so much “here’s how to do it right” as “if you have a critical understanding of how these social systems operate, you’re better positioned to participate and raise questions.” I’m still a bit skeptical that librarians can effect this shift in perspective – it has to be built into students’ coursework – but it invites us to model a more critical and big-picture understanding, from the fifty-minute one-shot instruction session on up.
Public libraries are particularly interesting when it comes to public discourse. Unlike many public institutions, people tend to have a high degree of trust in their local library and in the very idea of libraries as a trustworthy institution. People don’t trust the government,** yet a large majority of Americans think their public library is important to their community and generally give libraries high marks. I can’t think of another public institution that still seems to retain as much trust.
Libraries are both conservative and democratic in a lower-case sense. Rarely are they the site of partisan struggle, and they are open to all and patronized by a diverse demographic. Apart from organized book challenges (a small percentage of requests to remove books from public libraries originate from non-local pressure groups), it’s a space where people seem largely content to let different ideas exist side-by-side, and are willing to share that space with people of different ages and backgrounds. It’s tempting to think this is because libraries don’t profess anything or push an agenda – but they do. They stand for the value of public goods and shared resources. They stand for literacy and self-directed inquiry. They stand for the idea that citizens can make up their own minds without turning it into a contest of wills. That’s kind of radical these days.
I’m not sure if public libraries actually do much to preserve faith in facts, given their non-intervention policy when it comes to patron choice of information, but they do make me hopeful that we can have communal public places that encourage us to think – and don’t write off any segment of the population as too stupid.
*Nate Silver cautions us to approach poll numbers with a grain of mathematical salt – he estimates Trump’s supporters to be around 6-8 percent of the electorate and points out that people historically have changed their minds between the Iowa primary and the election.
**According to a Pew Research poll, 89 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats say they seldom if ever trust the federal government, though they do think some parts of it work pretty well.
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