Information literacy is concerned with what is “true”: what kinds of things we should believe, what kinds of things we shouldn’t, and how we can tell the difference. It is, therefore, the task of information literacy librarians to help students articulate and apply reliable criteria to answer the questions, “Out of all the information that’s out there, what should I believe?” “How do I know?”
You can see, then, that teaching information literacy well will probably not be easy. Like philosophy, it deals with some of the most fundamental human questions relating to truth and knowledge. Unlike philosophy (maybe), it does so in a practical way. Information literacy is a kind of applied epistemology: it aims to give students criteria to apply so they can figure out what types of information they should use to construct their beliefs about the world.
Here’s a bit more about what I mean.
To put the discussion in context, I recently had the occasion to be a moderator for a session at my university where first-year communications students present their speeches to the public and their peers in an open forum. My forum session was on “Media Representations of Athletes.” After the students’ wonderful presentation, there was a general discussion, much of which focused on media bias in their representations of athletes.
One student in the crowd asked a question that went something like, “So how do you guys recommend we go about figuring out what is fact vs. onion when we read media accounts of athletes?”
When that question was asked I thought: this is information literacy. When, e.g., librarians have historically taught students the difference between popular vs. scholarly sources, what they really meant to be doing was helping students answer this question: “For any given piece of information, how to I go about evaluating what is fact vs. opinion in this piece? And how do I know?” In other words: “How do I know if the stuff this article says is the stuff I should believe?”
This is what I mean by information literacy as applied epistemology: what we’re trying to do is provide students with criteria they can use to figure out how they can know (“epistemology” is the branch of philosophy concerned with what we can know) if a particular piece of information is worth believing. So, e.g., is the thing that the media is saying about UNC-Chapel Hill athletes not being literate true, or is it obviously bullshit? And on what kinds of things would an answer to this question turn?
The way I’ve always taught this to students is just as the questioner suggested: what we’re trying to do here is distinguish fact from opinion. When trying to figure out whether or not you should believe something – whether it’s something someone said at a party, or on CNN, or on Fox News – what you gotta do is discern what’s based on actual, reliable evidence, and what isn’t. Generally speaking, what we want to do is follow the great empiricist philosopher David Hume, who in his famous take-down of the foundational myths of Christianity, asserted that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” The information literate evaluator of information is, in essence, a fact-checker who can analyze whether or not a statement accords to the reliable evidence at hand.
I initially starting thinking of the analogy of the fact-checker in the context of information literacy after reading Jay McInerney’s great 1980’s novel Bright Lights, Big City, a fictional account of the drunken, cocaine-fueled debauchery of a young New Yorker magazine fact-checker.
McInerney’s fact-checker embodies what I think is the key criterion of establishing whether or not a piece of information is reliable, where reliability is understood in terms of verifiability. It’s not McInerney’s narrator’s job to prove, or to establish that a piece of information is true. Rather, what he must do, in a more general sense, is cover his and the magazine’s ass: he must is go through each article before it’s published with a fine-toothed comb and prove that the claims made in the article are at least verified by a reliable source (and, importantly, by the best source for that particular piece of information). Does that mean it’s true? Well, not necessarily. But he can at least say to his bosses, “Hey, I called the French Embassy … they do serve croissants to visitors!” or “A recent article in Studies in Why Nobody Reads Serious Novels Anymore does say that over 92% of former serious novel readers now just spend all of their time downloading apps … ladies and gentlemen, we’re ready to run the new Franzen piece!”
What the fact-checker does is apply a radically empiricist epistemology where something might be the kind of thing one might want to believe (i.e., it’s reliable) just so long as it’s verified by a credible source, i.e., there’s good evidence to believe what it says. (But, really, it’s not that credible sources are important as such. Rather, they’re just more likely to have good evidence presented.) So, reliability is just about verifying the evidence. Hence, the relevance for information literacy of Hume’s dictum: the information literate proportion their belief to the evidence. They do the same thing as cocaine fueled-fact checkers (feel free to borrow the metaphor the next time you’re talking to your students about evaluating information). But instead of asking themselves, like the fact, checker does, “Is this piece of information reliable enough to bet my job on?” we can encourage the student to ask, “Is this piece of information reliable enough that I’d want to build my belief system on it?”
The excellent work of information scientist Don Fallis supports thinking about information evaluation in this way. I recently re-read Fallis’s great article from Library Trends, “On Verifying the Accuracy of Information: Philosophical Perspectives, ” where Fallis sets out to answer the question: “How can one verify the accuracy of recorded information (e.g., information found in books, newspapers, and on Web sites)” (463)? and gives a really nice discussion of the importance of reliability as verifiability. Elsewhere Fallis gives an example of why I think verifiability is so interesting: the epistemology of Wikipedia. What makes Wikipedia reliable – more reliable than standard encyclopedias (at least according to a study in the journal Nature) – is the fact that claims must be verified with evidence. In other words, Wikipedia mimicks what scholars do: you rock a citation when you say stuff. So, e.g., When I say, “Fruit loops cause cancer” you expect me to provide you a citation which allows you to verify my evidence. That’s what the fact-checker would be looking for, and it’s what we want our students to look for as well. The fact checker doesn’t prove that fruit loops don’t cause cancer. They just say that there’s no good reason to believe that, because there’s no good evidence suggesting that it’s so.So, how is this providing students with an applied epistemology – a way for them to reliability figure out the information they use to form their beliefs about the world? Well, for one, I think it’s very valuable even if we just begin to get students to think about evidence and verifiability as important for evaluating information. I don’t really think freshman have had a lot experience being taught thinking this way, and it’s a context information literacy librarians can give them. It will help them understand why their professors want them to use a certain kind of information (and then apply that information in their papers as evidence for their claims (for that, really, is also why you cite) and begin to help them understand how to think about information outside of the classroom. My view is that evidence and verifiability are threshold concepts when it comes to information evaluation: once you get students to see that the stuff they should believe is based on evidence (which is why their professors want them to use stuff based in scholarship), and that they can think about any claim they read or hear about as being susceptible to the demands of evidence – I think it really has the potential to change the away students evaluate information. A lot of my lessons about information evaluation revolve around bringing the concept of evidence to the forefront of students’ thinking, and I’ve developed active learning exercises designed for them to put it into practice. These discussions can then become increasingly sophisticated depending on the discipline and the level of student you’re teaching. But I think this is one way we can begin to provide students with an applied epistemology to figure out what they ought to believe: we can encourage them to be McInerney-style fact-checkers about information, by giving them the knowledge to understand why doing so is important. We can teach them to be good Humeans, and to believe the stuff that’s based on good evidence. It’s our job as educators to teach students what the right kind of evidence is, and how they can know if any given piece of information is using that kind of evidence.