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Fake News and "Post-Truth": Resources for Citizens, Students and Educators: About the CU panel

Resources to extend Post-Truth panel series discussion

Panel announcement poster

About the panel, and panelists' statements

In February and March 2017, the Castleton University Library hosted a panel series, "Being a Citizen-Scholar in a Post-Truth World"

Panelists were asked to share a 5 minute introduction to the topic from their perspective or the perspective of their discipline or profession. Read a sampling of the panelists' introductory remarks by clicking on the tabs in this box.

February 2:  Fake News and Truthiness

  • Adam Chill, Associate Professor of European and World History and the Coordinator of the Global Studies Program
  • Rich Clark, Associate Professor of Political Science
  • Rob Mitchell, Editor-In-Chief and Acting Manager of the Rutland Herald
  • Michael Talbott, Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and Chair of the Communication Department

March 2: The Truth is Out There:  How We Know What We Know

  • Brad Coupe, Professor of Biology
  • Brendan Lalor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy Program Coordinator
  • Joseph Markowski, Part-time Faculty for Philosophy
  • Amanda Richardson, Associate Director of the Castleton Polling Institute
  • Alex Stinson, GLAM-Wiki Strategist at Wikimedia Foundation

March 30: Being a Citizen and Scholar in the "Post-truth" World

  • Emily Gleason, Assistant Professor of Education
  • Jim Sabataso, Freelance Writer and Columnist for the Rutland Reader
  • Jonathan Spiro, Chief Academic Officer
  • Jami Yazdani, Director of Library Services


Adam Chill, Associate Professor of European and World History and Coordinator of the Global Studies Program


The first point I’d like to make is that truth hasn’t – and isn’t – always defined by what reasonable people can determine using a combination of senses and reason. The “truth” of many faiths, for example, is more important for believers than, say, the precise measurement of the size of one’s hand BUT it is certainly no less – and probably more – true to those believers. Still, a certain idea of what constitutes truth seems under particular assault today. I want to focus a few brief remarks on one of the histories of this idea of truth that might be relevant for this discussion.

For nearly 15 years in the middle of the 1600s, England, Scotland, and Ireland were torn apart by a terrible civil war. Everything from royal power to personal salvation to property rights was debated as competing armies ransacked the land. At the end of the 1640s, the king’s forces were defeated and the monarch – ordained ruler by God (according to his supporters) – was publicly beheaded in front of the Banqueting House, Whitehall.

Perhaps naturally, given that so much had been questioned, some began to think about what was true and how truth came to be established. The philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan (published in 1652), took stock of the world around him and argued that there could only be one determiner of truth, and that was ultimately a strong ruler. Such important topics couldn’t be left to the whims of changeable men.

In 1660, after 11 years without a monarch, the English parliament invited the executed king’s eldest son to return as King Charles II. This “Restoration” government worried particularly about the relationship between the production and distribution of knowledge and social order. After all, disputes about fundamental truths had turned England upside down and cost the king’s father his head.

In this context, a group of natural philosophers (an old word for “scientist”) began to publicly advocate for a new model of truth. Because the new royal regime took a skeptical eye of all knowledge it didn’t control, it was necessary for these men to publicly argue that their activities – which involved experimental science – and their means to find facts and, ultimately, truth offered an ideal society where arguments could be settled peacefully and “subversive errors” could be quickly corrected.

The key claim of this “Royal Society,” which received a charter from King Charles II in 1662, was that open and peaceful debate within predetermined limits would foster social stability. “Truth” would be given a firm and safe foundation by strictly delimiting what counted as a fact, separating theory and opinion. For these early natural philosophers, this meant producing experiments in a tightly controlled experimental space. For others, it meant excluding that which fell outside the bounds of reasonable argument. The key though – according to critics anyway – was that a few insiders decided where these boundaries were.

It is this vision of truth that, I think, is more and more under assault today. The boundaries between fact and opinion are eroding as traditional gatekeepers (“experts” as they are so often called) are assaulted, often under the banner of democracy. Some of these attacks are not unlike Hobbes’s own on the experimental scientists and their “laboratories” of truth. He argued that no one except a monarch can be disinterested, that objective truth cannot be obtained, and that all opinions represent a particular set of interests, which often hide a secret and nefarious agenda.

We face the prospect of civil strife again, as the system of truth-making we have inherited potentially breaks down. Whatever its problems, any alternatives seem bleak.

Rich Clark, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Castleton Polling Institute
 

Facts hold a special place in political discourse. In his defense of British soldiers following the Boston Massacre, John Adams spoke, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reiterated these words in a Senate hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Both men assumed that facts were irrefutable and held a special place in our deliberations.

People may disagree about the meaning of facts, but the facts exist independent of individuals’ opinions. Still, it is important to draw a distinction between facts and truth. A fact is something that cannot be refuted through reasoning or observation, whereas truth is something which depends on a person’s perspective and experience.

In a New York Times Op Ed piece last August (Aug. 24, 2016), William Davies, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of London, wrote that, “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” The presumption that follows is that the previous age was an age of truth politics—a dubious presumption for sure. Consider the verbal gymnastics of Donald Rumsfeld, the parsing of words by Bill Clinton, the enigmatic statements from Fed Chairmen, or other creative political communications that have stretched truth, often past the breaking point. I don’t know that the pre-“Post Truth World” was really a place of established truth.

In fact, I think that “truth” is too lofty a goal for political communication.

I tell the students in my Research Methods class that if they want “truth” they need to go to church … or maybe a museum or philosophy discussion. Science doesn’t provide truth. It provides a method for understanding our world that is limited to physical and/or behavioral phenomena – limited to that which can be measured.

That being said, science is very useful; it has improved the lives of nearly everyone on the planet in some measurable way. At the same time it has also created weapons so horrific they could terminate our existence as a species.

Science is a method; it’s not the outcome. It is not a moral system. It is a process for understanding our world.

We who sell science as a means for understanding, however, too often simply convey results or findings of our research. In so doing, we’ve failed to propagate our methods, which are the essence of scientific understanding. By failing to instill the methods of scientific understanding—instead, focusing on findings—we failed to bring the general public along to scientific reasoning. If all that matters is the findings—and the means for obtaining those findings are irrelevant—then the public is left with little criteria for judging among conflicting findings.

And that’s where we are.
Truth may be too high a bar for the sciences—the natural and social sciences. But we should be able to agree upon a set of facts—agree about testable observations corresponding to the observable world.

Our news and political debate should be based upon fact, as Adams and McCain suggest. Yet too often facts are distorted or ignored. We live in a world of slanted news and now even the oxymoronic “FAKE news.”

I want to draw a distinction between slanted news and fake news; the former has an element of truth but may suggest motives or imply a nefarious agenda, while the latter is completely fabricated from thin air. An example of fake news is the story that claimed John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were running a child prostitution ring from a Washington Pizzeria. The story sounds preposterous, but one individual believing it to be true went to the pizzeria, armed, to liberate the victims.

The proliferation of slanted news allowed an environment where someone could believe the fabricated news. If your diet of news constantly tells you that Hillary Clinton is corrupt, without morals, and so power hungry that she will do anything, the fabricated story becomes plausible.

A Los Angeles Times reporter met with the man who went to the pizzeria to intervene on behalf of the children—a noble cause if there ever was one. He was not a bad man, looking to harm people. He went with the best of intentions. Yet a situation was created where people’s lives were endangered.

Fake news has real consequences.

Our political discourse is eroded by neglecting facts with impunity. When the public distrusts the media nearly as much as they distrust a leader who has on many occasions shown no regard for facts, we lack a firm foundation for rational political discourse.

If we aspire to reach some truth or greater understanding, it is imperative that we pave that path with universally recognized facts.


Also posted on the Castleton Polling Institute blog: 
VTPOP: Vermont Polling and Public Opinion


Emily Gleason, Assistant Professor of Education


I was asked to speak here today about the importance of truth and how we construct knowledge in today’s fast-paced, media-saturated, and highly stratified society. I will attempt to share some thoughts on this topic, though the task is daunting.

I am an educator, trained in social and cultural theory and methods and my work concerns issues of race, class, culture, gender, and other identity categories, which shape people’s lives. I come from an academic background which seeks to honor the lived experiences, to find the “truth” of the story that might live beyond the limits of big data, large scale empirical research, or testing metrics, which are often used in education as a testament to a student’s, a teacher’s or a school’s worth. I believe in looking beyond the numbers to the narratives, to dig deep into the underbelly of classrooms, the conversations in the hallways, the early hours of morning when parents are struggling to get kids out the door, and themselves to work, the stories of students who feel that they don’t belong - as well as the stories of those who believe that THEY do. In short, I teach about the power of listening deeply to accounts which are often not heard in the mainstream because they have a lot to teach us about power, society, and how we might create social change.

The fields of sociology, anthropology, gender and women’s studies have always gained enormously when scholars on the fringes have challenged the body of work, the body of thinkers who have looked to particular places for stories and knowledge. When we shift the focus from the center to the margin, as feminist scholar bell hooks has urged us to do, and when we consider structures of power and privilege as shaped by intersecting systems of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, we can see who occupies space at the center, and whose perspectives and knowledges lie on the edges.

This example of shifting from margin to center and from center to margin demonstrates the ways in which the personal is political and interpretations matter to advancing fields of study and achieving greater social justice and equity.

Today, with the refugee crisis dominating our news and social media, the language and rhetoric related to the “Middle East” to Syria, terrorism, ISIS, refugee, have taken on a convoluted and often contradictory tone. As Americans, the onslaught of information on the crisis of the Middle East often seems to confuse, rather than clarify. It’s a messy situation in Syria without easy answers, but much of the mainstream news outlets do little to illuminate the complexity. I currently work with teachers who are getting ready to hopefully support incoming refugee youth and families from Syria and Iraq who may re-settle in Rutland. We are preparing by learning about the context of the Middle East, the political backdrop, the refugee crisis, life within refugee camps, the range of trauma that many survivors face, and the unique educational needs of the refugee child. A goal of mine throughout the semester has been to help teachers to “put a human face” on the refugee crisis and to try to gain a deeper understanding of the ways we might build inclusive classroom spaces that honor students’ differences in backgrounds, language, culture, and experience. Through this course, I use a lot of story, documentary film, and first-person narratives to illustrate the range of issues we address.

As an educator, I was trained in the sociological and anthropological method of ethnography, and it is from this way of seeing the world that I often think as a scholar and activist. Ethnography is the study of people and culture that takes place over time. It is the study of people’s lived experiences and their everyday worlds. Ethnography includes the root word “ethno” or people or folk (from the Greek) and “graph” which means to write. So, it is a written account of people’s lived worlds, but any two ethnographers might produce radically different conclusions and write very different accounts. Ethnography is dependent on one’s interpretative lens, as all science is, and as we wonder today about the nature of “truth”, it is important to remember how subjective all knowledge is. Knowledge is never neutral; it is always rooted in where we come from, and the particular social, cultural, and historical moment.

In Education, ethnographic research helps to add nuance and detail to massive data sets, testing scores, and other assessment metrics. An ethnographic study can shed light on the stories of students, teachers, and parents’ lives. Ethnographic research requires lots of time (as in months and sometimes years) listening to subjects, observing, engaging in their everyday worlds, and trying to represent their experiences alongside them in writing, often times through collaborative research practices. Old school ethnography was critiqued for contributing to “Othering”, and therefore, much of today’s ethnographic research aims for participant research and collaborative community based practices. But, in short, ethnography aims to tell the stories that are not often told -- to get at the voices and practices of those who are often marginalized or outside of the dominant power structures. At its root is a vision of honoring local knowledges, experiences, and lives. At its root is a social justice framework and a pursuit of “truths”.

However, there are limits to ethnography. It is important to critique the goal to “build empathy” or “give voice to” the stories that are often not heard and to not see them as isolated stories of individuals' lives. Ethnography runs the risk, therefore, of being too fine-grained. Learning about a student’s experience with racialized bullying in a local Vermont elementary school is one thing, even observing and documenting the life of the classroom and school over time can be seen as ultimately only a piece of the puzzle. Ethnography therefore must include elements of structural and institutional analysis in order to get at offering frameworks for social change. Any study, or any film, or story, or any course that aims only to “humanize” or to “give voice to" someone’s experience runs the risk of reproducing the individual-focused paradigm which organizes the cultural fibers of our American society. When we fail to shine a light on the structures of power which serve to create entrenched poverty, residential segregation, racialized patterns of school districting, or unfair voting practices, for example, we run the risk of ascribing blame or looking to individualized solutions to complex socio-structural problems.

I do believe that it is stories that feed us, and nourish us and help us to connect the personal to the political, and it is most often the human experience with which we most connect. It hits us when we see the image of the 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shore and read about his family’s migration journey, or when we learn about the former aspirations of Trayvon Martin who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, eating Skittles and wearing a hoody one night several years ago, or the story of a transgender girl who attempted suicide after being bullied on Instagram by middle school peers, or the story of the family who has been pushed out of a local public school due to school closure and re-districting. However, even as we use story as a way to connect and make meaning, it is the larger structures of normalized violence, institutional racism, economic inequality, globalization, privatization of education, or homophobia, to name just a few possible structural factors, which we must also consider as we focus the lens on an individual life or experience. Truths lie in the margins and at the center, and come to life through narratives and analysis. As citizen scholars, we must listen closely and employ critical thinking as we interpret our worlds.


Brendan Lalor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy Program Coordinator

Joe Markowski, Philosophy Professor
 

Since this is a Panel on Post-Truth, it would be mistake to ignore the insights of Friedrich Nietzsche who declared that “Truth does not necessarily denote the antithesis of error, but in the most fundamental cases only the posture of various errors in relation to another” (WP 535). His position, which I would characterize as “healthy skepticism,” does not however reduce “truth” to some meaningless fiction. For Nietzsche, some perspectives are more erroneous than others. The perspectivism he championed positioned truth within the life affirming, organic process of “Will-to-Power.” Thus, as criterion of Truth he writes, “truth resides in the enhancement of power” (WP 534). Elsewhere he adds that “the will to truth has to be investigated psychologically: it is not a moral force, but a form of the will to power” (583) “Truth is therefore not something out there, that might be found or discovered, but something that must be created and that gives name to a process” (WP 552).

Now, while there are variety of ways we can interpret Nietzsche’s “error theory of knowledge,” I would like to draw attention to the psychological side of truth, and/or post truth, particularly as it pertains to a fragmented media that is able to effectively prey upon, through skillful marketing, the cognitive biases of its consumers.

In his 2008 publication “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” Farhad Manjoo argues that while technology and globalization have pushed the world together, they have driven us apart. He writes, “From above, the three hundred million citizens of the United States look like clones, or Matrix-like drones, each of us plugged snugly into a common consumerist grid….Yet for all our shared shopping experiences, we are not morphing into a common people – not as a nation and not as a planet…The story has its roots in the digital revolution, which has given us more information, and more power over that information, than seems believable. On the web, television, radio, and all manner of new devices, today you can watch, listen to, and read what you want, whenever you want; seek out and discuss, in exhaustive and insular detail, the kind of news that pleases you; and indulge your political, social, or scientific theories, whether sophisticated or naïve, extremist or banal, grounded in reality or so far out your floating in an asteroid belt, among people who feel exactly the same way.” This scenario Manjoo paints for us is not intended to condemn technology, nor globaliszation, as the cause of “post-truth” or “post-fact;” with similar sympathies of the panelists we first heard from a few weeks back, these ideas are not entirely new. Rather, as Manjoo see’s it, technology, particularly the media, both main stream and social, have ratchetted up our ability to access, consume and digest information with such speed and intensity that we have forgotten how to taste and chew what we are swallowing. As result, our cognitive biases, that we so desperately want feed, “enhance” our sense of “power” and feeling of “self-determination” to the point that we are, now, our own marionettes casting shadows on cavern walls of the digital caves we have willingly become slaves to. Such a feeling is not weakened by there being alternative perspectives on “what is the case and/or true,” but rather strengthened by the very fact that there is resistance.

Now, as we see it within our Castleton philosophy program, some of the greatest forces of resistance impeding one’s ability to flourish in a liberal democracy, are cognitive biases. For example, confirmation biases, and the unconscious tendency to look harder for confirming evidence rather than disconfirming evidence, clashes with our basic methods of scientific thinking. Selective attention biases, and the unconscious tendency to notice evidence that supports one’s belief system conditions dogmatic thinking to the point that one may become, to borrow a Zen metaphor, “like a frog at the bottom of the well looking up at the night sky.” Or again, belief biases and the psychological tendency to rate the logical strength of an argument or story based upon whether we favor the conclusion rather than evaluating the evidence supporting such leads to a “group think” mind set and/or “herd behaviorism.”

This is just small sample set of the psychological barriers for individual growth and flourishing. How one overcomes such is not easy, nor entirely straightforward; even Nietzsche failed to provide specifics on such. Nevertheless, as citizens of Liberal democracy, it is our responsibility to try and help others realize the digital caves they are in, and provide them with the critical thinking skills to find their way out so they can empathetically entertain other perspectives that are, perhaps, less erroneous than “Orewellian Truths,” vis-`a-vis the “Ministry Trump,” wherein alternative facts lead to the belief that 2+2=5.


Amanda Richardson, Associate Director of the Castleton Polling Institute

 

In early March, I was asked to provide my thoughts on a panel hosted by the Castleton University Library about “Truth”. Here were the questions panelists were asked to consider:

What is truth, how do we know what’s true? How do we (academia, publishers) strive for accuracy? What about scientific literacy, the scientific method, how knowledge is constructed. What should we as citizens do to stand up for science/truth or educate ourselves further on this?

Below are the thoughts I shared, as a survey researcher and applied sociologist:

The thoughts that I would to share on this topic come from two distinct but related areas: one as a consumer of social and scientific research and the second as a sociologist.

I think it makes sense to start with the more micro-level ideas, the way in which data and facts are presented. As a professional whose job entails the collection of opinions and data, which are regularly presented as facts, I am often uncomfortable with the way in which these are presented publicly–frequently as precise, hard-truths, with no context or limitations.

When people ask me, “How did the pollsters get the most recent presidential election ‘so wrong’?” my response to them is that they didn’t. For example Nate Silver’s FiveThrityEight poll aggregator before the election had Trump with a 29% chance of winning the Electoral College. That’s right: 3 in 10. If you were to go to a casino with those odds, you’d feel okay, but you wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t win-same for the election. The problem is that many polls and aggregators came up with a similar result, with Clinton likely to win, and this ended up being reported and shared as a certainty, rather than a probability.

Many of us who collect data, view our work as providing insight to a specific aspect of public opinion or behaviors for a specific population and at a specific time in a specific context. The quantitative data we collect is intended as an estimate or statistical probability.

There is error. Social scientists acknowledge error. The error is both known and unknown. We have measures of some sources of errors—like with margins of sampling error—those plus/minus percent rages that you see in the footnote of some reports of polls. Other types of errors are unknown or not easily observable or quantifiable, like measurement error and nonresponse error.

With the data we collect, we know all the details are important. It matters how the question is worded. It matters who is asking the question. It matters who is asked to respond and who is willing to respond. It also matters when you are asking. Public opinion isn’t true forever. Things change. The data being presented is tied to a point-in-time, with a particular population, asked a particular question, with error both known and unknown built in. All of this is why you often find me and others like me asking for more details about how the data was collected, so that we can better evaluate the source and likely errors for ourselves.

We know that sometimes even the act of asking a question, can create an opinion. And depending on who is asked the result can be different, which brings me to the second idea that I’d like to discuss, which is at a much more of a macro-level.

As a sociologist, I have a difficult time discussing the concept or idea of truth without exploring social constructionism. For this, I turn to the work of Berger and Luckmann. We exist in a social world. Objects, symbols, language, and interactions all have meaning because we, collectively, have assigned meaning to them. The meaning that is assigned is based on our shared social understanding—we’ve created it.

Some tangible, simplistic ways this is clear to us is when the same symbol conveys a different meaning in a different culture. For example the hand gesture of “the middle finger” is an insult in the United States, but its equivalent in the United Kingdom is a V with the palm facing in.

This created, shared reality goes beyond simple cultural misunderstandings. We use this reality to create our institutions, grant power, legitimacy, and authority. Through the process of socialization, we internalize this reality and view it as natural and objective.

When we act as essentialists and do not acknowledge that these things are constructed and only are real because we’ve assigned them meaning, we further legitimize those that we’ve given authority to and those institutions, which can lead to discrimination and oppression. However, because we are all social actors and can partake in the construction of this shared truth, we can alter our structures, institutions, grant power, and legitimize diverse viewpoints.

This is why inclusion and diversity is so important. Whose reality, experience, and ideas are accepted as the truth matters. Who we ask and who we don’t ask matters. Who gets to be at the table and talk matters. I might add that I think it matters even at Castleton during an N-period panel about truth.

Jim Sabataso, freelance writer and columnist for the Rutland Reader
 

As a journalist, there are a set of principles I believe in and follow. Among them are fairness, truth, accuracy and transparency. As a columnist, I have more latitude to express my options, but these principles still apply. Good journalism is built on credibility and authority, which cannot exist without these principles.

And while we strive for neutrality and objectivity, we must resist the pressure to relativize, nor-malize or create false equivalencies in order to maintain the semblance of balance. A more noble way to look at what we do is holding people in power accountable at every level — from city hall to the White House and beyond.

Unfortunately, the press has struggled with credibility in recent years. Trust in the media is at an all-time low. A recent Gallup poll revealed that only 32 percent of Americans have a “great deal” to a “fair amount” of trust in mass media (TV, radio, newspapers). Last year Republican dropped to 14 percent.

On top of this there are financial hardships and commercial pressures, which have decimated newsrooms around the country. It’s made it more difficult for journalists to do their jobs — to do the important type of investigative journalism that is so vital, especially right now.

During this same period, conservative media has been ascendant, all the while attacking and dis-crediting the mainstream press. Social media and blogs have also proliferated during this time, opening up new venues for additional perspectives and voices like the Drudge Report and later Breitbart — outlets that have successfully created new, competing narratives on the right.

A recent article in Vox by David Roberts titled “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemol-ogy” addresses the phenomenon of how both liberals and conservatives have retreated into com-peting realities where there is no common set of facts. We’ve heard a lot over this election cycle — about bubbles and echo chambers, and this piece really gets to the heart of that issue. It’s a long read, but definitely worth the time (read it here: bit.ly/vox-tribal).

In the piece. Roberts discusses the asymmetric politics we are seeing right now. The new right media — Breitbart, Lifezette, as well as other alt-righter voices like Michael Cernovich, Bill Mitchell and Alex Jones — no longer play by the same rules. According to them, previously in-violate trans-partisan institutions — press, academia, science, civil society — are not to be trusted. As we speak, these norms are being assaulted and torn down.

Roberts cites Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, who, in January, said it’s, “better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth,’” as an example of tribal epistemology in action.

This question at the heart of Roberts’ story is this: “Can (the media) be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?”

This is challenge for the media right now, and it’s no simple task. It’s a challenge that’s been compounded by social media.The internet and social media has helped to democratize infor-mation. This is a good thing. I truly believe that.

However, our media literacy and, more specifically, our news literacy hasn’t kept pace with this growth. It’s led to what I’d call an uncritical and unhealthy media diet. “I saw it on Facebook, or I read it on the internet” has become an acceptable citation. When combined with tribal episte-mology, it creates the ideal conditions for the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories and gen-eral gullibility. As Roberts observes, we are skeptical of any outside fact checks, and eager to be-lieve those from within our tribe.

This, in my opinion, underscores the need for gatekeepers — for professionals who have exper-tise and experience in gathering and assessing information, people who adhere to those com-monly held standards and norms. I don’t want this to be confused with an argument in favor of elitism. Lately people are too quick to incorrectly conflate experts and elites; we need to reject that proposition outright. At the end of the day, once you remove all the spin and rhetoric, there are only facts and the truth. If you can’t separate lies from the truth, then there is no truth, which is essential to a liberal democracy.

Jonathan Spiro, Academic Dean


One of the seminal events of the American Revolution was the Boston Massacre, when British troops fired on American protesters in 1770, killing five Americans.

If I wrote a history of the Boston Massacre, would you trust it as truthful? Oh, maybe ten years ago you would have, but not now, because I am clearly part of the liberal elite: I’m one of those highly-educated, chardonnay-sipping, Subaru-driving, Bernie-hugging eggheads who write history books and listen to the BBC. I’m part of the same out-of-touch elite that publishes vegan cookbooks, and builds gender-neutral bathrooms, and promulgates environmental regulations aimed at strangling the great American coal industry.

So, given that I am not a reliable source of truth, if you wanted to learn about the Boston Massacre, what kind of source could you consult? What is the best way to eliminate the lame-stream middleman (me) and find out exactly what happened in Boston on December 5, 1770? Answer: a primary source.

Well, fortunately, I happen to have a primary source right here: an eyewitness account of what actually happened. I’m going to pass it out, and ask you to take one minute to read it to yourself.

[Primary source distributed]

So, a crowd of Americans surrounded some British troops on March 5, and five Americans wound up dead. Based on the source, who was to blame for the killings: the British soldiers or the American protesters? (We know that the British soldiers shot the Americans, but did the British instigate the shootings, or did the crowd provoke them?)

[Audience volunteers conflicting answers]

Let’s take a vote: raise your hand if you think the Americans were to blame / raise your hand if the British were to blame.

Why are we so divided? The whole point of looking at a primary source was to discover the truth, but this side of the room blames the British while this side blames the Americans.

What you don’t know is that I used two different primary sources. Both eyewitnesses were native New Englanders, but this side read Mercy Otis Warren (who was a Patriot), while this side read Thomas Hutchinson (who was a Loyalist).

As we have seen, even primary sources do not give us the full “truth,” because eyewitnesses are, at best, not trained in being accurate observers; at worst: they are biased. So how do we know the truth of what transpired?

We need a professional historian to go to the archives, track down and read all of the primary accounts, evaluate each for bias, and piece together an accurate picture of what happened by using only the facts that all accounts agree on.

In sum, you need Professor Chill, or Fleche, or van der Spuy, because they are trained in how to locate, understand, and evaluate primary sources. They are educated. They are professionals. They are members of the elite—and you cannot do history without them.

Professor Markowski reminded us last time that Nietzsche said “Truth is not out there; it must be created.” Yes, it must be created … not by teenagers in Macedonia who earn money by disseminating fake news, but by trained experts who know how to use footnotes.

I understand that “elite” has bad connotations nowadays. As Professor Chill and Professor Coupe reminded us, we spent three centuries building this replicable process in which trained scholars employ the scientific method to discover truth, and along comes a bunch of white, male, fascistic billionaires who curry favor with—and distract—the people by claiming that:

The elite can’t be trusted.

The people should create their own truth.

Don’t read the New York Times.

Watch Fox News.

Deny climate change.

Tweet whatever totally spurious accusation pops into your head at 5 a.m., because it really makes no difference if it is true or not.

Well, I am here to tell you that if you are sitting in this room you are, by definition, one of the elite, and it is your job to reject the politics—and the lies, and the tweets—of the post-truth world.

The writing of history—the discovery of Truth—is elitist; it requires expertise. And that’s okay.

When I need a root canal, I don’t go to my bus driver; I go to my trained dentist, the one with all the diplomas on the wall.

When I want to know if Trump engaged in collusion with Russia, I don’t read the propagandists at Breitbart, I read the professional journalists at the Washington Post.

I trust Jim, and Emily, and Jami, and Charlotte, who are experts, to teach me about trends in social media, and education, and information science.

And I will trust you—after you have earned your degree in History—to tell me the truth of what really happened in the Boston Massacre.

Jami Yazdani, Director of Library Services
 

Librarians see our mission as providing and protecting access to information – we help our users steer a course towards knowledge and understanding, and maybe even towards truth and freedom. Our main goal is supporting “information literacy”, which has been defined as a set of competencies – the information literate can find information, evaluate it and then use it. This quite linear approach conceptualizes our sources of information as tangible, consumable objects, and as consistent and steady anchors of knowledge.

But this is not the state of information today. Tweets from established experts and government agencies occupy the same space as tweets from the average and irate citizen, often displacing thoughtful, official statements, peer-reviewed scholarship and reporter-conducted interviews. In this “age of spin”, content is repackaged and manipulated to appeal to our basest fears and biases, and to be shared with a swipe but not a full read. Conversation and debate have been replaced, at best, with likes, shares and emojis, and at worst, with bullying and threats of violence. Put simply, as it has become easier to find information, it’s also become harder to make sense of it and use it in meaningful ways (and that’s less than 140 characters, should anyone wish to quote me).

That brings me back to librarians – clearly, the dynamic, democratized, and often discombobulating network that is the internet challenges our linear approach to information literacy. Acknowledging this, the Association of College and Research Libraries replaced their existing standards with the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education in 2016. The new framework trades competencies for concepts, and redefines information literacy as “encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning”.

The language and structure of the framework articulates a shift in dispositions, from linear to cyclical, from passive to active, from concrete to dynamic. For librarians, the framework challenges our existing approaches to supporting and promoting information literacy. For citizens and scholars, the Framework calls on all of us to be intentional, reflective participants in using, sharing and creating information, and it asks us to be seekers of knowledge as thoughtful and ethical members of our communities.

But how? How can we make sense of information when our sensibilities feel under attack? How can we seek knowledge in a post-truth world?

First, I think we need to be skeptical, not just of what we read, but of our own reactions and bias. Since we know that what news outlets choose to focus on, what appears above the fold or scrolls along the bottom of the screen, differs across the political spectrum, we need to pop our bubbles of information and turn our skepticism on ourselves. In trying to escape my own bubble, I’ve found that once I had jumpstarted my bias detector with a variety of sources, I was better able to see bias in the sources I’ve always trusted. I’ve also noticed that while the “Who, What, When and Where” is often the same if I read well past the headline, the “Why?”, particularly the “Why does this matter?”, is vastly different. Perhaps this is why we seemed to be talking past each other during the election – the narratives of what is wrong with the world, and of what is most important, which are already heavily shaped by our own personal experiences, were being further shaped and narrowed by the media we consumed. If the wolf that survives is the one you feed, what narratives and perspectives are we feeding?

I would also argue that we should ignore reporting of the prevailing sentiment that are based on the most inflammatory signs at a rally, a compilation of public Twitter posts, or the comments that garnered

the most responses in an anonymous online forum. Focusing on the loudest, cruelest, rudest or most shocking opinions as somehow “representative” makes it easier to assume that everyone on the other side of an issue is also shockingly loud, and cruel and rude. It makes everyone seem like a deplorable snowflake, a shadowy stereotype, an enemy in our midst. And this highly reactive, partisan and derisive approach to seeking and consuming information shuts down empathy and opportunities for informed debate.

So that brings me back to the Framework, which calls on all of us to be reflective and thoughtful. It is not easy to dive deeply into issues and it takes time and emotional and intellectual fortitude to see past interpretations, headlines, stereotypes, bias and spin. But isn’t it worth the effort? Our communities, our professions, our families, and our democracy, all require that we engage with information to be able to make better choices. Our access to rapidly moving information is exponentially expanding, and technology may beckon us with promises of ease and speed, but creating meaning and developing understanding still takes time. Information has shifted, and so must we.

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