Information Literacy: A Special Report from the Takoma Park Maryland Library, Part Two
By Jill Raymond and Anne LeVeque
Last month we talked about the various forms of mis- and dis-information (Part One). Now we’re going to talk about how we sort out the vast amount of information we are exposed to every day. Two central skills are required for discerning credible from non-credible information: first is the ability to set aside our emotions and desires and use our capacity for reason, accepting facts even when we don’t like them; second are the tools to recognize trustworthy information.
So, how do we know what is trustworthy? Is a source that is trustworthy always right, every time? Actually, no. A trustworthy source can be in error, resulting from lack of clarity, insufficient data, or honest misinterpretation of data. Dr. Anthony Fauci, and others, asked that people not wear masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, thinking it would cause a shortage and medical personnel would not have enough; there were shortages of protective materials in the beginning, but as the science of the virus came into better focus, it was clear that mask-wearing offered great protection for the public; many people began making masks to help mitigate the shortage, and production ramped up. The knowledge around this issue continues to evolve.
Science builds its knowledge base on information gleaned from multiple failed experiments. The details of these experiments are critiqued by other experts in the same field, which is why we say that trustworthiness comes from facts as society currently has the tools to discern them. The tools of discernment examine factors like intent, expertise, and transparency regarding data, methods, connection to monied interests, etc.
Disinformation involves malicious intent. Disinformation is false information promoted to achieve a particular end goal that benefits the perpetrator, either financially, socially, politically, or militarily. Disinformation is usually (but not always) a professional product. Like actors on a stage or sophisticated advertising techniques, it is packaged to deceive and look like “the real thing.” One recent example is the well-documented effort by the Russian government to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Disinformation morphs as the public conversation shifts over time and as true and factual information becomes available to more people. For example, those who publicly deny climate change and the science behind it began to call themselves (and get the media to refer to them as) climate skeptics, which sounds much more thoughtful, often naming themselves something that sounds quite public-service-minded, like “Institute for Energy Research.” They try to discredit climate science by casting doubt on the evidence. However, their “experts” are often tied to the fossil fuels industry or far-right-wing organizations with political agendas tied to climate denial. A famous tobacco industry document from the 1960s said, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”
Do your own research: Google and Wikipedia. One problem in discerning information is semantic: The word research is used for many different levels of inquiry from scientific research into diseases to looking up the definition of a word with which we’re unfamiliar. Using Google is fine for a general inquiry and frequently takes you to a Wikipedia page as part of its results. Wikipedia is a user-edited encyclopedia and thus is subject to problems of bias. It does its best to address these issues, but it’s not perfect. Wikipedia is a good starting place. The example given at the beginning of this article, Critical Race Theory, was adequately addressed by looking at Wikipedia. The article ,was clearly scholarly and had many sources and footnotes. Those sources and footnotes are a good indicator of the reliability of an article.
When a scholar is beginning a research project, they will go further than Wikipedia, of course. They will begin by searching academic databases for their topic, reading those articles, and further researching the footnotes and references given by those articles. This way, researchers can be sure they are not either covering well-worn ground or furthering incorrect information. This type of research is best aided by a research librarian who is familiar with the literature in any given field of study.
Another use of the word research is scientists’ clinical trials and laboratory experiments. This kind of research is based on the foundations laid by prior research and the preliminary research done by searching databases. When the results of this kind of research are submitted for publication, the study undergoes peer review, where other researchers in the same or a similar area review it and recommend (or not) the research for publication.
When we research a topic, we want to see what Google or Wikipedia says for most of us. However, if we want verified, reliable information, we should go to such resources as Encyclopedia Britannica, Oxford Reference resources, and others, all of which are available through the library’s website. Your tax dollars have paid for access to these resources.
There are other valuable resources online for checking facts and quelling rumors. One of the best is Snopes.com, which began as a fact-checker of urban legends but has expanded into a trusted source of information. Another is Politifact.com, which as its name implies, verifies political information, including statements made by politicians or pundits. It is sponsored by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists.
Speaking of doubt. This brings us to two important caveats as we think about how to navigate the oceans of mis- and dis-information on the internet and in our conversations.
- Cynicism and nihilism are the byproducts of a chaotic and unreliable information environment. To throw one’s hands up and surrender, to find oneself saying “they all lie” or “they all cheat and steal” is as damaging to our info-ecosystem as spouting the tenets of the newest cult. To be critical is not the same as adopting a posture of manufactured cynicism. Criticism shines light, and it does not promote hopelessness, which is the real goal of many purveyors of disinformation. Cynicism and hopelessness do not work to make things better.
- Critical thinking does not exclude marginalized or minority voices. The insights from racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have been excluded, deliberately and otherwise, from much of public discourse.
Our tools of discernment and fact-checking must become habits of thought, like looking both ways before crossing a street. The good news is that the more people there are being careful with information, the easier the job becomes because we share reliable and credible sources.
Library Director Jessica Jones contributed to this article.
A note to readers: The authors posted references, footnotes, and some expanded content on the library website, including links to reliable sources of information along with some amusing illustrations and memes. Go to www.takomapark.info for more information.
This article was featured in the February 2022 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see full list of past newsletters.