Saturday, January 11, 2014

Information literacy and the search for truth

I have been concerned of late about information literacy.  On Facebook, I have been noting that:
  1. Stories go viral because they infuriate people, even though they are false.
  2. People latch on to things which fit with their beliefs.  
In December, the hot topic was Duck Dynasty.  My Facebook feed was filled with posts stating that
  1. Free speech means the government can't limit your speech.  However, others are free to speak out against your speech, and companies are free to fire you for things you've said during non-work time.
  2. Conservatives are hypocrites because they are outraged about this guy getting fired, but they have not been outraged when liberals got fired for similar reasons.
This really irked me, because liberals seemed blind to the fact that the double standard goes both ways: They don't proclaim that thing about how companies are free to fire you when it is liberals who are getting fired.

We latch on to stories that fit our beliefs.  Therefore, I have recently latched onto some stories which express some of these concerns.

My attention was captured recently listening to the January 3 edition of On the Media.  In one story,  The Best Piece of Radio You'll Hear in Your Life,  Bob Garfield and Luke O'Neil talk about how in the media, the financial incentive is to get people to click on stories.  The goal becomes not truth but to be funny, inspiring, cute, or infuriating.  False stories go viral, because they are designed to tap into people's emotions.  The truth is not so tidy, and does not make such an appealing story. These false stories can have real consquences.  In one example, an elementary school was flooded with threats because of a false story that a student had been suspended for saying "Merry Christmas" to an atheist teacher.

Another story from the January 3 edition of On the Media was  Regret the Error 2013.  In this story, Bob Garfield and Craig Silverman gave some examples of the false stories that journalists aired in 2013, such as that President Obama was using his personal finances to fund a Muslim museum.

I was also struck by what two NPR commentators had to say about Nathanael Johnson's recent research on GMOs.  Johnson set out to do objective research about GMOs for a liberal web site.  In A Green-Movement Web Site Shakes Up the Debate Over GMOs, Dan Charles says that Johnson was accused of being "an unreliable source" by an anti-GMO person.

It seems to me that we tend to think that those whose views are different from ours must lack intelligence, rationality, and compassion.  But when we find ourselves making such assumptions, that should be an alarm bell that our cognitive biases are at work.

The other NPR commentary about Johnson's work that caught my attention was GMO's and the Dilemma of Bias by Adam Frank. Frank asks, "How, then, do we maintain democratic practices when informed consent often requires absorbing new information at odds with pre-existing values and world views?"

 It is okay for fictional stories to inspire us, as long as we understand that they are indeed fiction.  Unfortunately, many of the stories circulating as fact are actually fiction.

Druids are the keepers of the stories of their tribe.  They are scholars and historians.  They provide information to guide the rulers of their tribe.

It is part of my responsibility as a druid to seek truth and to share that truth with my tribe.  I can resolve to start by refraining from clicking on sensationalist headlines, just as decades ago, my great-grandfather resolved not to buy any products he had seen advertised, because he was opposed to advertising as a way of making profit.

But that's just a starting point.  What else can I do?

Years ago, I studied social science research in school because I wanted social policy decisions and social programs to be designed so as to really help people, rather than to be designed on false assumptions about what would help people.   Since then I found that: 1) Though I applied for jobs in social science research, I didn't get any offers, and 2) I don't see research and statistics as holding the answers as much as I used to.    Now I believe that there are some things better understood qualitatively than quantitatively.  Now I believe that we also have values.  Research may tell us the consequences of certain paths, but values tell us which consequences we wish to seek.

So even though I'm not really pursuing social science research any more, I still have the thing that led me to pursue it: the belief that we should seek truth, rather than make decisions based on false assumptions.  I'm still searching for the way I can make a difference.  Do I belong in education? Should I be a librarian? Should I be teaching classes in information literacy?  Should I be doing data analysis?  

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