Tag Archives: information skills

Discovering truth starts with independent thinking

Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.  Albert Einstein

The fake news flap, having gone viral, is now a topic of social hand wringing. It’s trendy to fret about fake advertising while extremists charge that fake news is a phantom fashioned by the mainstream media to discredit the “competition.”

With all the lamentations and calls for censorship, little attention has focused on realistic solutions to what is in truth a pernicious threat to our politics, physical and mental health, individual and societal equilibrium.

Thinking about how to cope with the reality of fake news – which will only get more sophisticated — inevitably leads me back to the realization that the solution lies not with the source or even the target of misinformation and disinformation – the power, and thus the solution, rests with the “missing link” – the receiver of information.

In earlier posts my focus has been on the need to hone the basic skills of the post-truth age – how to locate and then evaluate information, how to relate sources of information to good decision-making, whatever the context. Clearly, “information literacy” is an essential first step.

The challenge is to go beyond find, assess and apply skills to deal with the fact that the receiver of information – whether student or voter, politician or parent. We are sentient human beings whose mode for processing information is insanely complex. Granted it’s more complicated than censoring or censuring the producer or connector; focus on the receiver, the “missing link” on the information chain, recognizes that information is inert until a human being gives it life, puts it to work, turns information into an opinion or incentive to act.

The first step is to consider the situation and condition of the information user – what does the user need? To date, the emphasis has been on information skills. My thought is that we need to know more about the condition of the receiver, in particular the role of self-confidence as a component of critical thinking. It takes self-confidence to welcome new ideas and match them against our own beliefs.

In an intriguing essay entitled “losing the courage of convictions” Timothy Ogden presents this puzzle:

There’s an old saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.  Unfortunately, it’s probably got things exactly backward. The more you stand for and defend the beliefs you strongly hold, the more likely you are to fall for anything – anything that confirms your existing beliefs.”

 A thought to ponder…..

The initial challenge is to fire up inquiring minds so that they have the confidence to assess, compare and weigh the facts. Only then comes the tools to locate, then assess and evaluate the relevance and truth of information – broadly defined to include everything from tweets to infographics to juried journals.

Though skepticism gets a bad rap, the skeptic, aka critical thinker, possesses and builds both the confidence and the skills to examine assumptions, weigh alternatives, confront one’s own or others’ biases.   Confidence sparks a sense of inquiry and independent thinking. Success will favor the seeker who is master of the tools.  The challenge of this chaotic era is to envision, then work to create and sustain, a society of confident seekers of truth.

 

 

 

“Information Literacy”- Universal challenge of the digital era

Information’s everywhere so now we have to think

 As we reel in the barrage of misinformation, punctuated with provocative spurts of ignorance, it seems ironic – if timely — to note that October 2016 is National Information Literacy Awareness Month.  On the positive side, we should be keenly aware by now that this democracy, based as it is on an informed citizenry, faces an unprecedented challenge.

In truth the term “information literacy” makes me cringe, though I can offer no alternative. More to the point, my serious concern is to focus on the concept – that we keep the goal in mind as we struggle to sort through the maze of messages with which we are bombarded. So I use the term “infolit” and think about how we cope – individually and as a society — with the maelstrom.

Since the dawn of the digital era teachers and librarians have led the push to prepare youth to meet the challenge of the information age. The United States National Forum on Information Literacy offers a serviceable definition of infolit — to wit: “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.” The story of infolit is well-chronicled in a pair of lengthy Wikipedia pieces that provides references, definition, and basic background.

Still, today’s information-saturated environment presents a challenge for every lifelong learner – i.e. everyone. We are all in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat in a turbulent sea of information overload, misinformation, and truncated innuendoes. It is incumbent upon each of us, regardless of age, economic, social or education status, to hone the skills of discernment, to stifle the spontaneous reaction, to share information responsibly and thoughtfully – in a word, to think.

Though the month of October offers far too little time to overcome our digital gaps, we can begin by focusing on the reality that we are at a critical moment in the history of this nation and the world. As never before we engage as producers, intermediaries, receivers, and processors of information; it is incumbent upon us to consider the dimensions of our responsibility, to realize that all information is not created equal and that funding source, authority, intent, verification, and a host of other factors shape the content of the messages that bombard us. As citizens of the information age we must also recognize and respect our role as sources and sharers of information and ideas.

The challenge of the Information Age is to internalize the fact that information matters – and to act accordingly. Exchanges of ignorance are inane at best, potentially dangerous. To honor the intrinsic value of good information is not instinctive; it must be taught, learned and applied – until it becomes habitual.

At one point I thought to create an ad hoc list of materials to help young people sharpen their infolit skills. During that initiative it came to me that these exercises would be appropriate for any one of us. Masters though we may be of digital manipulation we might well take time to think critically about what’s known in some circles as “critical thinking”.

So this launch into Info Lit Awareness Month begins with titles for adults who may hope to hone their own thinking skills before sharing them with 21st Century learners. There nothing conclusive about this, the point being to encourage readers to think about thinking.

One starting point might be a dip into the website of The Critical Thinking Community for their thoughts on the subject: http://www.criticalthinking.org//

Though this library-centric reference may compound the info overload it offers a comprehensive overview of information seekers and their interface with resources and it sets the stage for thinking about the broad scope of the challenge:

http://www.wip.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/2015/oclcresearch-library-in-life-of-user.pdf#page=190

Following is a pot pourri of approaches to logical thinking, coping with fallacies, intelligent embrace of the Net and the scourge of intentional misinformation – needless to say this is the proverbial tip of the infolit iceberg:

  • Almossawi, Ali and Alejandro Giraldo. An illustrated book of bad arguments.
  • Bennett, B. Logically Fallacious: The ultimate collection of over 300 logical fallacies.
  • Cryan, Cran and Sharron Shatil, authors, with Bill Mayblin, illustrator.Introducing Logic: A graphic guide.
  • Mintz, Ann P, editor. Web of Deceit: Misinformation and manipulation in the age of social media. Numerous contributors.

Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge;  It is thinking that makes what we read ours. John Locke

Consumers Shape the Chain – Whether it’s food or information

An op-ed piece in the February 2 Star Tribune caught my eye and kindled thoughts of an initiative with which I was much involved a couple of decades ago.  Clay Johnson, writing in the LA Times examines the unhealthy information diet that threatens the American public.  He compares junk news “largely provided by conglomerates focused on the bottom line” with junk food which most folks realize is neither nutritious nor slenderizing. (One wonders if the LA Times is numbered among those conglomerates.)

Johnson’s point, well stated, is the principle that librarians have stressed for decades, peaking  in the 1980’s with the launch of an energetic campaign to highlight “information literacy” as essential to the core curriculum from cradle through college.  For the outset branding of that worthy campaign was unfortunate – stuffy, pedantic, boring.  Though Clay Johnson’s food analogy is more catchy. the idea behind the information literacy brand is sound:  Just as the way to avoid obesity is to be a smart consumer of food, the way to avoid ignorance is to be a smart consumer of information.

Whether it’s food or information, the key player is the consumer.

Arguing that the media should “chase us” Johnson urges information consumers to “consume deliberately, consume locally, consume close to the original source, consume less and produce more.”  He also warns that given 21st technology, every click counts as it whets the appetite and informs the next move of the junk producer.

Today’s advocates for healthy diets stress the need for consumers to examine sources, processes, economic and political factors that influence the food chain.  Consumer education is imperative.

Similarly information literacy proponents stress the need to educate information consumers at an early age to grapple with the media and info deluge that technology has wrought.  They stress that information literate must be educated to analyze not just the information product but the information chain itself – the complex networks through which information is gathered, analyzed, organized, distributed, preserved, financed and more.

On the production side it takes human beings with time, skills and incentive to forge the information chain upon which the consumer depends and to which the end user contributes.  Whether it’s junk food or junk info, the responsibility rests solely with the consumer.

At the consumer end,  learners must experience, master, experience, practice and dissect the information chain in a learning environment that immerses each consumer in a rich information literacy curriculum.

 

Caveat discupulo — Caviat civitas popularis

More than a whimper

 

 

Somewhere buried in the news of the day we will probably miss the fact that Tuesday, December 21, 2010 should mark a major blast in the ongoing saga of  Census 2010. The headlines, I predict, will focus almost exclusively on which states win/lose Congressional seats.  The Census-based reapportionment is a momentous outcome, of course.  Still, it is but one immediate and visible application of the massive data collected in the 2010 Census.  Though reapportionment means a lot to the politicos and the media and ultimately to the people  it is simply not sufficient to let that be the end of the discussion of what Census 2010 can and should mean in the lives of ordinary people.

 

A year ago we were inundated with grand information campaigns encouraging  participation in the Census.  It was great, almost heady, stuff!  Advocacy groups, nonprofits, churches, neighborhood organizations, education groups were getting together on the common cause to promote understanding and participation.  All in all, it was one of the most united, effective, positive initiatives I’ve ever witnessed.  I get excited remembering the energy and commitment that prevailed.

 

Then comes the whimper….I worried then and I’m more worried now about how that Census information will ultimately improve the lives of the millions of good people who took time, overcame fears, and shared information about themselves with the U.S. government.  We know that developers, government agencies, advertisers, planners know where the data are and how to use them.  That’s as it should be.  My concern is this:  If information is power, what are we doing to empower the people to put to good purpose that data that is theirs – ours.  What resources – money, time, energy, focus – will we commit to ensure that the information works for the people?

 

The surge to push for participation was generously funded by the government, eagerly taken on by a host of responsible organizations.  To some extent, the message was simple and straightforward:  Census 2010 is not a threat, it’s important, participate.

 

Now it gets complicated:  The challenge now is to learn how to use those numbers to shape and improve services, to allocate resources, to interpret needs and to identify solutions.  The process is neither glamorous nor fast-paced – it’s just essential.  We owe it to the people who listened and shared their time and information.  The government, state or federal, can do just so much.  It remains to those same groups who worked so hard last year  – the media, nonprofits, churches, advocacy groups, educators – to stay on duty.  That means following the Census data as it oozes out of the federal government.  It means learning new skills, taking serious time to locate, organize, interpret, apply and share the information and the skills of access.

 

Tuesday, December 21, ought to signal a major kickoff of the next phase of Census 2010.  We can’t expect that thrust – the energy or the resources – to emanate from the federal bureaucracy.  The commitment simply must come from the field where those who care about outcomes for real people.  Information power as a priority is unprecedented.  Those who believe in the power of an informed public to make good decisions need to shift gears to incorporate access to government information, including Census data, as a priority.  Access tools are in place or within reach.  The data are gathered, eager to gush forth on demand. My hope is that the next phase of Census 2010 will go forth not with a whimper but with a mighty bang.