Should I Trust Everyone Concerned with Validity, Reliability and Accuracy?

When it comes to reliability, are librarians missing the mark?

Maybe not. It might be helpful to know what they think about the matter of truth.

For example, the ACRL “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame of the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy, it states:

Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.

Under “Knowledge Practices” the frame states:

Learners who are developing their information literate skills acknowledge they are developing their own authoritative voices in a particular area and recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability, respecting intellectual property, and participating in communities of practice.

Some might say that things like this are “sufficient references to ‘truth'”.

As one person stated on the ili listserve, “The frame does not need verbose, obtuse philosophical discussions of truth. If librarians do not understand validity,  accuracy, or reliability, our profession is in trouble.”

I do think the library profession is in trouble, but not for the usual reasons.

Here was/is my careful answer to librarians who hold this position:

I know that I said I only wanted to engage with persons on the basis of my paper’s arguments. That said, this seems like a strong objection to what I have written even getting off the ground, and so will carefully address it. I did talk about the words that you bring about in my papers, and your statements drove me back to re-examine specifically what I had written. The key point is that there is a wider context that needs to be dealt with, taking into account this frame (and, of course, the Framework) as a whole.

I understand your viewpoint that the notion of “truth” is somehow covered in the presence of these words: validity, accuracy, and reliability. In fact, in part II of my Reference Services Review paper “The New Framework: a Truth-less Construction Just Waiting to be Scrapped?”, I concede that persons might get the impression that authority and truth are linked together in the Framework (even as others will vigorously deny this).

I actually say that because the Framework talks about how information is valued and used in creating new knowledge (which, if we retain the traditional notions, is “justified true belief”), it can’t avoid the issue of truth, even as it is ultimately trying to remain indifferent to it (i.e., the Framework has a “truth-deficient approach to authority”).

And why is truth basically unimportant to the Framework? Because when it comes to authority, there is another element that is thought to be the core issue: power (or, perhaps, as I more specifically argue in a recent blog post, fitness, which I argue would entail “justified true belief” being dissolved in acid forever).

Are we all sophists now?

As I say in the RSR paper, what ultimately is at issue is “whether authority – which seems to be necessarily tied up with ideas of knowledge, experience, trust, truth, tasks and responsibility – is actually only a synonym for the successful use of power, or whether it is something more.” I say it must be something more and make that case, thereby also making the case that the frame “AiCC” should scrapped and revised.

After all, when the Framework talks about the “validity” of information this is to be determined, it seems, primarily on the basis of the worldview/orientations/systems which influence us (note: “An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins… remain[] skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it”; also, “recognize the value of diverse ideas and worldviews”).

It is because of this wider context of these words in the Framework then, that I wrote the following in my paper, “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual ?: a Classical Challenge to the Framework for Information Literacy” (and this is where I also dealt with the use of the words “accuracy” and “reliability” that you note, as a part of a rather exhaustive cross-examination of the AiCC frame):

Even those who will advocate for more objective forms of authority based on some kind of philosophical reason or principal recognize that “unlikely voices” can be authoritative, but the question here is why? Why do we recognize, or why should we recognize (?) this? Is it because we see that they, perhaps over and against “the man” – and perhaps encouraged by “special experiences” – believe that it is important to be true and to seek truth and even the truth? Or something else? And if matters of truth – and perhaps with this, justice – are indeed at issue, should the Framework strive for appropriate language that could somehow make this explicit? I note that in the “Knowledge Practices” section, it does say persons “developing their own authoritative voices” should “recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability.” The question however, is “why”? To “participate successfully in collaborative spaces”, to be sure. But the wider question is this: is it simply about avoiding potential consequences, e.g. one should do this so as not to discredit one’s self and those one associates with? Is the thing of real import here asking“relevant questions” with the intention of undermining power structures perceived or intuited to be unjust? Or are there deeper concerns that should be addressed here?

With the Framework’s insistence that all authority is [socially] constructed (Oxford Dictionaries says this of “construct”: “an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence” [“Construct,” 2016]), and its advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” – with no guidance as to what kind of traditional notions we might consider retaining – the import of the word “validity” that occurs in the more prominent parts of this frame is, to say the least, called into question here.

A word like truth, on the other hand, still retains the common connotation of being connected with what is the case, as well as what should be the case. See the New York Time’s advertising again (or, again – should I have a much more cynical view of this? I also explored this possibility in my latest blog post, sub-titled “Truth is Fitness Alone”). Truth is a word which, in effect, still means that we not only construct, but are accountable for what we construct. It brings to our mind the idea, it reminds us, that things might be wrongly constructed, a possibility the Framework doesn’t mention. Also then, that not every “useful fiction” is defensible, but might rightly be called propaganda, i.e. mis- or disinformation.

What does this mean N.Y. Times?

Again, I also am not interested in “verbose, obtuse philosophical discussions of truth” being present in the Framework. I think its mention, however, would be helpful, particularly in the context of the importance of seeking it. Without this interest, all is lost.

Again, all of this just briefly touches on the more extensive argumentation found in my papers, which I encourage persons to read and address.


What I Want From the Framework for Information Literacy

Click here to read the Framework

On the ili listserv, I am asked:

Would it be possible to sum up in a simple sentence or two, exactly what it is you would like the Framework to do in order to address the issue of Truth?  Do you simply want it to mention the phrase “to seek truth” somewhere or are you arguing that the frame Authority is Constructed and Contextual needs to be scrapped and rewritten entirely?  I apologize, but I’m getting rather lost in the philosophical discussion… it might help if I had a better understanding of why you’re arguing this or what you would like to propose as a change in order to satisfy your concern.

I didn’t want to answer in a simple sentence or two, so I said the following:

Thanks for asking. But no sound bites. : )

There are definite strengths to the Framework. That said, there is room for improvement. In the RSR paper, in the conclusion, I write:

…if one acknowledges the foregoing argument to be very strong – that is, unlikely to encounter an effective rebuttal – this is an indication that the statement “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is unhelpful and should be scrapped. After all, the critical question is whether power, in forms both subtle and overt, is ultimately determinative, or whether the issue of truth – and with it our ability to reason together regardless of religion, race, or creed – have a role to play. This is critical for the Framework – any standard promulgated by so prestigious an organization as the ACRL should itself be a product of the best critical thinking. It should not be noted for its concealed propositions, unarticulated assumptions, and disregarded alternatives.

So, at the very least, the phrase “AiCC” should be scrapped, along with some kind of acknowledgement or nod to the idea that issues of truth are inextricably connected with issues of authority (I add: cultural and political power are connected with, but not the same thing as, authority), and hence we should reject the idea that “quests to be true, tell the truth, and seek what is really true, for example, are questionable forays at best, and naïve and unwelcome at worst.” I contend that if you believe that, you ultimately can’t have scholarship, and hence libraries that support scholarship (as opposed to temples).


Sola Commoditas!: Truth is Fitness Alone

Are we all sophists now?

Note: I thought about making what follows more succinct, but I was concerned about losing necessary nuance. I’ve pared it down as much as I am comfortable with (admittedly putting a lot in the lengthy footnotes below). I hope you’ll give this almost article-length piece a chance.


If some folks do believe, vs. the New York Times, that there is an alternative to truth, just what is it they believe?*

I thought I knew. In one of my published papers taking on the popular idea among librarians that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” (see the abstract of the first paper here, which has now been downloaded over 350 times), I in essence argued that truth is not, contrary to impressions given, power alone.

I now am thinking that my argument was perhaps not specific enough. I am beginning to think that, for many, truth is ultimately fitness alone. Sola Commoditas. In other words, whoever evolutionary-wise is most fit, is most true.

How was such a conclusion — startling to many of us to say the least! — reached? And what is wrong with this idea?

I got there in part by reading a piece from Oregonian writer Douglas Perry: “Donald Trump rejects reality? That might make him a great president.”

“I alone can fix it!” – Donald Trump, author of Think BIG and Kick A** in Business and Life and 45th President of the U.S.A

Jumping off the example of a Donald Trump television surrogate who argued that facts, for example, are not really facts (of course, intriguingly, that person also said that this is unfortunately the case now), Perry provocatively says “Well, it turns out Trump and [his surrogate] Hughes just might be onto something important here (italics mine).”

Having dropped that bomb, he goes on… “Just ask Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California in Irvine.” Hoffman, Perry explains, argues that “Our senses are not designed to show us the truth, he argues. Their job is to help us survive, procreate and, yes, win.” They “maximize[] evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.”

Perry comments:

….Maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction. That does kind of sound like Trump — or any successful salesman. Trump rose to public prominence as a Manhattan real-estate developer. And Manhattan real-estate developers — always selling, working over bank executives and politicians and the press — exist by necessity in a fantasy space between what is and what might be. Here’s how a big-time real-estate developer in Tom Wolfe’s novel “A Man in Full” sees himself: “You had to sell the world on … yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in … you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I!”

Wolfe “maps” Trump?

More Perry:

“But it’s not just Trump’s expert salesmanship at work here, at least not according to scientists like Hoffman. It’s quantum physics, which tells us that objects don’t really exist — that an object is simply whatever it’s measured to be, meaning that whoever is doing the measuring gets the prize.”

(and now cue link to “Schrodinger’s cat” You Tube video)

In sum, Perry’s article boils down to the idea that life is ultimately about personal power for non-“traditionalists” – even if here we are mercifully just talking about their ability to satisfy and sway, not coerce or physically force. And even if what persons like Scott Adams claim about Trump is true — that he is not so much a liar as much as he is a strategic and natural “bull-shitter” — we are still fixated on what works. Here ideas, consequential as they are, are not so much related to truth so much as they are useful and expedient tools of the fit history-making and shaping will.

And here, are we not viewing the world from the peak of pragmatism, with everything ultimately being an engineering problem of sorts?** Whether it be through the “useful fictions” of the scientist or the propaganda (including mis- and disinformation) of the politician, we can make things work. We can save ourselves and the world, or, at least, make a difference.

Looking more closely at an interview with Hoffman, we learn that evolution has “programmed” us to survive in complex ways that are largely beyond our ability (or the average person’s ability) to understand. For example, it is not accurate perceptions which help us to survive but “fitness functions,” i.e. “mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction.” “Suppose,” he says,

“there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not… And yet the desktop is useful.”

In the end, Hoffman calls this view “conscious realism,” meaning that “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.”

“we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.” — Donald Hoffman

And again, he speaks of “maximiz[ing] evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction”. Therefore, are we not left wondering what “truth” has to do with anything? Are things not rather all about a particular kind of success in the world: surviving and thriving (gaining respect, influence, health, wealth, power, etc.)?

If this is the case, why urge anyone to seek truth? Might such a notion just get in the way? Whether one attempts to simply give one’s children a good future or to enact more utopian dreams why give too much attention to this idea of “being honest with” “facts”? Who can know, after all? Why should we worry about what is ultimately the right, true, and good thing to do? Yes, it is disturbing to some of us when utopians talk about the need to break a few eggs (millions of eggs?!) in order to make an omelette, but we have self-sacrificing heroes like Spock from Star Trek as well, right?: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Some take real comfort in that. And in the meantime, different variations of scientism, materialism… philosophical naturalism (including some approaches to quantum physics) — all get worked into our “life equation”. Even the Romantic and Idealistic (as in the actual formal philosophy of “Idealism”) philosopher Curtis White’s core argument in his book The Science Delusion, is that the attack on the arts is “also an attack on our earliest human instinct: our ability to invent our way to survival” (p. 91, italics his).

In the tank with scientism,  materialism, and Social Darwinism after all?

What is happening here? Why, quaint ideas like real beauty, goodness, and virtue are leaving — have left! —  the building. Perhaps we didn’t even notice as they went. As fellow cognitive scientist (and philosopher of science) Daniel Dennett says (who, now, has a new book out which seems to echo Hoffman’s claims), things like evolution (which he equates with philosophical naturalism) are a

“universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways” (see here).

And, it is here where I make the claim that Hoffman’s views sync perfectly with those of the ancient sophists. Like many of our modern materialists (who might say they personally believe in goodness and evil but that they do not exist in any real sense), the Sophists of the ancient world said that our base assumption should be that certain truth and goodness is unattainable. With change being the only constant and knowledge an illusion, absolutely everything must be about building consensus through persuasion. The ethical sophist – assuming positing such a person is reasonable! – would persuade on the basis of arguing for things that are not true, but possible and perhaps probable… (cue librarian Lane Wilkinson’s understandable efforts to salvage “information literacy” in a post-truth world — I note that even I make the argument to classes that library databases, for example, have a “greater concentration of deeper and factually sound sources” than the web — at least when it comes to traditional academic disciplines).

Daniel Dennett’s new book, syncing with Hoffman.

So the possible, or perhaps even probable, is all that we are left with. This is something that perhaps many think they can live with. That said, remember that with Hoffman’s view temporal survival seems to be what life is all about, and  “Fitness alone!” is the cry, where, truth, including but not limited to “accurate perceptions,” is driven to extinction. But if this is if this is the case, as long as one can avoid the impression one is totally disconnected from what many have traditionally considered “matters of concrete fact,” disqualifying one’s self in others’ eyes, is not the sky the limit? “Useful fictions” and propaganda become one.

Why should any theory or narrative we use to help us cope with and explain life not be thought of as us advertising our fitness — which might well include our ability to deceive (tell “noble lies!” we say) — through clever and plausible sounding words? (helping advertise that we are one of the fit!) Why, for example, should a philosophical naturalist believe that the theory of evolution is true at all? It might be useful for “life” to perpetuate itself, but true?***

WWWJD: What would William James do? What about Peirce?

And yet, of course, what Hoffman is doing in his interview – what he cannot avoid doing even if he might protest he is doing it – is putting forth not a possibility or a probability but a truth claim. Truth, in one sense, is “driven to extinction,” where, in another, it rises from the ashes reborn. “Believe me,” he is saying… “I am speaking with some real authority on these matters.” Again, the ancient sophists played the same game… the truth is that we cannot not really know truth… what is important is that you listen to me, noticing how clever I am…

So just what is his truth claim?

In short, it is this: He is the Truth. And take heart! For maybe You to, if he wants to associate with you (perhaps because you believe his materialistic theory and narrative!), are also the Truth! This is what he seems to really believe is the truth, even if, at this point, he perhaps knows more than he can tell (see Michael Polanyi). This, after all, “works” for him (and here, whether the desire to be the truth comes before or after materialistic accounts of evolutionary theory becomes the chicken and egg problem).

Again, if Hoffman means what he says, everything we as human beings experience, do and say will impact our evolutionary fitness level, increasing it or decreasing it. Regarding any particular issue, “truth” need not relate to what really is the case. And that, I conclude, ends up being “truth”: Subjective Truth with the ability to master this physical realm — including the power to influence one’s fellows — is all there is

This is the “fitness function” at work! As Hoffman says, “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.” Again, to sum it up, Fitness Alone. Sola Commoditas is his creed. Again, whoever evolutionary-wise is most fit, is most true.

Maybe that, after all, is what the New York Times means when it talks about the truth? “We, subjectively, are the Truth.” Maybe I should ask them for clarification?

Merely a survival strategy? Or should it be something more?

In any case, when it comes to this kind of kind of sophistry exhibited by Hoffman and Dennett — infused with a modern scientific and technological mindset as well (what I call the MSTM, where all “truth” and “limits” must succumb to human ability*) — I’m calling B.S.

There is real truth and common ground, as I argued forcefully in my last post.

Where do we go from here?

Well, if all of the Hoffman and Dennett Truthers oppose persons like me socially and politically and we fight back (evidently with our own fitness functions that still falsely believe there is real truth and real goodness!), just what hope for common ground do we now have?

I suggest that insofar as the kind of thinking that Hoffman and Dennett exhibit is rejected or at least questioned, there remains a sliver of hope.

Is guilt for any “wrongdoing” more of a pragmatic problem, psychologically and socially, than anything else? If so, where does that leave us? (pictured: Freud)

Even then, some may be tempted to reject Hoffman and Dennett only insofar as they deny that we can have empirical accuracy (they also do not deny the reality of mathematics of course, which not only survives the materialist acid, but is presumably behind it all). In other words, in spite of being almost entirely naturalistic in the variety of methodologies that they practice, they simply deny the logical endgame of philosophical naturalism, asserting, for this or that reason, that it does us no good (e.g. it is not useful for our sanity! : ) ) to posit that our senses may deceive us, even if we might be able to readily imagine them doing so in this or that circumstance. Skepticism about some things, even if arguments are echoed by other highly accomplished secular persons, is a bridge too far.

To counter such an attitude, here is my question: “Are the stakes too high?” I am talking about the importance of truth in principle, but consider also the truth about how this relates to the least powerful likely to be preyed upon. Note the words of librarian Joshua Beatty:

“For elites, the evolutionary model has served to retroactively justify the hierarchy of society — the wealthiest and the most successful must have been the most fit, while those in ranks below were progressively less fit.”****

Harrowing diagnosis

I’d hope that people at the extremes who ideologically insist that economic poverty causes bad character, full-stop — or vice-versa — might both pause at that.

And I’ll close with a rhetorical question for the highly stubborn from near the end of my recent paper titled: “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual: a Classical Challenge” (mentioned second here):

“When the influential Richard Rorty defined truth as “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, how does this not, in effect, make truth liable to being nothing more than a power play for one’s advantage? From which it follows that it is really true (!) that it is ultimately only things that overpower other things that can be said to exist – to be. This certainly puts a new spin on what Aristotle said about truth, namely that “to say that which is, is and that which is not is not, is true”! With this assumed, the best among us can only be those who take – and lead – leaps of faith into oceans, hoping that the evolving beliefs we think are “good” – and not just our genes – will be spread and passed on. Here, any classical notions of knowledge as “justified true belief” are banished, as whatever can function to win, if only temporarily, is all that remains for us to hope in. On the other hand, what if what we ultimately need is just such knowledge… and real wisdom… perhaps even involving a truth that even goes beyond “accuracy” – implying perhaps even a goodness that goes beyond our own subjective impressions?”

A childish view? Perhaps, but then again… (click on that if you want a well-thought-out religious answer)

“Computer scientists talk about the difference between exploring and exploiting — a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. Babies explore; adults exploit.”Alison Gopnik


Images: Trump, William James, Freud, Gopnik: Wikipedia. Donald Hoffman:


-Some parts of the post have been updated to increase clarity since its initial publishing. Also, substantial parts of this post contain re-worked content from my previous writing.

*Many of these certainly believe in science. Or, at least one particular kind of purportedly scientific approach which is the enemy of truth — where all the boundaries limiting man’s power over nature increasingly are expected to succumb. We can call this faith, as I did in a conference presentation, the Modern Scientific and Technological Mindset, or MSTM, for short (this would go hand-in-hand with scientism, while not being the exact same thing).

Many years ago, I was reading Isaac Asimov’s fictional Foundation series and was introduced to the character of Hari Seldon. This man develops a science called “psychohistory” that enables him to predict the future via probability using mathematical formulas.  As an impressionable sixteen year old, this was a very new idea for me at the time and had a real impact on me – I vividly remember the time and place I read this and my subsequent wrestling with the concept: was science really progressing such that it would have abilities like these? Or if it was not, could it? Recently, I came upon what is by now a familiar theme – the universe as a machine, albeit a beautiful one – in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. As opposed to Hari Seldon’s formula(s), which took into account contingencies (and hence probabilities), what we find in Hugo Cabret certainly seems to be a more deterministic way of looking at things. Whether or not this is the case, here I submit that the practical idea is the same: by treating the cosmos as a machine and by carefully observing it, mathematical formulas can assist in “capturing” the world and be used to make predictions about it.

**Of course, none of us can simply be pure “social engineers,” for matters of myth, morals and meaning have at least some pull on all of us — more or less so (this is not to say that a person cannot attempt making this into an engineering problem as well – where confident about how things work and could work, we look to find a balance between humankind’s selfish and more altruistic impulses). Years ago, “postmodernists” looked to dispense with value “systems” because they were thought to perpetuate oppression, and “preferences” were highlighted. These days however, there is a growing awareness (see Jonathan Haidt’s work) of the fact that most every human being always find some forms of life — ways of being and doing — “beyond the pale”

Think here, for example, of the Nuremberg trials. Or, consider this quote also from the 18th c. Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid:

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, 1997, p. 117)

For some, ethics fundamentally evolves as humans evolve (and now, this primarily happens culturally), and some are able to “get it” while others do not. For others, things like beauty, justice, and goodness not only are intrinsic in our cosmos in general and human nature in particular (and these also exhibit some real stability), but also, to some degree, the way the cosmos is informs our moral decision making.

Again however, not only the practical, but the pragmatic, is lurking in the background. William James, the father of pragmatism, is the father of us all, where “truth is the cash value of an idea”. “Moral decision making,” in many cases, is understood in just this frame, where a kind of scientific and technological mindset* also prevails.

***Broken down piece by piece, the argument would look like this:

  • In brief, Hoffman makes the assumption that temporal survival is what life is all about, saying that it is our “fitness functions,” and not accurate perceptions, which help us to survive, pass on our genes, etc.
  • For example: “According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
  • Along the same lines however, why would it not also not be the case that being able to create grand, plausible sounding theories – whether they are true or not – also can be reduced to being about survival value (in that they attract fit partners who intuit or know brains are valuable for providing, protecting, and producing good offspring)?
  • And if this is the case, as long as one can avoid the impression one is totally disconnected from what we typically call “matters of concrete fact,” disqualifying one’s self in others’ eyes, the sky is the limit!
  • As Hoffman says, our perceptions are “tuned to fitness, but not to truth”. Why, then, would our capacity to construct narratives, our story-telling imaginations, not be as well? Why would this also not figure into the all controlling “fitness function”?
  • So, if this is the case, why, for example, should a philosophical naturalist believe that the theory of evolution is true at all? It might be useful for “life” to perpetuate itself, but true?
  • Why can’t it just be a way of us advertising our fitness — and ability to deceivethrough clever and plausible sounding words?

****Another interesting chunk from Beatty, writing at In the Library with the Lead Pipe:

“It is innovation that takes the place of evolutionary changes in Moore’s business ecosystems. Moore argues that we have to accept the collapse of business ecosystems as a fact of life Instead of propping up old ecosystems, we should help those individuals affected make their way into newer, healthier ecosystems. The key to making this transition work is laissez-faire capitalism: “it’s only essential that competition among them is fierce and fair — and that the fittest survive.”

This last phrase is a tell. “Survival of the fittest” is a famous phrase coined by Herbert Spencer, and not Charles Darwin himself. Spencer, a philosopher, took up Darwinian ideas to argue for the application of evolutionary ideas to society and politics. “Social Darwinism,” as it later came to be called, was the intellectual justification for decades of foreign colonization and internal racial oppression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nor was Darwin averse to the use of evolutionary ideas in this manner. Gregory Claeys has argued that both Darwin and Spencer were influenced by the Victorian intellectual culture of their time, which viewed society through a lens crafted by the Enlightenment thinker Thomas Malthus.

According to Claeys,

Malthus viewed society in terms of an organic metaphor in which similar laws governed both animal and human worlds. He strongly distinguished between people who benefitted society (as defined in terms of productivity) and those who did not, and he defined rights as derived solely from productivity, competition-as-natural-selection dictated the survival of the “fittest,” and the starvation of the less successful, unless other factors intervened. We do not, of course, have a theory of inherited characteristics in which this “fitness” is transmitted, but we do very nearly have the symbolic imagery, so suitable to an age that prized usefulness above all else, in which such a concept functioned not as science, but as social theory.11

Our age, too, prizes “usefulness” above all else. Evolutionary metaphors are everywhere in our culture. They’re so pervasive that in an article about the dark underpinnings of evolutionary metaphors Claeys (to all appearances unwittingly) used one himself, referring to “intellectual historians concerned with how ideas themselves evolve.” For Moore to use a fairly complex evolutionary metaphor to describe the world of business was no more than tycoons and corporate thinkers had been doing since the Gilded Age. But the ecological metaphor would itself become pervasive, creeping into the library world via the high-tech business press.”

(end quote from Beatty, italics and bold mine)

Regarding “usefulness,” a quote from a previous blog post:

“In the second paper (RSR), I, at one point, state: “1) Are we, as human persons, concerned primarily with questions about what is true and right – or, alternatively, questions about what is useful and “works”? And, 2) what are the reasons for our answer?”… and go on to deal with this issue. That said, I understand that the practical (it’s William James’ world and we are all his children!) is undoubtedly on many people’s minds here, so let me also briefly address that. With the help of Thomas Mann, I put some real flesh on Wilkinson’s point in the RSR paper. You can read that excerpt near the end of my blog post Rebutting the Often Unstated Premise “Libraries Must Change or Die.”

Is the N.Y. Times Wrong? Is There an Alternative to Truth?

My new post to the ili listserv, defending my papers, and now, the importance of the concept of truth itself (some details edited and changed to protect the innocent):


This continues the discussion started on the thread titled “My ‘Authority is Constructed and Contextual’ critiques”. I decided to re-frame it with the help of the N.Y. Times, which presuming we take their advertising seriously, either thinks that it speaks the truth, or it is the Truth.

My argument is that the N.Y. Times believes there is truth and that they should speak it and do speak it. Such should be the goal of all of us. Our students know there are alternative perspectives. Do they know they should, as the Times implies, seek truth?

Thus saieth the N.Y. Times.

Thus saieth the N.Y. Times.

Han’s, Frodo’s, Hoss’s, Jessica’s, and Karen’s latest thoughts (found on the previous thread) are no doubt interesting, and are certainly worth engaging (and I’ve done so a bit off list). That said, at this point I sense that it would be wise for me personally – for my own as well as others’ sanity — to engage persons regarding the actual content and argument of my papers in particular. Therefore, I will do a response meant to respond to all, and which is relatively brief and to the point.

I do not think it is responsible to assert that the truth is that (irony alert…) all truth claims are “fallible and corrigible,” even if many are…

Does any given individual–even a very intelligent one–need to be convinced that truth exists in order for it actually to exist? (Most of the world’s knowledge exists without us knowing that it does.) Don’t we all know the answer to that?

Just like a good spouse, doctor, scientist, historian, judge, or journalist I do not see any point in discussing whether there is truth. To suggest otherwise would be to undermine everything those venerable vocations stand for. Nobody is saying these vocations give us Truth with a big T, but concern for the truth is, or should be, a very important and indispensable aspect of what they are and do. This relates to what Lane Wilkinson says about our patrons: “’they] come to libraries seeking information that will help them create knowledge. They do not want misinformation or disinformation; they do not want to be deceived.” Obviously, bad information does not help us and may even harm us.

In the second paper (RSR), I, at one point, state: “1) Are we, as human persons, concerned primarily with questions about what is true and right – or, alternatively, questions about what is useful and “works”? And, 2) what are the reasons for our answer?”… and go on to deal with this issue. That said, I understand that the practical (it’s William James’ world and we are all his children![i]) is undoubtedly on many people’s minds here, so let me also briefly address that. With the help of Thomas Mann, I put some real flesh on Wilkinson’s point in the RSR paper. You can read that excerpt near the end of my blog post Rebutting the Often Unstated Premise “Libraries Must Change or Die.”

This is a critical aspect of what librarians are able to do: this is about more than our job security. Even if we weren’t librarians, I would hope that all of us would see the real intellectual value that libraries present to us, our children, our neighbors, etc.

And of course there is more – what is true obviously cannot be completely distinct from practical matters (this can be distinct from pragmatic or utilitarian matters). As Bill Badke has brilliantly pointed out, we simply can’t live thinking that the truth does not matter, even if it might seem many of us can manage this Western “luxury”. Richard Rorty might think truth is “what our peers will let us get away with saying,” but most of us don’t think that sounds right for reasons that seem rather obvious to us. Instead, we are not just confident about, but *know*, in a “justified, true, belief” sense (not just a “trust” sense), that if we grow disposed to ignore truth and the very real limits, physical and ethical, that concept entails — our neighbor will not let us do so entirely – either in friendly (“I’m sorry to say you have a cavity…”) or unfriendly (use your imagination) ways.

Therefore, it is not right to think this fact is simply about power. That is incorrect…. wrong… untrue.

Like the N.Y. Times, my papers assume there is truth, as it is has been traditionally defined, and that we should seek it. This is of course related to ethics, which has to do with being true. Again, to debate if there is truth is not the purpose of my papers, but rather, to make the case that because AiCC does not address truth in any meaningful way, even mentioning that seeking it is desirable, it is fatally flawed and set for the scrap heap. Perhaps those who think introducing the concept of truth are right: it would undermine the purpose of the AiCC frame.

That’s what I think should happen. I suppose if persons do not think there is truth, or that truth is too contested a concept to even start talking about, they might not have any reason to interact with my papers, seeking to find common ground.

Here is an extended quote from my first paper, to mull over:

“How do the concepts of expertise and credibility, which presumably, based on the above statement, go hand-in-hand with authority, fit with the constructed and contextual character authority is said to have? And what might concepts that one would think are connected with authority – like knowledge, experience, responsibility, trust, and truth – have to do with this statement? When we use the phrase “speaking with authority” in a positive context, “strength [of conviction] we can trust in” comes to mind – does truth as well? In addition, many believe that the Framework is based on the educational philosophy known as constructivism, which goes hand in hand with “social constructivism” (e.g. Foasberg, 2015; Badke, 2015). This, in turn, has many connections with the philosophical school known as pragmatism (Hickman, 2009; Kveinen & Ristela, 2003), which is itself a form of relativism. Of course, the frame “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” gives the unmistakable impression of acknowledging this debt to constructivism in its very title. What does this mean for our inquiry?

“… does the Framework, upon closer inspection, give the impression that it is indifferent to the matter of truth – or even that truth is really only about the usefulness and expediency of ideas (i.e. it only concerns viable actions)? And if this is the case, can the idea of truth therefore be reduced to what our peers will let us get away with saying” as the late Richard Rorty, pragmatism’s most prominent contemporary proponent, said (2009, p. 176)? This paper looks to ask, albeit via indirect means, to what degree this may be true about the Framework, however ironic this statement may seem. And if this is the case, do librarians want to leave that impression – or perhaps “get away with” leaving that impression? Or, would we prefer to communicate that truth, at the very least, has something to do with “being in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false” (“Truth”, 2016), to say nothing about its connection with ethical issues? If the answer to this question is “yes” – and if questions like those posed in the previous paragraph are unable to be addressed in a satisfactory way, might it be necessary to re-examine and perhaps “re-frame” this part of the Framework?”

There is, of course, a lot more detailed and careful argumentation in the full papers. If you are interested in this discussion, and you haven’t read my papers yet, I encourage you to do so. I am enjoying the interactions here, but particularly look forward to careful, well-argued, paper-length engagements with what I’ve written there.

Out for today! Carry on and have a good weekend!


[i] From my AiCC survey paper: “….the question of how we might have wisdom to understand what is truly good is always at issue. After all, our goals are often remarkably narrow and short-sighted. We are apt to choose the path of least resistance – at least when it comes to this or that area of our lives. It is very easy to rationalize things as being good for us – or importantly, others – that, in the long run, turn out to be anything but. Many, filled with a sense of righteousness vs. the evils of the world, plunge boldly ahead, blind to their own ambitions, selfishness, and limitations. In short, many of us, in our bones, sense that it is good to think that what is really good is greater than what appears to “work” right now.

And of course, in the classical understanding of “the good,” it goes hand in hand with truth….”


“Scholarship is a Conversation”… with Librarian Bill Badke (on “The Challenge With Using the Word ‘Truth’…”)

Oxford U. Press published librarian Thomas Mann, who proof-read and is quoted in my two papers on the frame "Authority is Constructed and Contextual"

Oxford U. Press published librarian Thomas Mann proof-read and is quoted in my two papers on the ACRL FW frame “Authority is Constructed and Contextual.”

If you have been reading this blog, you know that I wrote a paper vigorously challenging one of the frames of the ACRL information literacy Framework: “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. Again, as I mentioned in the last post, I make the argument that “the Framework… fails to clearly establish the critical connection between truth and authority… this decision is fatal for the Framework.”

I have fewer gripes about the frame “Scholarship is a conversation,” and I am glad that Bill Badke, who I consider to be one of the Framework’s most formidable defenders, continues the conversation.

Bill Badke and some of his good work.

Bill Badke and some of his good work.

Again standing up for the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, Bill says:

“The challenge with using the word “truth” in the Framework is the same one Pontius Pilate faced in the trial of Jesus, “What is truth?”  I think I know what the truth is (and it is solidly based on evidence), but truth has become as small “p” political as, say, the term “justice.”*  I seek for truth all the time (yes, the OED definition), but putting the word in the policy politicizes it and misses the point that the whole Framework is in quest of reason-based advancement of knowledge and understanding, which we hope will come out in the same place as the OED definition.

I’m more torn on this than it might appear.  Being someone who is sold on a quest for truth, I at the same time find that the word all too easily can be used as an ideology (or several different ideologies) when it is put into any official statement, even the Framework.  To say, “I have found the truth,” means nothing unless I know how you arrived at it.  The process task of getting to a conclusion has to be the main focus of the Framework.”

I responded:

“I again sympathize with you. I know where you are coming from! And yet I again push back. Does not the word “political” goes along with “social”? Are we not, as human beings – a “human community of practice” – inevitably social and political creatures? That said, I often get the impression that for many, politics is best understood as being that which can be reduced to matters of power and oppression (clearly a part of our humanity!)

Therefore, when you say that merely “putting the word in the policy politicizes it,” I think this unintentionally and indirectly reinforces the idea that politics is strictly about power and oppression (overcoming others in this or that fashion to ultimately get one’s own way) and that power, in the end, is what is true for us. Is all that is true for us. Therefore, authority, likewise, can’t not be all about power. This is the truth. 

Not true, I say!

Everyone: Note that I am not seeking to pummel anyone into submission here – everyone feel free to push back! – but to persuade.

Again, my point is that AiCC should be scrapped for the reasons I mention in my papers and that it would be a good idea to not build a frame focused on truth, but to simply give a nod to the seeking of it, in the context of scholarship and otherwise.

…and we know they are always truthful. : )”
Just a marketing strategy? Or are there bigger issues?

Just a marketing strategy? Or are there bigger issues?

Bill’s counter:

“My use of the term “political” was not in reference to the wielding of power (though that can happen) but the pursuit of agendas.  “Truth” for all its value can become a shortcut for the hard work of dredging through the evidence, having the conversations and constructing the authority by use of good methods.  Truth as shortcut has all the abuses of vested interests pursuing agendas whether that being an exercise of power or not.  Doing the hard work may well arrive at the truth, but the path to it is legitimate.

Ultimately, the Framework, far from being a vehicle for old white guys to exercise their traditional power, is a way of levelling the playing field by asserting reasonable methods for us to solve informational problems with a minimum of bias and presupposition.”

First, before answering Bill (again, all of this has taken place on the ili listserv), I responded to another person, who I will call Anne:

Anne made the claim that the entire conversation on the listserv, where the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame was being debated (instead of just being simply taken as it was) was proof that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”.  I responded by saying the following:

Boiled down, [Anne]’s argument (and I hope that she will correct me if I am wrong) is that because “there are so many constructed authority structures in my life, it must just be that *all* authority is constructed, especially truth.” But, to use a silly illustration, just because a football team has a coach, and runs unique plays, and all other football teams have different coaches, and run different plays, that does not prove the truth does not exist. “Abusus non tollit usum,” the Romans said, which can be translated ‘misuse does not remove use’. This means that the misuse of something – like the word “truth,” for example – does not eliminate the possibility of its correct use. We could just as easily say that since human beings are constantly constructing authority structures there is a concept of authority which is intrinsic in us – and that this can point us to the existence of an ultimate authority, which might just ultimately be truth.

Practically speaking, in order to be open to “new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought,” one need not adopt [Anne]’s viewpoint. In fact, I make the case that adopting a viewpoint like hers ultimately undermines intellectually one’s intentions to hear other voices and perspectives. I think that what I’ve written below in response to Bill also helps, in part, to make this case.

[Then, my email message addressed Bill, while not leaving Anne’s concerns behind]:

…first, I again appreciate much of what [Bill] shares – I am confident of real wisdom there. That said, I am quite certain that we should be very skeptical (yes, that apparent disjunction is intentional) about whether we can continue to maintain good methods without knowing that we can know truth (I am not necessarily talking about big T Truth here!) – or, perhaps, at the very least, believing we can know truth. I very much doubt that we can (and really, I question whether believing we can know is enough either).

To paraphrase an old book, if we are not faithful with the little things that have been given to us (note that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” as a phrase, from the get-go, in addition to giving the impression of describing a universally active process [in other words an all-inclusive claim not dependent on any particular context], also seems to be constructed specifically in order to highlight the diversity and variations of human experience instead of experiences common to – given to – all human beings), the bigger things (like much of the specific knowledge that we have now obtained about the world and ourselves) will evade us as well.

I think that proponents of agendas which give the impression of discouraging or even not encouraging (no neutrality!) this truth-knowing or believing orientation should second-guess their approach and re-orient themselves. Even if one thinks that current methods are good but need to be strengthened – or even supplemented with other good methods, seeking truth is how this is accomplished and not otherwise. For example, on the face of it, this video strikes me – and I’m sure I’m not the only relatively conservative white guy who get this impression! – as being highly intelligent, well-argued, compelling, etc. I definitely want to see Michelle Alexander in conversation (both discussion and debate!) with others!

In short, without the certainty that we already have (in this ongoing conversation we are having with one another – are we, at the very least, *beginning* to better understand each other – in part because we share at least some common experiences, words, concepts, things?) and can have more common ground – “little t” truth – power, in effect, becomes the overwhelming consideration. Power as truth. Words as mere “power tools”. “Fake conversations”! We don’t want that, right? (it pains me to think that some reading this might think this is what I am doing).

Then, I think, something a friend of mine said about a recent Atlantic article about technology – “we are getting what we have dreamt of, asked for & love. The desire to have a slave makes a slave of us” – becomes true for us as regards our neighbor as well…*

I get the impression that Bill thinks (or hopes!) we can maintain the good methods we have by simply continuing to use them and realizing their ongoing practicality. I am far less confident of that. Without a grounding in truth – and issues of ethics and character, of course, go hand in hand with this – I think that confidence in our methods will wane, as it has already begun to do so. Or our methods will be used to ends that are not good – as has certainly happened in the past (and, I would guess, in time, if the impact of religion continues to dissipate in the West, they will become more associated with “magic” performed by gods as opposed to “science” performed by men – at least in many quarters).

I don’t foresee myself getting tired of hawking Epictetus here, who seems to encapsulate well the thrust of what I am trying to communicate…:

“If you seek Truth, you will not seek to gain a victory by every possible means; and when you have found Truth, you need not fear being defeated.”

In sum, vote “no” to AiCC, and “yes” to the importance of “seeking the truth”.

Thanks again for listening! I really am ready – at least as much as I think I can be – to listen to. If people do continue the conversation here, I myself am going to take a few days off.

Best regards


Again, I hope people will check out my papers, the second of which has now been downloaded from the main Emerald site almost 300 times. These papers contain much more extensive argumentation.



*Bill interestingly brings up justice here. In response to another person on the listserv who said that bring “truth” into the Framework would just be another definition/concept that all would be forced to sign on to, I said the following:

I would argue that there are things in the cosmos that can be nailed down pretty good and that there are also things which we know are real, but are more “fuzzy”. For example, things like justice, goodness and love, while being known to be real (yes – perhaps many of you now say I am assuming far too much!), often seem hopelessly fuzzy and/or multi-faceted. Nevertheless, we still endeavor to speak about these things in our shared life together – and often – because they are very important.

Re: justice, for example, it is not necessarily the case that no sense of clarity at all can be obtained:

“Moral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good.  Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice.  Property rights likewise depend on it.” (arguments and insights from Thomas Reid, per Holmes, Arthur, Fact, Value, and God, p. 117)

And so I argue that the same goes for “truth”. In not seriously considering the importance of even mentioning this very human issue in our discipline, are we thereby, in effect, making the case that the meaning of the word “construct” is more clear? More helpful? Less liable to abuse by the powerful?

**You can get a taste of my analysis of wider technological trends and thoughts about how librarians should respond by checking out my slide presentation, Big Data, Big Libraries, Big Problems? When it comes to technology in general, I find myself very much concerned about the kinds of things Yuval Noah Harari speaks about here, discussing his new book Homo Deus.


Nathan Rinne | Librarian | Concordia University, St. Paul | 651-641-8273 (ph) |
| My librarian blog: | My librarian Twitter:

My Response to Librarian Bill Badke’s Defense of “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”

In my book, Bill Badke is a superstar librarian. He is the author of the very helpful book Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog (now in its 5th edition!)

Bill's book - which you might want to check out!

Bill’s book – which you might want to check out!

In one of my papers criticizing the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in the new ACRL information literacy Framework (see last post), I make the argument that “the Framework… fails to clearly establish the critical connection between truth and authority… this decision is fatal for the Framework.”

Glad to see the paper's a hit.

Glad to see the paper’s a hit.

Badke, however, very intelligently pushes back:

I think the issue of “truth” creates a distinction between theoretical constructs and the way we live as human beings.  We can argue that no data/information exists without a measure of subjectivity, so there is no such thing as objective truth.  That’s theory.  Practice is that, when I approach a red light, I had better believe that it really is red and that there are rules about what I must do.

My point is that we live in the midst of social conventions, regulations and simply good things to believe and do.  These things constitute the lubrication that makes society function.  Authority may be constructed and contextual, but our constructions and context still help us find consensus that is not open to a lot of negotiation.  We may differ on points, but most of our lives are governed by a sense of truth. When those essentials are disrupted (as they seem to have been a lot recently) we become uneasy, wondering what is happening, trying to figure out where the bedrock is.

That is why I don’t see “Authority is constructed and contextual” as nearly the challenge that some see.  For most of what we know, we come to some measure of consensus.  Where we disagree, we still have means, through conventional practices of argument and evidence presentation, to make our cases.

What I am much more worried about is the loss or desecration of those conventional practices.  Fake news and alternative facts take us into the realm of pure subjectivity, where there is no solid means to construct authority.  That is why, when we construct authority within contexts, we had better preserve the methods that best enable us to do so.

My initial response to this was to say, in part, the following:

Insofar as I understand you to be saying that truth has a role in constructing us, I respect your viewpoint very much and find it to be rather compatible with what I’ve written. It contains some real clarity and critical thinking.

Therefore, if the phrase “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” (AiCC) was mentioned as it is here in your “frame,” I think my concerns would not be nearly as great.

However, “AiCC” is in the Framework’s provided frame, and that makes all the difference…

My first paper listed above includes the line: “Given the prestige of the ACRL, it is imperative that the Framework be a product of the best critical thinking. It should not be noted for its concealed propositions, unarticulated assumptions, and disregarded alternatives” (64).

My second paper goes into much more detail which explains why I think Bill underestimates the problem…

Later on, Bill, in a response to another poster on the ili listserv, defended the Framework’s “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” language with the following comment:

…I personally believe in truth.  But definitions of it, as you say, are pretty much impossible to agree on.  So we have alternatives: a radical Postmodernism that sees everything as subjective and consensus, let alone truth, as impossible; a world in which speculation and paranoia drive “knowledge” and verification is a bad word; and the means we have long used to determine authority.  To say “Authority is constructed” does not in any way imply that there is no method to the construction.  In fact, the very essence of scholarship is the set of careful methodologies we have developed to help us determine what we should believe.  We can find agreement on many things.  Our information environment is not one of ever questioning and never finding resolution.  Scholarship is a quest with a goal.  Method drives that goal or we really are doomed.

I could hope that everyone would define truth in the same way (so that it could actually be truth), but I don’t see that happening.  What I hope for, instead, is that we will use our conversations, our methodologies, our authority construction work to find a path to agreement about many things, while continuing to do battle over others.  The enemy at the gates today is conjecture and speculation masquerading as authority.

Here is my full response to what Bill has to say here:

I respect Bill Badke more than I can express. I do not disregard his “I personally believe in truth” approach as nothing. I think there is a need for persons to address the matter in both intelligent and very gracious ways – as he has done in spades.

At the same time, I will level with all of you: when it comes to this important issue, I personally am not interested in compromise (surprise, surprise!).

I assert: Truth need not be a focus in information literacy documents, but it should, at the very least, get an intelligent mention (and “AiCC” as a phrase, mentioned as it is without any qualifications – regarding its limitations and otherwise – should die the death is so richly deserves).

I think these are the days when those who name truth and who speak of its importance – who urge its seeking – must prevail. The conviction mounts daily against all agnosticism towards this concept. Something like what the actor Denzel Washington said to reporters about “fake news” should be said to all who endeavor to construct “useful” ideas, solve problems, and make a difference in this world.

Yes, I am well aware of the fact that though the Standards – unlike the Framework – at least provided us with a bulwark with which to combat error, falsehood, lies… “useful fictions” which amount to mere propaganda (“Recognizes… deception, or manipulation”) – even they did not see it necessary to mention truth.

So what?

Yes, I’m under no illusions that there will be much interest in this or that I will persuade many. The days when most every college in this country had some sort of motto like Harvard’s: “Truth (Veritas) for Christ (Christo) and the Church (Ecclesiae),” – and believed it – have come and gone. Way gone.

So what?

Yes, I am not naïve enough to think that when people fought the Wisconsin governor Scott Walker over his desire to excise the words “search for truth” from the charter of U-W Madison that the majority of those who did so actually cared deeply about the matter.

So what?

Yes, I know that we, being the sophisticated folk we are, might, on occasion, appreciate what amounts to rhetorical flair – speaking of things like “inconvenient truths,” and the like – but that overall, as a whole, the academy has no confidence in the idea (it being an either futile – or perhaps even tainted…dangerous? – task).

So what?

As Bill brilliantly (subtly!) pointed out, our practice cannot live with our theory. We *know* better.

And all of us – regardless of whether we are Jew or Gentile, gay or straight, Hegelian or Aristotelian – are, to one degree or another, constantly trying to organize, define, and state what is true. In other words, we are trying to “be[]” – or at least portraying ourselves as trying to be – “in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact”.

As human beings we don’t want to be – or at least to come off as – false.

As I put it in a previous comment, to one degree or another, truth constructs us – and again, we simply can’t avoid this regardless of what philosophy or worldview we hold to.* Of course, to speak of “what is the case” like this is not all there is to truth – ethical behavior** comes into play as well – but it is not less than this either.

No, classical figures like Epictetus were right:

“If you seek Truth, you will not seek to gain a victory by every possible means; and when you have found Truth, you need not fear being defeated.” ***

Are right. And so many of the others from that time – the non-Sophists – who spoke gravely, reverently, and joyfully about “the good, the true, and the beautiful” were right. Were being true.

I’ll stick with them.

I became a librarian precisely because I cared about truth and wanted to know it. I’m not interested in the profession otherwise. Curious to know if there are any others who agree with me. If so, I’d love to hear from you. Contact me off list if that’s the case.

And if you think I’m just an out-of-place preacher (my dad is) who just needs to “go home,” contact me as well. I bet we could have a dandy of a conversation (in good time).

But also consider giving me the best possible response you can to my published papers. I’m sure I have a lot to learn.  : )

Best regards,



I hope people will check out my papers, which contain much more extensive argumentation. Here is what Troy Swanson, one of the editors of the book shown below, had to say about my Reference Services Review paper:

“I am enjoying your work on the Authority frame. When we proposed the Framework, I think we envisioned real scholarly discussions around the 6 frames with the hope that they would grow and evolve.”

(Very) cautiously optimistic.

Be sure to check out Lane Wilkinson's fine chapter in here. Also here Swanson interview Lane here.

Be sure to check out Lane Wilkinson’s fine chapter in here. Also hear Swanson interview Wilkinson here.



* From the Christian Librarian paper (the second paper on AiCC) I mentioned in my initial message above: “And this can be seen to go hand in hand with the kinds of things that the motorcycle mechanic philosopher Matthew Crawford says in his most recent book, The World Outside Your Head. He notes, for example, “the world is known to us because we live and act in it, and accumulate experience… we think through the body” (Crawford, 2015, pp. 50-51). In other words, at least certain things “outside our head” subsist “authoritatively,” creating what the literary scholar Hans Gumbrecht has called “presence effects” (2004, p. 108). These, in effect, exercise their own intrinsic meaning as they help structure our attention, thereby anticipating our minds’ interpretive activities. Current trends in Western education, on the other hand, would even seem to suggest that facts are true for individuals only if they can be proved (McBrayer, 2015).” Of course, we also know that if we grow disposed to ignore truth, our neighbor will not let us do so entirely.

** As I have argued elsewhere, “In one sense, we are all ideologues (for example, even those who are dogmatic about being undogmatic feel and/or think that there are some forms or ways of being and doing that are better than others! [I now add: and some must actually be discouraged or even actively suppressed!]). But the key question is what kind of ideologue we are… both in our convictions about how we are to treat others and how open we are to considering empirical evidence that might challenge, even radically challenge, our viewpoints and narratives.”

*** At the same time, Augustine puts his finger on another valuable truth about truth: “They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them.”

Contact info: Nathan Rinne | Librarian | Concordia University, St. Paul | 651-641-8273 (ph) |
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My critiques of the idea that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”


I have published two critiques of the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frames in the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

The newest article is found in the new issue of Reference Services Review, and the following is from part of the abstract:

Now that the new Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education has replaced the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, this document will play an increasingly important role. This paper aims to show that in spite of the Framework seeking to provide a deep understanding of information and knowledge, it still falls short – particularly because the statement that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”, with its failure to acknowledge the significance of truth’s relation to authority, is untenable. A philosophical overview dealing with matters of librarianship, knowledge and truth is provided in Section 2. The paper then attempts to demonstrate that the idea of truth is inextricably connected with issues of authority. The paper attempts to persuade the reader that the Framework cannot: circumvent the issue of truth (Section 3); avoid attempting to make ethical claims which are true (Section 4); reduce all truth claims to “power-plays” (Section 5); and escape “traditional notions of granting authority” (Section 6).

I’m counting on the above article being widely accessible to non-philosophical types. The other article is a little heavier going, as it takes a relentlessly Socratic approach. It has been published in the latest issue of The Christian Librarian (note that my argument is constructed with the intent of being amenable to all kinds of persons, including those of a more secular orientation):

The 2015 Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (or Framework) is the latest effort of academic librarians to provide relevant guidance for the teaching of information literacy. One claim made within this “living document,” in line with current academic trends of constructivism and social constructivism, is that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual.” Questions are raised concerning authority’s relationship to the idea of truth, and an effort is made, largely through a Socratic method of inquiry, to delve into the meaning of the Framework’s statement on authority using the further explanations provided concerning this particular “frame,” as well as the context of the entire document. Connections between the nature of authority, responsibility, and the ethical direction of the Framework are considered, and the relevance of the matter of truth is brought to bear here as well. Finally, the conclusion is reached that in light of the investigation’s findings, the current statement that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is fraught with significant difficulties, and a statement akin to “Issues of Authority are Contextual and Nuanced” is warranted instead.

There is a possibility that both articles will be freely available in the near future (a few months?).



Image found at this site:

Rebutting the Often Unstated Premise “Libraries Must Change or Die”

Thomas Mann, author of the Oxford Guide to Library Research (2015, 4th ed.). Picture from here.

Thomas Mann, author of the Oxford Guide to Library Research (2015, 4th ed.). Picture from here.


Recently, I read a document put out by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) that stated:

“An engagement model in which library liaisons and functional specialists collaborate to understand and address the wide range of processes in instruction and scholarship is replacing the traditional tripartite models of collections, reference, and instruction” (16).”

In the same document, at one point, we are told that “scholars already collaborate; libraries need to make it easier for them to do so” (5).

To the first point, “yes,” librarians should be willing to adopt new technologies. At the same time, it is arguable that many new technologies do not enhance the library’s traditional strengths (which, as we see above, are to be “replaced”).

And to the second point, “yes,” librarians should help scholars collaborate. At the same time, libraries have always helped persons “collaborate”. That is what libraries—even non-academic libraries really—are.

Libraries are about facilitating conversations so that collaboration can occur. Joan Bechtel says that libraries are “centers for conversation,” featuring mediators who “introduce students to the world of scholarly dialogue that spans both space and time.” They “provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to tap into conversations on an infinite variety of topics and to participate in the critical inquiry and debate on those issues” (Fister 2015, p. 96, Not Just Where to Click). Furthermore, Michelle Holschuh Simmons reminds us that since librarians “occupy a position that is both inside and outside scholarly discourses,” they are “uniquely positioned to serve as discourse mediators”. She goes on:

Faculty assume their discourse conventions are normative, and they forget that they once learned them. Librarians occupy a position that is both inside and outside scholarly discourses and can play an important role in helping faculty understand that tacit knowledge and assumptions they have (which students lack)… (Fister 2015, p. 96)

Therefore, I confess I get a little bit irritated when I read articles like the one above.

In Thomas Mann’s 2015 edition of his book The Oxford Guide to Library Research, he makes some statements about libraries that, for the moment, continue to be true – but that I think are likely, barring a miraculous turnaround, to become less true in the future.

What can you do if you want to see “’the shape of the elephant’[i] of the overall range of literature relevant to a topic?”

“[Libraries] offer multiple methods of searching that are not accessible on the open Internet; that enable researchers to recognize, in systematic ways, the range of relevant sources whose keywords cannot be specified in advance; and that enable such recognition within conceptually focused contexts that eliminate the excessive clutter of tens of thousands of “noise” or “junk” retrieval” (xxii).

-Why isn’t keyword searching on the open web a sufficient way to discover needed information?

For some quests, it certainly is sufficient. That said, in Mann’s experience he has been taught that “most people unconsciously work within a framework of very limited assumptions about the extent of information that is easily and freely available to them” (xxv). When it is critical to get the best information possible, he says that “serious research cannot be accomplished by ‘one-stop searching’ via any single source or any single search box,” (xxiv) and that any of the following different methods may be needed (these are unpacked in much concrete detail in the book):

  • Controlled vocabulary searching
  • Use of subject-classified book stacks for general or focused browsing
  • Citation searching
  • Related record searching
  • Use of published subject bibliographies
  • Use of truncations, Boolean combinations, and other search limitations
  • Tapping into the subject expertise of people sources
  • Type of literature searching (xxiv).

-Why should I consider the possibility that librarians and libraries might be some of the most important research guides?

“It was only when I started working as a reference librarian in university libraries that I began to see two things clearly: how vast is the range of subjects people are interested in that I would never have had any questions about myself, and how little I knew about finding anything beyond my own academic subject area” (xxvi). Although this may be surprising, “…in most cases you do not need prior subject expertise to do good research in unfamiliar areas if you simply know the techniques of searching (with their trade-offs) that can be used in any field” (xxvii).



-Are you saying that all university librarians are going to be such good guides?

No. In order to consider what a good one might look like though, consider the following imaginative story (from a forthcoming paper to be published in and upcoming issue of Reference Services Review):

Saladin and Afsa are newlywed, American-born and educated, middle-class Muslims – the kinds of impressive people the author grew up around. They are seriously considering moving to a more cosmopolitan part of Pakistan, where Saladin has been offered a job. He is truly excited about their living in the country his parents came from years ago, but his wife, while happy for her husband and eager for a change, is a bit more hesitant. She is looking for resources in English about the status of women’s rights in the Muslim world (first this in general, before looking at Pakistan in particular), and so she goes to her local library. From her past experiences with librarians, she has come to see them as valuable guides and is confident that they will know how to put her in touch with the best productions of the academic world – those she assumes will begin to help her ascertain the truth of the matter.

Afsa goes right to a reference librarian at her large, local library and explains to her the information need she has. The librarian, fresh off having read Thomas Mann’s 4th edition of The Oxford Guide to Library Research (2015), knows exactly what to do. Temporarily putting aside the new Framework’s advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” (ACRL, 2015), she consults three relevant reference books pertaining to the matter…

-The 5-volume 2009 Encyclopedia of Human Rights (with a 13-page article on “Islam”)

-The 2-volume Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States (4-page article on “Human Rights”)

-The 3-volume 2001 Human Rights Encyclopedia (2-page article on “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam”)

…and is able to figure out that the concise bibliographies of these reference books converge on, A.E. Mayer’s Islam and Human Rights (2006). (Mann points out that two other major reference works relevant to the question also point to the same book!) (2015). Even better: the book now exists in an updated, fifth edition and a local academic library has it! The librarian confidently recommends this book, thinking that it will not only be representative of the state of the issue in academia – the best that scholarship has to offer – but also will in fact give a nuanced, well-mannered, and truthful account of the actual state of affairs as it concerns human rights and the Muslim world.

The implied claim to reasonable objectivity in offering this work as likely being the best starting point for further research comes from the overlapping recommendations of it from multiple independent sources, each of which is itself a scholarly attempt to provide an overview perspective on the whole of same issue. Throughout his Oxford Guide book, Mann shows search methods that promote the retrieval of sources sufficient to enable researchers to see, in his words, “the whole elephant” of their topic – as opposed to those methods that simply turn up “something quickly” with no guarantee of scholarly consensus to back up their objectivity, completeness, or quality. The unstated message is that in many cases it is librarians who are in the best position to get researchers beyond any single socially constructed “framework” by enabling them to see a full range of alternative views – alternatives that the librarian him/herself may not have been previously aware of. Note that all of this librarianship “works” as it does because everyone is assuming both that this is something that can begin to be known, and that, importantly, seeking and sharing the truth is important to these scholars.

This is not in Mann's book. But I like it and think it belongs here.


[i] Again, here Mann is alluding back to an illustration provided earlier in the book of six blind men who are each touching one part of an elephant and think, mistakenly, that they are experiencing the whole thing.

Distinguishing Between Data, Information, Opinion, Knowledge, Understanding…and Wisdom



Helpful words from former librarian Thomas Mann, in his Oxford Guide to Library Research (4th ed., 2015). Notice at the end how he aims to direct us not just to short articles, but books. This extended quote is offered with his permission and without comment from me:

The field of library and information science is obviously concerned with “information,” but the discipline has traditionally made finer distinctions within its subject matter, at least roughly, according to a hierarchical ranking such as this:

  1. Data are the unorganized, unfiltered, and unevaluated raw materials of thought, comparable to sensory experiences.
  2. Information is data conceptually organized to the point that statements can made about it, true or false, and coherent or incoherent with other information.
  3. Opinion is a form of belief to which is attached an added weight of either confidence or assent (i.e., approval or disapproval) prior to or apart from objective verification. The basis of the weighting comes from the apparent coherence of the belief with one’s other personal beliefs – whether or not those beliefs are themselves true – apart from confirmation mechanisms accessible to other people. What is plausible (without such confirmation) to one interlocking, internally coherent set of beliefs may therefore not be plausible to another, and opinions that are deemed irrelevant or misguided within one belief system may have consequences that are nonetheless deemed very important within another.
  4. Knowledge reflects a still higher level of learning, to the point that truth or falsity can be judged by interlocking tests of correspondence to, and coherence with, the world of experience and of other ideas – with the further qualification that this level of learning entails discernment of patterns within information and the making of generalizations that are accessible to, and verifiable by, other people. (Note that knowledge of effects alone can be considered knowledge even without a grasp of their underlying reasons or causes – i.e., one can know that such and such is the case even if one does not understand why.)
  5. Understanding is a higher level of thought in that it comprehends not just patterns and generalizations but the justifying causes, reasons, or narrative stories behind them. An understanding of physical causes, especially linked to mathematical patterns, gives one a measure of predictability, the hallmark of the sciences. The humanities, on the other hand, are grounded on the assumptions of the nonillusory nature of free will and the reality of consciously chosen goals (as opposed to unconscious impulses) as motivating factors in human actions. Hallmarks of humanistic learning are philosophical justification by reasons (not just physical causes) or by narrative integrations of experience in explanatory sequences of beginnings and middles leading to ends. The social sciences mix both scientific and humanistic criteria of explanation, with a particular emphasis on statistical patterns of human behavior, which form a kind of middle ground between realms of free will and determinism.

Wisdom is usually ranked as the topmost level of learning in such a traditional hierarchy; its function lies in assessing the worth of all these other levels according to ultimate criteria of truth, goodness, and beauty. It accomplishes this assessment within overarching frameworks or philosophies of what counts as evidence, or what counts as an acceptable explanation to begin with. Such frameworks necessarily assume some ultimate stopping point or ground of explanation which, when reached, finally suffices in justifying a sequence of thought. The qualification that prevents wisdom from being considered as simply the top step on the same ladder, however, is that wisdom is not simply cognitive; it also entails ethical virtue in a way that can “surround” (or not) the other steps. (An adequate discussion of these points, however, would take us on paths beyond the present concern; see Appendix A.)

This is not in Mann's book. But I like it and think it belongs here.

This is not in Mann’s book. But I like it and think it belongs here.

Wisdom, of course, is difficult to come by. We are on simpler and more stable ground with the more hierarchical levels of learning such as knowledge and understanding. The important point here is that these are not generally attainable in high degree by people with short attention spans, especially in the area of the conventional academic disciplines. Achievement of these higher levels of thought usually requires written texts in narrative or expository formats that are of substantial length, spelling out both the extent of relevant considerations and the complexity of their interrelationships. One does not achieve these levels simply by finding “something quickly”—as did the Six Blind Men.[i]

Book—or book-length texts, whether printed or electronic—are therefore unusually important formats in facilitating learning at the higher levels. The majority of electronic formats available today have an undeniable bias toward the pictorial, the audio, the colorful, the animated, the instantaneous connection, the quickly updated, and the short verbal text—qualities that most readily engender learning at the levels of data, information, or opinion, and (to some extent) knowledge. The level of understanding however—which is ultimately inseparable from lengthy verbal narratives and expositions—is still conveyed, and attained, by book formats or electronic equivalents that make lengthy and complex texts comfortable to read. (pp. xix -xxi)

(end of quote by Mann)

I think the glossary and the attendant commentary provided by Mann is very helpful to think about and reflect on. Check out the whole book if you want to learn from this former detective and Library of Congress Reference librarian how to do some of the most in-depth research known to man. : )

In like fashion, I think Lane Wilkinson provides a very nice introduction to some more philosophical terms that might be of assistance to persons as they try and think critically about the “fake news” debate. Check out his post as well.

And remember…





[i] Here, Mann is alluding back to an illustration provided earlier in the book of six blind men who are each touching one part of an elephant and think, mistakenly, that they are experiencing the whole thing.


CRAAP is a common acronym that librarians have used to provide good “rules of thumb,” for students looking to find reliable sources:


Despite the fact that things like CRAAP can be rightly criticized for giving the impression that discerning credibility is easy, I think it still has its place. That said, I am more keen to delve into other areas – getting deeper into how this matter relates to human nature in general.

For years, I have began classes with the general question: “How can you be sure you have a reliable source?” and take it from there. Both the question and any answers to that question, of courses, demand that the issue of context is addressed, but I do think that there are basic principles that come into play here and I use the acronym PECC…

P = proximity, and, looking to journalism, has to do with the idea of “leather foot” journalism. Going to the eyewitnesses, valuing personal experiences with the topic at hand, the facts on the ground, etc. Very relevant when it comes to events, of course

E= education. We look to people who have the “know that,” or knowledge. We want to go to doctors that had good teachers in good schools. We don’t want degree-mill folks and certificates.

C= competence. Knowledge is not only about “know that,” but also “know how”. Can a person get the job done? Do they know what they are doing. Your mechanic might be a nice and honest guy, but is he good? Here, the brass tacks of putting knowledge into action is a key consideration.

C = character. Is the person honest and trustworthy? What is their record? Do they admit they are wrong? And even if they have all the “know that” and “know how” in the world, if you don’t think they really care about you, your ideas, your friends and family, etc., you might not give them the time of day, much less your attention.

It’s a list, but its not a checklist. More “rules of thumb”… not iron-clad and foolproof algorithms. : )

Maybe you can help me add to this list, but it seems to me that these are very concrete things people can identify with that apply very broadly. Of course, confidence when it comes to assertion is another thing we are drawn to, but depending on that, we know, is perilous.

Also, when I think about seeing these things in librarians, I think about the former LOC librarian Thomas Mann (now the author of the 4th edition to the Oxford Handbook of Library Research). Mann is the man. If you haven’t done so already, you really should check him out.