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.



“Fake News” and the Issue of Trustworthy Sources in General

[download a PDF of the following here]

“If you seek truth, you will not seek by every means to gain a victory; and if you have found truth, you will have the gain of not being defeated.” – Epictetus, Fragments


Is Denzel Washington right?


“One of the effects of ‘too much information'” is “the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So what a responsibility you all [the media] have — to tell the truth…”

I’m hearing a lot about [this] “fake news” lately. What does this term refer to?

As the Washington Post reports: “Fake news can now… refer to the phenomenon of a news source publishing something that is inaccurate but is still believed and shared by readers.”

In other words, even news that is selectively reported (our biases and “blind spots” are always a part of us! – even as we might strive to be more fair in seeing things as they are, holding our own attitudes in check) or unintentionally misleading (like things the Post itself sometimes has published – see here and here for example), has now come to be lumped together with “deliberately fabricated stories, often with the purpose of making money for the creators.”

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

Why is this happening now?

Allow a brief, incomplete answer. In general, it is good to have a healthy skepticism, but today, people are doing what schools have been emphasizing in recent years: “question[] information sources and rais[e] doubts about the incentives of those who are pushing a single message” (Boyd, 2016). Sometimes that is undoubtedly good, but sometimes that is undoubtedly bad.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

How can I, in this day and age, get reliable news and information?

You cannot turn over every rock yourself or even know where all the rocks are. You don’t even really want to spend time trying to do that either if you can avoid it! Further, you also cannot be an expert on every topic, knowing the various facets of that topic and the multiple perspectives surrounding it.

We need to deal with this fact: a part of life is trusting others when it comes to things like this. You can’t avoid doing this.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

What do sources that provide reliable news and information look like?

The simple answer is that this is not rocket science, even if it is getting harder to do. You can do your best to be reliably informed through…

-Institutions, publications, and particular persons that, in spite of their biases and their incentives (a for-profit site, for example, may have a greater incentive to not only produce “clickbait,” but lie or spin), prove to be generally accurate and reliable in what they report, and who also see value in listening to – and accurately presenting the thoughts of! – those of alternative viewpoints.

In addition, realize that you, like anyone else, want to believe that some things are true and others false (perhaps the more you want something to be true, the more you should question it!).

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

Additional questions for reflection: What about when persons do not show “good will” towards you? Should their viewpoints be valued or even listened to? What about persons who hold views who most all persons think are “beyond the pale”? What about those prone to make weighty accusations against others on the basis of what seems to be very little or questionable evidence?

What are some other qualities these institutions, publications, and persons will have?

They will, in part:

-Fact-check their sources and themselves (“umbudsmen” are good!), and be upfront about the practices and methods that they use to gain knowledge.

-Admit when they are wrong about facts and issue actual corrections (preferably prominently placed ones) or retractions. Especially if the initial stories were “front page” material that received a lot of attention.

-Realize that issues of truth, and hence ethics, are inextricably connected with issues of authority (cultural and political power are therefore connected with, but not the same thing as, authority).

Yes, you might justifiably wonder whether – especially “in today’s lightening-paced world of journalism” (see here) – there are many organizations who, as a whole, do this (see here and follow the links). In which case, you may have to start caring more about certain talented and trustworthy individual persons in those organizations. Finally, in addition, the absolute very best of these reliable sources will also be….

-More transparent than not about their deeper underlying biases and worldviews (i.e. the “controlling narratives” that influence their ethics and that they think are important in helping to interpret the world as a whole) – and some will even give their well-thought out reasons and evidence supporting their views of the world.[i]

This means that some of the sources that deliver the best news may be, in their worldview/philosophy, quite ideological (perhaps they will even be derided as being extreme by some) – but they will also have deep convictions about, for example, the dignity of each person and, hence, the goal of discussing – and debating – fairly (in truth, some are civil and want to listen to others because they believe they should, in general, do this, while others may just do so out of social pressure or perhaps even to avoid public embarrassment over producing poor arguments [based on bad information!] vs. their enemies that can be clearly be shown to misrepresent them).

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!). 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.

Recognize that much of what passes for news today was, in the past, clearly seen as opinion and/or entertainment (are either Rush Limbaugh or John Stewart, for that matter, really “news”?).

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

How can I find these groups and persons?

Sometimes it is hard work to do this. Even sources that have had good reputations can slip. For example, Leetaru (2016) points out the growing problem of even peer-reviewed academic journals citing sources inaccurately.[ii] To go along with this, in general, confidence and emotional rhetoric is in vogue (these “sell”!), and not so much facts and reason.

Another thing that makes this whole issue particularly difficult is that we do not only need to trust persons we think are reliable (and this, in general, will be someone we think is smart and cares about me and people I care about). We also need to be generally educated about the issues that reporters tend to cover so we can begin to understand what they are saying (if we don’t have the background information or vocabulary we need, it will be harder to understand others).

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

What are some specific tools and skills that can learn to help me deal with fact-checking a particular event or claim?

Again, background knowledge about the topic being explored is always indispensable. As Caulfield (2016) notes, students are often critical thinkers, but sometimes, “they just don’t have any tools or facts to think critically with.” This includes having knowledge about the media “ecosystem” as it exists  – and knowing about the particular cues likely to be found to let you know what a site’s (or “think tank”’s, for example) orientation is. Again however – there is always an element of trust involved (e.g. is this photograph of the event that was posted even real?), and sometimes, of course, a greater degree of trust is involved.

All of this said, there are also some tools to know about and skills to develop.

  1. A fact-checking sites like Snopes has, historically, been generally respected because they have a reputation, across the spectrum, for real fairness and reliability (but things like this piece from Molly Ziegler Hemingway, a conservative reporter I trust, make me less inclined to trust Snopes[iii]). There is certainly a need for people of good will to create sites that take a responsible approach to fact-checking.
  1. Some polling organizations continue to be highly regarded and respected. Gallup is one such organization (Pew is another), as it is very transparent in its methodology. (interestingly, they recently reported that “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history.”)
  1. You can do a reverse image search in Google, for example, to track down the original sources of images on the internet (see here for a “how-to” example). Tin Eye will also do image searches. Google Translate can help you to get a rough translation of foreign news sources. Regular Google can help you check cross-reference quotes (just put quote marks around the phrase!)
  1. Boyd (2016), says “We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines.” Do you think that looking at a variety of news site’s coverage of a topic, as this site called “All Sides” encourages one to do, is likely to bring persons closer together or further apart? What creates calmness and a desire for civility in persons? Can stronger personal relationships with persons who deeply disagree with you help?

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

What are some good places to find information so that I can, through some work, become knowledgeable on most any topic?

(and yes, perhaps your work does not feel like work because you are driven by a love for the topic, which is a good thing! – even as, elsewhere, more [not complete!] “objectivity” is a worthy thing to strive for!)

  1. First, a brief response to the idea that “Google doesn’t judge me.” Answer: This is true. And that might be problematic, correct?
  1. It is not always problematic! Sometimes things like Google and things like You Tube, for instance, can be quite helpful: when one needs a recipe, wants to learn how to do a dance, needs to do a some kinds of car repairs or home improvement projects, etc.
  1. When it comes to more involved topics (sciences, literature, history, philosophy, religious viewpoints, etc.) you want to learn about but know very little about, start with encyclopedia articles and do not end there. Look at the references (“Works cited”/bibliography) cited at the end of the article in order to dig deeper. Even something like Wikipedia, despite persons’ justifiable concerns about the source, can be very helpful here.
  1. If you have access to a good, well-stocked library, cross-referencing the works cited from a variety of reference books (including things like discipline or topic-specific encyclopedias) to find commonly cited books and texts is a good practice. These are books that are seen as especially seminal, influential, respected, authoritative, etc.
  1. Finally, find a teacher who appreciates these authors, and who you find can “break down” the works of these authors (including their own reflections on their ideas) into manageable and easy-to-understand chunks. Sometimes such teachers are even willing to give their content away for free on iTunes, You Tube, etc. See these lectures, for example.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

Finally, a tough question about what our ultimate bearings are when it comes to news….

Look at the following chart, produced in Nov. of 2016 (see here), which attempts to produce a guide for news consumption:

news-quality-v4 Assuming that there is something to this chart as it relates to the relative “liberalness” or “conservativeness” regarding certain news organizations compared to other news organizations, the deeper “worldview” question is this:

What kind of “measure” or “rule” do you think is being used here to determine what is “the center”? (note how the center shifts more to the right on this site) How would you describe it?



Note: a few minor spelling corrections – as well as the You Tube video above and accompanying quotes from it – have been added to the original blog post.

Thoughtful web articles I’ve read that I think provoke deeper reflection: (rather technical)

Thoughtful podcasts I’ve listened to that I think provoke deeper reflection:


[i] Examples that are prominent in my mind are the British film documentarian Adam Curtis on the cultural left and the libertarian-leaning and LC-MS Lutheran political reporter Molly Ziegler Hemingway. I highly respect both of these individuals.

[ii] Leetaru also notes that one of the world’s top scientific journals is now allowing “citations to non-peer-reviewed personal web pages and blog posts as primary citations supporting key arguments in papers published in that journal.” My first reaction to this is simply: “Whose blog posts? What kind of ‘key arguments?’”

[iii] Let me be clear. The fact that the Snopes article changed the day after the Molly Ziegler Hemingway article is a good sign. That said, that Snopes would have written what they did in the first place does not engender trust. Nor does the fact that there is no explanation on their page regarding a retraction or why the page was updated, etc.