Is the Information Establishment Pretty Much OK? A Response to Bill Badke

Badke: “Don’t give the impression that there is nothing to be believed anymore.” Amen! And…

I really like Bill Badke. A lot.

He’s pretty much an impossible guy not to like! And, importantly for me, when it comes to the librarians’ topic of “information literacy” – that is, how we can find information, examine it for value, and put it into practice – he has a lot of wisdom to share. Let us attend!

Therefore, it’s no surprise that he had all kinds of insightful things to say about “Fake News” and information literacy in the most recent Circ Ideas podcast. If you are a librarian or one who teaches people about research, you should definitely check it out!

Six editions says “Authority!” Does authority though, as he says, really rest in the receiver of information?

As readers of this blog might expect though (oh no! – the big “but”), I disagree with Bill on a few of the things that he spoke about. Note what he says, for example (at about 26 minutes into the interview), about academics as he speaks of their willingness to seek truth:

[the academics I know] want to see rigor, want to be contradicted if they need to be contradicted, [] absolutely want to further the discipline, [and] develop knowledge that can be of benefit to society. I think that is the main kind of person that we see in the academic world….[i] And so all of those things cause me to believe that, for the most part, the information establishment is pretty much OK. Even while it needs correctives, and critical information literacy is a good way of doing that. For the most part, we’re in pretty good shape, but under threat.

Authority may not be, as Badke claims, “constructed and contextual,” but context is certainly important here! Badke works at Trinity Western University in Canada, which is its “largest privately funded Christian university” (per Wikipedia, so must be true). It is a conservative evangelical institution that no doubt attracts some of Canada’s top Christian minds. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me – as someone who has studied extensively how Christianity has shaped the Western world – that the scholars at Badke’s institution are exceptionally active, curious and conscientious – “super devoted and dedicated to their disciplines,” as he says. No doubt, they believe that truth exists and that they have a vocation from God to seek it in their scholarly pursuits (see Philippians 4:8 and note who Paul quotes in Acts 17).

My take then, is that it is very likely the case that Bill is extrapolating from his experience in a way that simply does not scale. I agree with him that this is what academia should be, but I do not think, for the most part, this is the way it currently is.

For example, Badke’s fellow Canadian, the fiery academic Jordan Peterson, would vociferously disagree with him. Peterson’s evaluation of academia in North America is that it is chock-full of dangerous postmodernist corruption. And while his cultural and political views might be considered exceptionally conservative and even dangerous by some, he will not be as easy to “deplatform,” as folks say today, as people like Richard Dawkins, Charles Murray, or the exceptionally provocative Milo Yiannopoulos (though, interestingly, my very socially and politically liberal friend really liked this interview). In fact, Peterson has been appearing almost everywhere in the last several months. His interview on the Joe Rogan show reached one million views in days. He has been written up relatively favorably in the Huffington Post, and recently spoke to a student group at Harvard on the topic of Postmodernism and the Mask of Compassion.

What our debates are claimed to be all about today. What are the logical implications? Are some more “equal” than others? A piercing analysis by a respected military historian

Really, if you haven’t heard of him, you might want to check this gentleman – who has dedicated a great portion of his life to studying Nazism and Communism – out:

 

I think Peterson is largely right on the money in this interview, even as I find some of what he says to be very unhelpful[ii] and, of course, discouraging – “Overreacting much?,” I sometimes think. At the same time I also note that he talks (and elsewhere, rages[iii]) about a “war” of words that is occurring in the Western world.[iv] He is convinced that those he is challenging have absolutely no desire to meet in discussion and debate to find a reasoned solution because, in short, they do not believe reason and truth are a real thing.

Sadly, I think that is largely right (and I was recently given the opportunity to discuss this – on the podcast of a truck-driving Christian layman! – particularly how my “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” papers might relate to postmodernism).

Check out the smart podcast I was on.

Six years ago I think I would have basically agreed with most everything that Bill said in his podcast (even if I am sure I would have still been scratching my head over the proclamation of “Authority is constructed and contextual”), but I think it was right around that time that this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education tipped me off that my confidence level in higher education as a whole was not really justified.

I had an uncle who had gotten me a popular book mentioned in that article, and at the time I read it with great fascination and interest. Nevertheless, it did seem rather doubtful — and a bit fantastical — to me at the time, and the Chronicle of Higher Education article was, for me, the tipping point which led me to where I am today.

A popularized account of postmodern scholarship aiming to displace the cis white heteronormative male (patriarchal!) narrative.

I am asking — urging! — you to listen to Jordan Peterson tell you why academia is not what we might think it is or what it claims to be (again, see the video above). I think we ignore his complaints at our peril.

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] Here, in the middle of this quote, he says the following:

“…and I think the same kind of thing happens in journalism. The people who are doing it are for the most part super dedicated to finding answers, even finding the truth. They are not dedicated to promoting a bias. They’re dedicated to actually informing the public and keeping the public aware of what’s happening in the world. They may editorialize, but they’re doing it on the basis of “this is what I believe is actually going on here, and I have evidence to support it…”

[ii] In particular, his Darwinian-driven worldview concerns me in spite of his own more gentlemanly and compassionate nature (here is a post I did elsewhere that evaluates his position from a theological perspective).

[iii] Another speech concerning academia that is impressive in its momentum and Jeremiad-like nature! Again, I find much to cheer and to jeer.

[iv] I think Jordan Peterson might agree with what Hans Gumbrecht says, which I quoted in a past post here:

“What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become synonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot” (Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, pp. 53 and 54).

At the same time, as I express in the same blog post where I quoted this, I think that this kind of argument fails, because it is ultimately only rooted in a kind of pragmatism.

Ty Cobb: a Good Example of Why So Many Distrust the Media

Ty Cobb, the “Georgia Peach”. Could no one really “stand the son-of-a-bitch when he was alive”?

As anyone who has been reading this blog will know, I like to talk about stories and pieces that highlight the importance of a media (and an academic world) that has a real concern for truth. And I think that saying things like “truth is a linguistic concept” simply makes it easier to justify untruths.

I’ll admit that not much surprises me when it comes to people’s willingness to promulgate mis- and disinformation. That said, I’ll admit that even I was rather shocked by the following video. It illustrates how, in a pre-internet era, one lying person — even when they were refuted in print by others — could completely destroy the reputation of a good man:

 

I shared this post with some folks very dear to me — people whose opinions I respect — and told them I was interested in their gut reaction to the post. Here is what one of them, a very big baseball fan, said:

I remember hearing stories about how big of a racist and dirty player he was, and this was before the internet. It just goes to show you the liberal media has always enjoyed a sad story to a happy story. Years ago I had someone tell me I should read a little more about Ty Cobb so I did, it was refreshing to read about him being a stand up human being. Sounds like this reporter did the same thing reporters do nowadays and that is not doing actual journalism. The liberal media tries everyday to destroy decent people’s lives, so it just goes to show you nothing has changed in a 100 years. I honestly believe liberals are more racist than conservatives.

Another simply said: “How true! Lots of anonymous sources today saying all kinds of false things with no credibility, trying to ruin someone’s good name.”

I’m not interested in being naive. I understand that people from across this or that spectrum stretch the truth, exaggerate, lie, and slander. At the same time, I also think that it is true that the views of the world that we have will influence and provide the conscious justifications we make concerning our behavior. This, or course, is something that my last — admittedly rather complicated — post was getting at.

FIN

5 Short Philosophical Reflections: From Hope to Despair

How?

Prefatory remarks:

[This will most likely be my last post here for a while. Perhaps will be writing more with journals in mind in the next few months.]

Two posts ago, I asked whether Plato’s Socrates had the answer to how to effectively counter “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. This post begins to address that question.

In another recent post, Can Pastors, Rabbis, Imams and Their Faithful be Good Librarians?, I doubt I got too many who disagree with me to change their mind about “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. In all likelihood, I even turned off a good number of those who hitherto had appreciated what I had had to say!

After all, many — dismissing my statement that “the wider problem that this points us to is that the Framework is indifferent to the matter of truth in general” — no doubt believe that it is precisely these kinds of “dogmatic understandings” that a) have nothing if little to do with truth and ; b) are primarily responsible for human conflict ; and c) no doubt interfere with the kind of progressive change those like Wayne Bivens-Tatum stoically encourage their fellow librarians to so patiently wait for.

Now, however, with the 5 short philosophical reflections that I lay out below, I am asking whether the Western world, apart from its religious heritage, only has reason to despair (also see the case made here, by a conservative Jew and atheist, in this video).

This is ultimately because I think that, in general, the elites of the Western world are under the powerful influence of a very poisonous philosophy (serving as a kind of replacement theology). Some of you might think that I am thinking about postmodernism, but I am going further upstream than that.

Coming later on in the genealogy of ideas.

Before I get to that though (next paragraph), a brief remark on the matter of philosophy as a whole: I think that all philosophy, even if if not directly stated as such, has to do with how one should live, i.e. what it means to live as a human being. In short, all philosophy is about morality and human teleology (speaking rather clinically, this is the description of a thing on the basis of its ultimate purpose). Even modern philosophies (really post-Kant) that say they are not first and foremost about this, actually are, albeit more hesitatingly (e.g., see this). I argue that this cannot be avoided.

The philosophy I now think most all of the intellectual elites in the West are captive to — even if the are largely unaware of it — is that of Hegel, who took up the philosophy of historicism. Historicism (think “on the right side of history”) is not a monolith but, in sum, always puts the emphasis on things as apprehended by the human mind throughout time — examining these, their functions, and the best use of them — and not things in the cosmos or in a transcendent realm(s) (i.e Plato’s Forms, etc).*

+++

Commenting on a post arguing for the truth of the Christian faith made on the blog of science fiction writer John C. Wright, made the following compelling statements (used with permission):

Science fiction writer — and Christian convert — John C. Wright.

I.

Why do we seek truth?

All animals seek information: sensory data about their environment and how to exploit it. But, once they have that, they are satisfied. We are not.

We seek more than information: we seek truth. Enough sensory information to live our lives is not enough. What our society tells us is good enough for us to know, is never enough. We balk at such frontiers: we seek to know more… we seek truth… we seek The Truth.

Why?

It’s dangerous. All searches for knowledge entail effort, and often danger. Learning more will not put one’s mind at ease: often the truth is more troubling then ignorance — yet we still seek it. Discovering the truth often puts one at odds with men of power, imperiling not only one’s own life, but often one’s family. Still, generation after generation, men have sought truth.

The reasons cannot simply be biological: other biological beings stop once a need is fulfilled. It cannot be social: truth seekers are often at odds with power structures that so often require deception to function. It cannot be merely psychological: for we seek unpleasant truths, about problems we often can do nothing about.

The reason must be something higher than biology, than society[,] than psychology. There must be a Truth greater then mere nature.

Words like these, I think, are very hopeful. It is worthwhile — not in vain — to seek the truth. To be honest about the hard “facts of life” and one’s self. And in thinking that your truly seeking it will be of benefit to others as well. Even as, of course, all of this is not easy. Again, I share one of my favorite quotes from E.F. Schumacher (from his his 1977 book Guide for the Perplexed):

II.

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127 (listen to this gentlemen eloquently express much the same idea)

To my knowledge, Schumacher identified as a Christian believer, and here, I note, his words seem very compatible with the general account of the world that Christians tell (i.e. creation, fall, the desperate need for wisdom, redemption, salvation). That said, since the revolution of “postmodernism” even wise words like Schumacher’s seem too certain. And here, I try to push back:

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. — “Neopragmatist” and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

III.

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? (comments from my paper published in the Christian Librarian).

I thought that was a well-thought-out way of challenging the postmodernist and those with postmodernist sympathies. But perhaps I largely missed the point. After all, sometimes we become convinced that winning is important — maybe even more so in an age where people are not as sure about their ability to agree with others about what is right! Why do so many continue to act as confidently as they do, taking the actions they do, trying to accomplish what they think must get done? Just ressentiment, power, selfishness… with no concerns about real justice? It seems wrong to think this…  Rather, it is because they are confident, more or less so, that they are being true, right — even if, for them, what is “right” is always changing. Therefore, keeping in mind this practical concern with morale….

Chesterton on progress: A greater realization of goodness will, ultimately, be fundamentally contiguous with more child-like (not childish) notions.

IV.

Many contemporary elites do, of course, believe that the matter of ethics is a completely contingent matter – they think we human beings could have been very different than what we are and, of course, that we are still changing (not to mention variations on themes found in different cultures). For example, persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity.

In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195). Of course, the more knowledgeable among non-Christians realize, en route to the positive change they seek, that building up morale through what can only be called lies and half-truths will eventually backfire. At the same time, it seems that for the Hegelian mind it is basically only a matter of time and right circumstances that determine whether we can make something that is evolving/emerging true – that we can “get away with it,” as Richard Rorty would say. In other words, going back to Chesterton, they alter the ideal, and then follow up by altering the real too (for more on these kinds of questions, see Haugaard M. (2012), “Power and truth”, European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 15 No 1, pp. 73-92).

Knowledge certainly does have a very dynamic aspect – for Plato, for example, it is always “solid” in the Heavenly Forms but, significantly, here on earth our ideas can be quite off, as we struggle with the Shadows. This, of course, is taken to new levels with Hegel (where there cannot be a statement made by human beings that is true by itself and that endures throughout time). The core idea here is that Laws, Forms, or the Ideal to which we are grasping might not change, but our interpretations of them — as elites get both more educated and smarter — does. For example, our past representations of some forms (e.g. marriage, father, mother, male, female, etc.), it is reasoned, were evidently off as we, under less reasonable influences, misinterpreted the Appearances.

Is a “good, true, and beautiful” that is always changing still “good, true, and beautiful”? Or if it is stable in heaven, but not on earth? (pictured: Plato)

But now, we are being enlightened, pulled along by Something, helping us get on “the right side of history.” Even postmodernists find themselves talking this way because they to have teleological impulses that sync with stable (for the moment!) notions of right and wrong that should be expected from all.** They must, because they are human beings. Even if one is uncertain about their views, traditional notions of law — based on Christian ideas — must be updated and/or replaced. In other words, they might not be certain about Right and Wrong, but they are confident enough about what they don’t respect and appreciate to act. And it seems to me that any conservatives looking to Plato who want to say there is some permanence in the world — and not just in the heavens — are absolutely helpless in light of this. For permanence is the illusion of the Appearances, and Hegel, bolstered of course by Galileo, Darwin, etc. rules the day (see * below). What is deemed credible by majorities or those able to influence them is “true”.

At the same time, what if they can only alter the real so much (perhaps, at least to the extent that it can be done by changing laws and mores), given the presence of things that one can’t not notice and must notice? And things that, in truth, will not alter their being — what they, in fact, are — for them?

In other words, there is a key question here not asked much today: How much do core things we can’t get away from basically stay the same?…

This idea of presence and presences does not fit with the modern elite mindset which makes interpretation (or hermeneutics) — and evolving interpretation — king of all. Modern philosophers who want to put in a word for permanence often seem to believe that Hegel’s steamroller cannot — and should not? — be stopped, but perhaps only slowed down (to prevent backlashes, “reality bouncing back,” etc). After all, Aristotle’s idea that some things and the world are eternal no longer seem credible at all… Likewise, for many, the teachings of the Bible which speak of stable realities and truths.*** They therefore try to salvage some permanence not via a defend-able principle, but simply because they feel they must. Simply to prevent chaos. Hence, Hans Gumbrecht:

With historicism, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.” **** — Hans Gumbrecht

V.

“What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become synonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot” (Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, pp. 53 and 54).

So is it, fundamentally, dogmatic understandings that are responsible for human conflict? What if, instead, uncertainty about too many things – especially those things seemingly most precious to all human beings – is to blame for exacerbating the problems caused by our more base impulses as human beings?

“…without some common baseline of facts… we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.” — B. Obama (from here)

Definitions, seemingly, are “up for grabs” like never before: What is a human being? A man or a woman? What is a father? A mother? Who do children “belong” to? What is marriage? What is justice indeed? What indeed, is guilt if the old saws don’t seem to get to me like they once did? Even if one thinks that things like this point to desirable changes, what, overall, might be the wider implications of such rapid-fire change?

The phrase “words only have the power you give them,” might be of encouragement when an individual is trying to downplay the effect of words which, in fact, hurt. At the same time, it is disconcerting to think that there are groups with influence or power that think they can make certain determinations about hitherto-considered-stable concepts – whenever they are able to “get away with it” – and that there is no power or reality recognized by them that might make what used to think were “our words,” once again, have something in common…

“[conservatives are] all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.” — Russel Kirk

.

What is left when even the most socially conservative of secularists cannot affirm, in the end, any rationale higher than the “human dignity of autonomous choice” (see, for example, the perceptive comments made about George Will here)? How is this not also, though perhaps more slowly, swept up into Hegel’s Mind devoted to understanding and managing constant instability? How is this not a recipe for despair – for a kind of diversity which is, at bottom, disastrous?

FIN

 

*In “conservative” forms of historicism, things in the cosmos (“realism”) and/or in the transcendent realms (“Platonism”) exist, but are not the focus of the philosophy. For a very helpful summary and unpacking of historicism, see my summary of Martin Noland’s PhD thesis here. Note these comments from Descarte’s nemesis, Vico: “Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…” (p. 96) Also, this comment from Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism”, thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest.  Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.”

**A friend notes: “There are people who will tell you that their own deeply held moral convictions are simply epiphenomena of their own evolution, upbringing, and personal interest. They are “a law unto their own selves” not just practically, but theoretically too. And even while fighting and killing for their own view of the world, they may frankly consider it to be an amoral conflict, nothing but survival of the fittest.” My response is that persons like this are few and far between but even they will not be content to keep this belief to themselves. Rather, they want to be seen as moral: to be known as those who are courageous (still, what is the standard?) and someone who lives honestly (i.e. they don’t lie about what is, to themselves, etc. – this is necessarily a standard that is not just about their own measures also!). And of course (I say this as an added bonus) even if they are total evolution-driven nihilists, they will not want friends who, when they ask them practical questions, continually insist that none of us can really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

***Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.” More from Noland: “In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83) It also “looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”

****from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGMKnG2yEc8: The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”

My Paper From The Christian Librarian Now Freely Available

Click to see contents of the issue.

My article “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual? A Classical Challenge to the Framework for Information Literacy” published in The Christian Librarian (volume 59, issue 2) this last fall just went online. It is at: http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/tcl/vol59/iss2/6/.

As I said in a previous post mentioning my critiques,

[this] article is a little heavier going, as it takes a relentlessly Socratic approach…. (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 abstract:

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 (italics mine).

Going along with that last line, I also am putting up a very rough draft of a proposed frame to replace “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. (Hopefully, new “Knowledge practices” and “Dispositions” in the near future). No doubt much work still needs to be done here, and I invite feedback and discussion:

Issues of Authority are Contextual and Nuanced

Sources of information are evaluated based on their knowledge and credibility as well as the information needs of users. Issues of authority are contextual in that the information need may help determine the level of authority required. They are nuanced in that societal position or status may not go hand-in-hand with authoritative speech – i.e. words in accordance with truth.     

Not only scholars, but all persons seek those who trust we can begin to know some things about what is the case about our lives and the world – particularly when careful and disciplined efforts are made. Truth, therefore, is in part that which is not wholly individualistic and which can create new understandings in and between persons. Relatedly, authority can be defined as the ability to influence and persuade resulting from knowledge and experience. Ideally, those able to influence and persuade apart from much knowledge—that is, apart from much justified true belief—would not be able to receive or earn recognized positional authority. Successful quacks and con artists exist however, and this means that cultural and political influence and power cannot be strictly synonymous with credibility and authority. The need to tell the truth, seek what is really true, and to be true, must be encouraged. This includes examination of one’s own hidden and conscious biases and assumptions, whether or not these are ultimately determined to be desirable or undesirable. In sum, beginning learners should come to respect those in positions of authority while recognizing that authoritative speaking—i.e. that which is in accordance with truth—may come from elsewhere. Students should both seek voices widely recognized as authoritative and note that they may need to reason with unlikely voices that possess relevant knowledge – perhaps from different classes, races, nationalities, creeds, religions, etc.

FIN

Effectively Countering “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”: Does Plato’s Socrates Have the Answer?

“Peter Adamson, professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.”*

How to effectively counter “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? Before I answer the question, let me encourage you to give your ear to the great Peter Adamson, who has performed an inestimable service to us all by providing us with free, highly engaging and very accessible introductions to the history of philosophy (without any gaps!)

This is one of my all-time favorite podcasts. Adamson, a reliable guide, has mastered the art.

Think that there is no way you can’t understand philosophy or that it is ultimately of no practical importance? Think that there is no real cross-cultural overlap on life’s biggest questions? Peter Adamson will make you think again!

The show, the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is currently examining Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, but, going along with the concern expressed in this post’s title, I recommend getting started with the podcasts below.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from going right to the primary sources to see what Plato’s Socrates says about the nature of knowledge, and of course with this, truth.

That said, if you can’t do that, why not check out a 20 minute podcast?

We Don’t Need No Education: Plato’s Meno (episode 21)

Peter tackles one of Plato’s most frequently read dialogues, the “Meno,” and the theory that what seems to be learning is in fact recollection.

I Know, Because the Caged Bird Sings: Plato’s Theaetetus (episode 22)

Peter examines Plato’s “Theaetetus”, discussing the relativist doctrine of Protagoras, the flux doctrine of Heraclitus, and the two famous images of the wax tablet and aviary.

MM McCabe on Knowledge in Plato (episode 23)

What is Plato’s understanding of knowledge, and how does he think that knowledge relates to virtue? Peter tackles these questions with his King’s colleague MM McCabe in this interview.

Famous Last Words: Plato’s Phaedo (episode 24)

In the Phaedo, Plato depicts the death of Socrates, and argues for two of his most distinctive doctrines: the immortality of the soul and the theory of Forms.

So, does Plato help us in countering “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? What do you think?

Our great help in time of need?

…and stay tuned for what I think.

FIN

* Adamson photo and bio from Western Illinois University website.

 

What to Do When Talking With a Political Opponent is Worse Than Getting Your Teeth Pulled

Too beyond the pale to listen to? Do you have a price?

A recent article in Vox, titled and sub-titled respectively “Motivated ignorance” is ruining our political discourse: Talking with a political opponent is almost as unpleasant as getting a tooth pulled,” explored the results of a new study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

One of the good points the article reports on is the following:

This is a key point that many people miss when discussing the “fake news” or “filter bubble” problem in our online media ecosystems. Avoiding facts inconvenient to our worldview isn’t just some passive, unconscious habit we engage in. We do it because we find these facts to be genuinely unpleasant. And as long as this experience remains unpleasant, and easy to avoid, we’re just going to drift further and further apart.

More:

Largely, the partisans were unfamiliar with [others’] viewpoints. So it’s not the case that people are avoiding learning about the other side because they’re already familiar. What’s going on here is “motivated ignorance,” as Matt Motyl, one of the study co-authors calls it…. “People on the left and right,” the study concludes, “are motivated to avoid hearing from the other side for some of the same reasons: the anticipation of cognitive dissonance and the undermining of a fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.”

This doesn’t surprise me. Though it also doesn’t describe me or a lot of the people whose company I enjoy the most. I find it fascinating, at least in many contexts, to get to talk politics with persons who have different views from my own.

It’s not that I like conflict – I definitely don’t. The fact of the matter though is that most of my political discussions aren’t so heated. I ask a lot of questions, try to learn something, and back off if persons get too irritated. If they ask me about my own views, I am happy to share them – along with reasons I hope will connect with them.

So, should everyone be like me? My gut reaction is to say “No, I think this kind of approach isn’t necessarily for everyone.” I think we all sometimes need persons who are highly informed, who care about us, and also don’t handle us with “kid gloves” when they are certain we are wrong. At the same time, I think those who are in positions of leadership (like parents, for example!) need to have both of these qualities in some measure – and be able to continue to cultivate them.

So, what can make things better? A couple key things come to mind.

First, undoubtedly, deeper reflection on the things that make all of us human beings. We are all, inescapably, moral creatures who feel strongly about what is right and wrong. Simply put, this is our existential situation. This is why, for example, a recent Ph.D. dissertation on Martin Heidegger, for example, argues that his “Being and Time is an ethics in the same way Nicomachean Ethics is an ethics” in spite of his having “nothing positive to say about post-Enlightenment moral theory.”

Second, if you both get angry easily and also want to be able to listen to others different from you, be strategic when it comes to getting started. Don’t jump right to someone with different views from you who is widely seen as being more extreme. Start small, and work your way across the spectrum incrementally (if you get irritated easily, don’t just jump into any podcast on my iTunes list). Eventually, you can explore the larger range of issues, even exploring the fringes and finding out better what makes them tick – and what makes them continue to be human (and I find people at the extremes often tend to agree with one another about things that the “middle” tends to downplay or ignore).

At the same time, even though the title of this article says talking with a political opponent is its topic, it actually reveals that even listening to a political opponent is too painful for many… Hence the article starts:

If you ever thought, “You couldn’t pay me to listen to Sean Hannity / Rachael Maddow / insert any television pundit you violently disagree with here” — you are not alone.

Covering the study, it talks about how participants were encouraged to listen to those they disagreed with:

Two hundred participants were presented with two options. They could either read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with — the topic was same-sex marriage — or read the opposing viewpoint.

Here’s the catch: If the participants chose to read the opinion they agreed with, they were entered into a raffle pool to earn $7. If they selected to read opposing opinion, they had a chance to win $10.

You’d think everyone would want to win more money, right?

No.

A majority — 63 percent — of the participants chose to stick with what they already knew, forgoing the chance to win $10. Both people with pro same-sex marriage beliefs and those against it avoided the opinion hostile to their worldview at similar rates.

“They don’t know what’s going on the other side, and they don’t want to know,” Jeremy Frimer, the University of Winnipeg psychologist who led the study, says.

Why is this surprising though? Why only three dollars more? And for a chance to win three dollars more? I suspect that people would be much more willing to do this were they offered more money. Maybe the real interesting question here, good for a follow-up study, would be “what’s their price”?

And if that suggestion offends you (it kind of does me to) also note this: if you  care about someone you think is really wrong, you might just try to enter their world — to the degree that you are able — in an effort to pull them out.

FIN

Can Pastors, Rabbis, Imams and Their Faithful be Good Librarians?

Can’t be done, hence “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”?

I thought about simply titling this post Can Theological Libraries Accept the Assertion “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? That said, upon further reflection, I now suggest that the current title is exactly the question posed by the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in the new Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education.  

Writing in the October 2015 (vol. 8, no. 2) issue of Theological Librarianship, librarian Bill Badke sought to introduce theological librarians to the Framework.

A couple interesting quotes that I would like to highlight. First of all, when looking at the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in particular, Badke suggested the following approach:

For a biblical studies course, do close readings of key articles, showing how scholars present evidence for their assertions; trace the development of a concept from the scholar who first voiced it through a pattern of supporters and critics, to its current state; consider with students a significant theological debate (for example, the clash between Jacob Neusner and E.P. Sanders),14 and look at the reasons why scholars’ views may differ so markedly.

All well and good, right? Well, not necessarily. One clue comes earlier in the article when Badke argues that the Framework is built on the educational philosophy of constructivism.* Following from this assumption, he asked this very interesting question:

The constructivist foundation can be problematic for those theological schools that base their understanding of truth on biblical revelation, however that revelation is to be understood. Are there multiple possible meanings to virtually anything, or is meaning at least to some degree pre-determined by the textual bases of faith?

At this point, some sirens should be going off here. Is the Framework at all compatible with religions that talk not only about the importance of divine revelation, but the clarity of divine revelation?

If, for example, a student at an orthodox Christian seminary insists that all authority is humanly constructed and contextual, is it not likely he will find himself failing to graduate? I am not as familiar with the Jewish and Islamic faiths, but I imagine a similar question could be asked in their context.

Perhaps you ask “Why can’t we say that this just goes to show that authority is constructed differently in different contexts”?

St. Paul, in Romans 13: “…there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

The answer is because the seminary we are speaking about — insofar as it is an orthodox Christian seminary — expects the pastors it graduates to assert Christianity, as revealed and able to be known in the Scriptures, as the truth. And not just in what we today might call a “subjective” but an “objective” sense. And in spite of the very real doubts that they will experience.**

The Framework, however, expects the very opposite when it comes to such authority. Believers might consider their holy book(s) to ultimately be the word of God, but all authority is humanly constructed and contextual.

Therefore, according to the Framework, the answer to the title of this post is “No” (this would be the implication insofar as this frame remains unchanged).

While many may not agree that some or any of the above-mentioned religions are true, the wider problem that this points us to is that the Framework is indifferent to the matter of truth in general. Certainly as a whole, but most noticeably when it deals with the matter of the authority.

FIN

 

*Librarian-philosopher Lane Wilkinson talks about the many librarians who embrace not the educational philosophy of constructivism, or even the psychological theory of social constructivism, but the philosophical/sociological theory of social constructionism. Differences between these terms is explored in papers like the following:

  • RA Young, A Collin. “Introduction: Constructivism and social constructionism in the career field.” Journal of vocational behavior, 2004.
  • Vall Castelló, Berta. “Bridging constructivism and social constructionism: The journey from narrative to dialogical approaches and towards synchrony.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, vol. 26, no. 2, 2016., pp. 129-143.doi:10.1037/int0000025.
  • Efran, J.S, S McNamee, B Warren, and J.D Raskin. “Personal Construct Psychology, Radical Constructivism, and Social Constructionism: a Dialogue.” Journal of Constructivist Psychology. 27.1 (2014): 1-13. Print.

My paper in Reference Services Review assumes that the Framework is talking about the social constructionism that Wilkinson talks about.

**Often, among people of devout religious faith, there is a conviction that they think that their faith is right – in spite of their doubts – and yet they can still get along quite well with others who disagree (so long as they have their space and respect boundaries). They know that they need to disagree in peace because of the kind of thing Francis Beckwith observes: “God cannot be impersonal, personal, transcendent, polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, able to beget, not able to beget, relevant, and irrelevant all at the same time… Irreconcilable data gives us no knowledge of God whatsoever.”

Note: post has been updated since originally published for the sake of clarification.

The Rejection of My Proposed Session for the Minnesota Library Association Fall Conference

So, I was quite bummed that my proposed session for the Minnesota Library Association’s 2017 Annual Conference (to take place Oct 5-6), “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual?: Challenging the New Status Quo,” was rejected.

I was told that

MLA received many radical and worthwhile proposals this year and we were forced to narrow the selections to those that fit best with the session criteria and this year’s theme.

Here is part of what was in the application:

  • Describe how the anticipated speaker(s) is qualified or most appropriate at this session: The presenter has been a practicing librarian for twelve years (technical services, cataloging, reference, instruction, electronic resources), presented three times at the Lib Tech conference, and recently published two papers challenging the Framework in Reference Services Review and the Christian Librarian.
  • Describe the proposed session (250 words or fewer): The session will briefly summarize the content of the author’s two published papers challenging the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame of the Framework, discuss the first challenges to the articles (limited thusfar to listserv discussions), and discuss possible next steps to get this frame changed.
  • Indicate which of the following tracks are the most appropriate for this session: Challenge – Push boundaries, take risks, question conventionality
  • Describe the anticipated target audience for this session: For librarians who are interested in the Framework for Information Literacy and its relevance for library instruction and who also want to explore the meaning and practical implications of the “Authority is Construct and Contextual” frame.

In happier news, my Reference Services Review paper has now been downloaded over 750 times, which is well beyond anything I thought would happen. The paper published in the Christian Librarian, I am told, has been discussed a bit by the Association of Christian Librarians’ Information Literacy Interest Group. I’m curious to know if there will be responses of any kind in library journals.

So, what’s next? I’ve got some ideas about the next steps I should be taking — and I’m always open to ideas — contact me! Keep an eye on this blog for more about the inevitable dissolution of the AiCC frame. : )

FIN

Bogus “Fact Checking”? Should you Trust Politifact, Fact Checker, Snopes, etc.?

Hillary said Bernie Sanders had not “had a single negative ad ever run against him.” Fact checker: 1-Mostly true. Politifact: False

One of my favorite blogs recently brought my attention to an interesting editorial in the Oklahoman: Bogus “fact checking” undermines media credibility

The piece, written by the entire editorial board of the newspaper, begins with a “We wish it wasn’t so” fact:

THIS year Gallup found trust in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has fallen to the lowest level in polling history. Just 32 percent voice a great deal or fair amount of trust.

Following this, they go on to talk about the new study from Chloe Lim, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University, called “Checking How Fact-checkers Check,” which “evaluates the performance of two major online fact-checkers, Politfact at the Tampa Bay Times and Fact Checker at The Washington Post, by comparing instances in which they analyze the same statements.”

Interestingly, only one in ten statements is covered by both organizations.* And as the Oklahoman sums things up:

…when fact checkers do examine the same statement, Lim says “there is little agreement in their ratings.”….

Of 70 statements evaluated by both organizations, Lim notes, 14 “received two completely opposite ratings from the fact-checkers.”

“While 14 may not seem as big a number, it implies that 1 out of every 5 times, one fact-checker considers a statement true while the other fact-checker flags the same statement as a lie,” Lim writes.

The agreement rate of fact checkers is “much lower than what is acceptable for social scientific coding.”

As Mark Hemingway, writing at The Weekly Standard, noted, “if you know what a garbage fire the issue of accuracy in social science is, that is really saying something.” Yet Lim’s findings will surprise few who have read media fact checks closely.

“if you know what a garbage fire the issue of accuracy in social science is, that is really saying something.” — Mark Hemingway.

And the Oklahoman also speaks about other studies as well, leading to their conclusion:

Two studies, conducted by officials at the University of Minnesota and George Mason University, both determined PolitiFact was far more likely to rate Republican statements false than Democrat statements.

Put simply, media fact checkers routinely contradict one another, issue self-contradictory statements, and do so in ways that favor one political party over another. Based on Gallup polling, it seems those facts haven’t escaped public notice.

What about a site like Snopes? A fact-checking sites like Snopes has, historically, been generally respected because they were able to attain a reputation, across the spectrum, for real fairness and reliability. That said, things like this piece from Molly Ziegler Hemingway (yes, the wife of Mark H., pictured above), a conservative reporter I trust, make me less inclined to trust Snopes.

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 at all. Nor does the fact that there is no explanation on their page regarding a retraction or why the page was updated, etc.**

Of course, there is this question: Are you going to trust the Oklahoman editorial board? Are you going to trust that they gave an accurate summary of those studies? Are you going to trust the authors of the studies? If you are interested in this question, how much are you inclined to dig here? Are these rocks that you are willing to turn over yourself? Do you feel equipped to do so? Are you really?

Aw, shucks Ronald. Sorry.

We all live by trust of course. We have to make hard choices about when its appropriate not to “trust but verify,” an oxymoronic statement if there ever was one, but rather “be skeptical (yes, distrust!) and verify.”

FIN

 

*from the study, quoted in the article:

“Given the similarity between the criteria adopted by both fact-checkers, one would expect that a large number of statements will be fact-checked by both websites,” Lim writes. “However, among the 1,135 statements fact-checked by Politifact, only 6 percent (70 statements) were also evaluated by Fact Checker. … Of the 240 statements evaluated by Fact Checker, 175 statements were fact-checked by Fact Checker alone.”

**I lifted the text of the last two paragraphs preceding this footnote from my past piece here.

Images: Bernie: https://twitter.com/berniesanders ; Hemingway: issuesetc.org ; Ronald: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Reagan

Must the Rule of Law be the Rule of Love? Truth?

Rooke, Thomas Matthews; Naboth Refuses Ahab His Vineyard

 And Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” – I Kings 21:7

Reliable resources are connected to reliable sourcespeople. Generally speaking, our trustworthiness regarding this or that is tied up not only with our education and competence but our character as well.

So, for example, we can’t just be like Ahab, who took Naboth’s vineyard because he wanted it and could get away with it.

Or can we? In a recent paper for a class I am taking, I wrote the following: “One might well argue that violence from the strong – over and against the concept of the ‘rule of law’ (think here of the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard) – is the foundation not just of slavery but of most human political rule on earth.”

Thankfully, this is not the full story about what happens among us in America, and in the Western world more broadly! “A nation ruled by laws, not by men” we say. No one above the law! No one their own judge!

It sounds good to us. Presumably most all of us. Most likely, even a successful Westernized worldling opposed to the idea would feel they must at least give “lip service” to such a notion.

But looking at it more closely, even those who believe in the idea have very different ideas about what it means.

For some, it means that we should simply follow laws that other human beings — particularly those we find ourselves respecting — think are good. Perhaps here, they might even insist that we can’t assume it’s merely a contingent matter* – pointing to something like the presence of a “Golden Rule,” which has resonated with wise persons trans-culturally, trans-historically, and trans-existentially.

On the other hand, there are those of us who say that if we detect the presence of some kind of appreciation for a “Golden Rule” among the “human community of practice,” this certainly points us to the rule of something or someone that transcends us. Why do we even think in these terms of what is right and wrong, either in general, or for each individual? And how can what is personal and social arise from what is impersonal?

What happens though when times get tough? When our politics, society, and culture begin to break down? What happens when it seems – in order to survive – one simply can’t afford to trust all neighbors one could previously, at some level, deal with? What happens when one can’t afford to even trust there exists some real “Golden Rule” – much less that one is morally obligated to follow it?

Do we think seriously about what Dostoevesky said, or do we dismiss him?

“…if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

Atheists balk. “We can be moral without God,” they say. “We can embrace religious values without being religious.” But can they really? Perhaps some can be relatively good to their neighbor without a belief in God, but will those who follow after them? Will these look to outdo their parents and teachers in their rejection of, for example, “Christian behavior” as well – especially under pressure?

Still, don’t we all hold on to hope?: “Well, we all have our limits to what we think is acceptable,” I insist. “All of us think there are some things that are ‘beyond the pale’ and can’t ever be permitted. Things others must not do and we could never do. We are always intolerant of some things, and we even agree on what some of these things are (less so today, but its still there: cheating on someone, murder, etc.) And at least in this sense we can’t not be moral and be in solidarity with others!”

Right?

But is this really any consolation? More: is it reasonable in chaotic times? As the appreciation for the sacred, for honor, for history, for authority, for loyalty, for commitment, slowly dies?

Especially when people increasingly feel as if they have nothing to lose?

Yeats: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Perhaps some things are not to be permitted when it comes to some people, but maybe – just maybe – I may have to permit things I might find distasteful for the sake of my own skin and those I’d like to protect and remain with?

Perhaps justice as entailing fairness — or even just appropriate payback within properly established channels — gives way to, or, if you insist, is just supplemented by the law of the jungle? Kill or be killed?!

No!

Mercy…. Mercy!

(which note, can simply mean compassion or pity, but also has a meaning that assumes the concept of justice — i.e. not requiring of another what real justice truly demands…).

Which brings me to this question: Are we so confident that there is not very real religious capital, for instance, that is necessary in this equation? Should it be “Lord have mercy!”?

Without a true understanding of justice for wrongs done, we cannot live together. And yet, as human beings who know something is not right about us and the world, we also cannot live without compassion and forgiveness. For without mercy — a mercy that does not ignore the need for some real earthly consequences! — the felt need for justice in human relations often turns into hatred, despair… and unconstrained violence to the other who just isn’t “functioning” rightly.

E.F. Schumacher, in his 1977 book Guide for the Perplexed said:

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom.  The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it.  Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay.  Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims.  The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.

As a Christian, I think this: Jesus pulled it off. He loved even His enemies. And He brings disparate peoples together (see Colossians 3)

The price, however, was high. Is high.

Too high for us.

FIN

 

*Many contemporary elites do, of course, believe that this — the matter of ethics — is a completely contingent matter. For example, persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195). Of course, the wiser among non-Christians realize, en route to the positive change they seek, that building up morale through what can only be called lies and half-truths will eventually backfire. At the same time, it seems that for the Hegelian mind it is basically only a matter of time and right circumstances that determine whether *we can make something that is evolving/emerging true* – that we can “get away with it,” as Richard Rorty would say. In other words, going back to Chesterton, they alter the ideal, and then follow up by altering the real too. Of course, they can only alter the real so much (perhaps, at least to the extent that it can be done by changing laws and mores), given the presence of things that, in truth, will not alter their being — what they, in fact, are — for them.