In the Absence of Information Literacy

In the Absence of Information Literacy May 26, 2013

I recently had a conversation with someone on Facebook who was persuaded that students can be expected to learn for themselves how to discern good information from bad on the internet, and that their instincts will serve them well without their needing to worry about whether the sources they turn to reflect the work of credentialed experts or anonymous individuals.

I disagreed, and still do.

Here is a link to a recent article in Haaretz about what students are liable to end up believing when left at the mercy of those who have learned how to make their bogus claims seem persuasive to poorly-informed perusers of the web.

Holocaust denial, antievolutionary stances, Jesus mythicism – you name it. Whatever the form of denialism – and some are far more heinous than others – they all thrive because of an absence of information literacy.

Educators desperately need to make sure these skills are integrated into their curriculum.


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  • Bradley Robert Compton

    I find it slightly ironic that you had this conversation on Facebook. If your news feed is anything like mine, it is a constant reminder that people are incredibly poor judges of the information they find on the internet.

    Often times it takes me no longer than one or two minutes to refute many of the things I see on Facebook. Good information is out there, but people REALLY need to be taught good discernment skills, and I don’t limit that to students.

    • Tim Bulkeley

      There’s the rub, if we only teach “students” how to live in the contemporary world then the only solution is a return to authorised gatekeepers and credentialed “experts”. Better teach everyone.(one approach is to take the couple of minutes needed to correct egregious errors on FB…

      • Indeed, it would be fantastic to see everyone do this. But those of us who are educators have students whom we teach. How do we teach others? Can we do more than present our case publicly and hope some will listen?

        • Tim Bulkeley

          In the spirit of the networked age, we all teach each other. E.g. I recently posted to FB an anti-Monsanto image that I thought amusing and emotive, a friend (actually I’ve never met him he’s a friend of my overseas son) pointed out its poor quality as information (indeed probably false). Thus he educated me on information skills.I in turn regularly check some of my friends postings and point them to Snopes or other sites, and often suggest ways (like thinking: “If it seems too good to be true it probably is.”) for them to lift their game.

          Cooperation, rather than merely established ‘authority’, it’s how the networked age works.

          • As long as you have “merely” in there I can agree. Cooperation is a crucial element in learning, and always has been. This is not news to educators. But the danger is that many think that they can do without the authorities and experts, in which case we may have networking and cooperation, but no reliable information makes its way into the network.

          • Tim Bulkeley

            As you know we differ in the degree of trust we have in “experts”, I think according authority is earned from the one who accords it, you (it seems to me) are happy to allow that power into the hands of “guilds”.

            In reallife, of course, we both do what the other stands for as well, I have often to trust that the guild has got it right, you at least sometimes have to test the guild’s imprimatur.

          • Well, my guild is academia, which has testing and challenging built into its very essence. The only reason I think that those who have not spent their lives studying a subject ought to embrace the consensus of those who have is that scholarship depends not just on the formation of consensuses but also the attempt to challenge them. If scholars a wrong, it will usually be scholars who demonstrate this.

          • Tim Bulkeley

            I have been part of academic and church guilds for decades, I am a fan of guilds. I just don’t think we should abrogate our responsibilities to them too quickly or easily.

            [On a side note: The NT must be a much more unified discipline, in OT studies I’d be hard pressed to name any real “consensus” that lacks reputable scholars who beg to differ 😉 ]

          • I don’t think they are that different. Scholarship works by scholars trying to challenge the consensus. But that doesn’t mean that all such challenges will persuade the scholarly community, or ought to. And so that’s why I don’t think that a person who is not a scholar in a field ought to just poke around until they find a scholar who agrees with them. They ought to go with the consensus as the best estimate of the truth that experts in the field have been able to offer.

            Of course, when there is no consensus, it probably indicates that the evidence does not unambiguously support one conclusion rather than the other. And so the well-informed person can learn from this too.

  • SoWhat78

    Unfortunately, this article wasn’t available unless we were willing to pay for it. James, I understand that there is a lot of crazy stuff out there, especially on the internet. However, I think everyone should have the right to their opinion, no matter how crazy it is. I think holocaust denial laws in some European countries that imprison people for their views on the holocaust are crazy and immoral. What do you think about such laws?

    • Wow, I saw the full article when I first clicked the link, but now it seems to be behind a paywall. If I had known, I would have summarized the article more and embedded the video.

      I am as a rule in favor of freedom of speech even for those whose views I consider bunk. But I think it is understandable why some European nations which experienced these atrocities would deem the denial that they occurred to be a form of hate speech and extremely dangerous. Without knowing exactly what the law in question says, I cannot say more.

      It is a challenging subject, because everyone is free to think as they choose – no one can stop you. The issue is whether a society can balance freedom of speech with restrictions on the spread of misinformation. Going too far in one direction or the other is problematic, but any attempt to balance the two is always going to meet with objections.

      • SoWhat78

        Yeah, it’s too bad it’s behind a paywall. I see what you’re saying, and in all fairness, I’m not an expert on these laws either, but I do know there are people in jail for their views on the holocaust, and from what I’ve read they are imprisoned merely for their views. They have committed no threats or acts of violence against anyone, nor have they called for violence against anyone. It just doesn’t sit well with me that people are in prison for having an opinion.

        • From a few articles I glanced at online, it looks like Austria is the main place where it is not only illegal but punishable with serious jail time. An interesting topic I will need to look into further!

          • SoWhat78

            It is interesting. I hope you consider blogging about this!