Teach them skepticism

In any good Information Literacy 101 class, the Librarian or Teacher Librarian will introduce students to the concept of authoritativeness.

It goes something like this…

“So, who can tell me what authoritative means? And before you answer, I’ll give you a clue: authoritative contains the word ‘authority’ in it…”

And then something like this…

” Looking at these examples (say, two articles and a YouTube clip), who can tell me which attributes or features might give us clues about how reliable and relevant the information is? Who are the authors, and what are their credentials and affiliations? What is the level of respectability and authenticity of the organisation or publisher? Is the source current – and does it matter for this topic? Is the source peer reviewed?…”

And so on.

Not always so easy to tell

Especially for younger students, we often articulate the distinction between authoritative and questionable, by offering obvious examples such as a Government Health Report versus a YouTube clip made by a student about health. Or maybe we will contrast an article from an authoritative digital encyclopedia with one on the same topic from Wikipedia. We might touch on some of the problems inherent in information sources that are generated from within the public domain.

However, in reality, it is not always so easy to tell.

Furthermore, building up a false sense of blind trust for the traditionally ‘safe sources’, is tantamount to extinguishing critical thinking. No source should be considered above scrutiny. This includes, especially in light of certain historic events that have occurred since forever, publications produced by large corporations, charismatic personalities, and yes… Government departments.

Authority is not above scrutiny

In reality, librarians understand authority to be a form of influence that is not above scrutiny.

As the ALA (2016) put it

“[certain biases] privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations”.

Whilst it may not be appropriate to expect Year 7 – 8 students to scrutinize the knowledge paradigms or discipline-specific viewpoints from which authoritative information emerges, it might be appropriate to instill within them a good old healthy level of skepticism towards authority.

Certainly, this is a key point of importance in Media Literacy (“fake news” and misleading advertising, and so on), but even in general, students should understand that not only do experts sometimes disagree, but experts can also be biased, misinformed, lie, and occasionally be proven wrong.

Today’s rubbish was yesterday’s truth

There are countless examples of scientific and psychology related research reports which demonstrate the rise and fall of once authoritative voices.

An example I like to use with students, is that of Phrenology: the pseudoscience of determining a person’s temperament and cognitive ability by examining the size and shape of their skull. Phrenology was once widely accepted by science, and often used by authority figures to “confirm” the racial superiority of certain races over others. There are numerous peer reviewed journal articles available from the late 1800s – early 1900s, proving just how authoritative this pseudoscience was. It always amazes the students.

If you are interested in the example of Phrenology, here is a goodie: http://www.iapsop.com/archive/materials/american_phrenological_journal/phrenological_journal_v120_1907.pdf

You are all allowed to question anything

My final points on this matter, and advice to anyone new to the task of teaching information literacy, are as follows:

  • Tell students they have a right to question authority. As citizens of our world, they should question any information that doesn’t sit right with them. It’s an important part of ethical participation in society.
  • Healthy skepticism is not the same thing as paranoia. In fact… we should be skeptical of paranoia, since it is a breeding ground for misinformation! (NEXUS magazine offers a good example of this.)

But I’ll let the ALA (2016) have the final word:

“novice learners [should] come to respect the expertise that authority represents while remaining skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it”.