Category: Library Science

Calling Bullshit

Cover image for Calling Bullshit by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

ISBN 9780525509196

“Myths are most difficult to debunk when they are interwoven with a person’s worldview and sense of cultural identity.”

In the information age, we enjoy unprecedented access to knowledge. However, the deluge is difficult to sift, and there is more fake news, propaganda, and disinformation than ever before. All of this requires time and energy to sort through, and many people feel as if they do not have the necessary skills to perform such an assessment. Calling Bullshit offers a toolkit for spotting misinformation and disinformation, as well as suggestions for how to approach the actual act of calling bullshit when someone has shared questionable data. It also provides readers some suggestions for guarding against their own confirmation biases or desire to be right. Based on their course of the same name taught at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West lay out a toolbox for skeptics in the information age.

Calling Bullshit includes the type of skills that are taught to librarians, journalists, and scientists, all professions where assessing the accuracy of information is paramount. However, it also aims to teach readers strategies for spotting misinformation and disinformation that don’t rely on expertise in any particular field. For example, you don’t need to be a scientist to check the axes of a graph to make sure they haven’t been inappropriately foreshortened, or that the intervals are even. Nor do you need to be a computer programmer to consider the quality of that data that goes into the black box algorithm. If garbage goes in, garbage will inevitably come out, regardless of what happens in between. As the authors put it, “there’s no magical algorithm that can spin flax into gold. You can’t compensate for bad data. If someone tells you otherwise, they are bullshitting.”

The authors are specifically interested in the type of claims that cloak themselves in math, science, or other quantitative evidence as a means of trying to appear more valid than they actually are. This strategy is often effective because people are less likely to question quantitative evidence, often because they do not feel competent to evaluate it. However, there are a variety of methodological questions from sampling method to data presentation that anyone can ask of a study, without being an expert in that field. Each is illustrated with a variety of clear examples that help teach readers what to watch out for, particularly crucial for examining information graphics.

When it comes to sharing misinformation, Bergstrom and West argue that “participating in social media is only secondarily about sharing new information; it is primarily about maintaining and reinforcing common bonds.” This goes a long way towards explaining why people are often not terribly concerned with the exact truth of their postings, as well as why people share articles they haven’t read. If the headline conveys the right emotional valence and social signals—what the authors call “tribal epistemologies”—that may be all that is necessary for them to hit share, cementing their loyalty to the group. It also explains why arguing with these posts can be so fraught and fruitless; beliefs that are tied up in people’s identities are much harder to refute because persuading them requires not just debunking the incorrect information, but also contending with the emotional ties they have to what it signals.

While Bergstrom and West laud the merits of science as a method of investigation, the book also includes an important chapter on the limitations of science, and the ways in which it can itself be subject to bullshit through human foibles. Science is a system that tends towards self-correction by its very nature, but mistakes can and will be made along the way. This includes an overview of both misreporting on science by the press, and a dive into some of the ways that science can be misused, from p-hacking to publication bias. This is particularly useful for thinking about studies you read about in the news, where correlation and causation may have been conflated, or other important factors gone underreported.

To quote Jonathan Swift, “Falsehoods fly and truth comes limping after it.” Creating misinformation is easy; debunking it is a much more difficult task.  Calling Bullshit offers an interesting look at some of the reasons why that might be the case, as well as the tools for spotting the most common types of misinformation, accompanied by illustrative examples.

You might also like Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

Reader, Come Home

Cover image for Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolfby Maryanne Wolf

ISBN 978-0-06-238878-0

Unlike in the past, we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read—and thus how we think—before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without our comprehension of the consequences.”

I was introduced to the work of Maryanne Wolf in grad school, in a course about multimedia literacies that examined perspectives on information literacy in an evolving technological landscape that requires new readers to acquire multiple skill sets. I read Proust and the Squid in 2012, five years after its initial publication, but by then Wolf was already deep at work on this new venture, examining how the principles she laid out in her first book had begun to shift in the evolving digital landscape, where babies can be soothed to sleep with iPhones, and some toddlers know how to work an iPad but don’t understand why a print book doesn’t respond to touch commands. Reader, Come Home seeks to examine what we risk losing if we fail to approach the new literacy landscape with eyes wide open, as well as what we stand to gain from an evidence based approach to the future of reading.

What drew me to Wolf’s perspective in grad school remains true of her approach to Reader, Come Home. While some critics raise an almost hysterical ballyhoo about the perils of the digital age, Wolf takes a more balanced and pragmatic attitude. She frequently references Socrates, who was an adamant opponent of the shift from an oral, dialectic method of learning, to one that relied on the written word. He was worried that students would never truly master a concept if they could look it up, rather than having to commit it firmly to memory. Sound familiar? Many a similar argument is raised about the digital shift, and while Wolf points out that Socrates was right that reading has changed the way we operate in the world, it has proved an invaluable tool for civilization. Her approach to digital technologies is much the same. What she is arguing for is essentially mindfulness, an observant approach to the changes that have already begun to subtly shape our reading lives, and will only more profoundly affect the reading lives of children who are just beginning their journey into literacy. Only by studying the evidence about what reading is doing for us, and how that is changing, can we make informed decisions about how we want to read, and how we want to teach future generations of children to read.

Doing our best by future generations of readers is a daunting prospect by all accounts. We have only just begun to understand the neuroscience of the reading brain, and how that landscape shifts when the reading occurs on digital rather than physical platforms. Furthermore, we can only guess at the future we are preparing children for; many of the jobs that they will hold as adults do not exist yet, after all. It is even possible that some of them will benefit from growing up constantly switching and navigating between multiple platforms and inputs near simultaneously. But while it is difficult to know the precise skills that they will need, Wolf argues that we cannot go wrong by preserving the development of the reading brain circuit that ultimately leads to deep analytic and critical thinking skills. To allow this development to be fractured by the near constant interruptions of the digital world as it is currently designed, would be a mistake in her reckoning.

Wolf divides her book into letters, addressed to the reader, and signed by herself, though this conceit can be easily forgotten in between. In the early chapters, she delves into the neuroscience of the reading brain, using the metaphor of the three ring circus. As she points out, reading is not a natural, hardwired skillset of the human brain. Rather, it is neuroplasticity that enables the brain to adapt a variety of brain regions originally developed for other purposes to this human invention. But the flip side of neuroplasticity is that we must use our skills, or risk losing them. A digital media consumption style that sees consumers change sources of information twenty-seven times per hour, and picking up their phones nearly two hundred times per day inevitably affects our focus. This fracturing of our attention affects memory, which in turn affects comprehension, and our ability to critically assess the information we consume, or draw inferences between disparate sources.

But if Wolf is concerned about how the reading lives of adults with fully formed prefrontal cortices and well-developed reading circuits, the heart of her worry is clearly much more focused on new readers—perhaps unsurprising in someone who studies reading acquisition. Several of the letters are dedicated to her ideas about how to teach children multiple literacies in an evolving environment, modelled on the best studies about teaching bilingual children. Her suggestions come with the caveat that we must continue to study and change these recommendations as we learn more about reading in multiple mediums. She specifically warns against forbidding screens, arguing that this will render them into tantalizing forbidden fruit.

Undoubtedly, these digitally native readers will grow up to have their own ideas about how they wish to interact with information. As a cuspy millennial, born before the digital revolution but growing up alongside it, I have some inherent wariness of how older people view my generation, and I have no doubt that younger people will come to feel the same about us. But when it comes to the relative merits of the digital versus physical reading, I think Wolf, overall, puts it well: “The stakes are far too high to cling to one side or the other. The reality is that we cannot and should not go back; nor should we move ahead thoughtlessly.”

Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

Cover image for Bibliotech by John Palfrey by John Palfrey

ISBN 9780465042999

“We do not know what form libraries and the web itself will take over the next ten to twenty years—whether they will move towards an increasingly commercial, locked-down, profit-oriented set of systems or toward a balanced ecosystem that includes compelling public options. The better future is one in which we value both economic incentives and the strong public interest in freedom of information and information privacy.”

In Bibliotech, former head of the Harvard Law School Library and Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) co-founder John Palfrey sets out to make the case for the continued relevance of libraries in the digital era, and sets out his vision for how libraries must evolve in order to survive the transition. Palfrey may not be a librarian by education, but he has significant experience in the field, and it appears that his core values—open access to information, intellectual freedom, individual privacy, and freedom of express—align with librarians, even if not everyone in the field shares his vision for the future.

In his introduction, Palfrey hits on many of the key arguments for why libraries are still relevant in the information age. Notably, libraries are among “the last physical, public spaces that are not devoted to commercial pursuits.” As such, libraries “function as essential equalizing institutions in our society,” because without them, “the world of the haves and the have-nots will grow further and further apart.” In a world awash in information, libraries are important not because they provide access to a scarce resource, but because they can help people navigate the flood, and discern reliable, authoritative information. Also crucial is the library’s public service motive; while a for-profit company will have a natural interest in directing users to their own resources, the mission of the library is to connect a user with the best available information, regardless of the source. And a library will do all that while also doing battle to protect your privacy and intellectual freedom, instead of selling your personal information to advertisers.

After making an initial, and passionate, case for the continuing necessity of libraries, Palfrey goes on to articulate a clear explanation of why this is a difficult time for these institutions. In addition to providing access to paper books, libraries are now also expected to provide access to that same book as an e-book (Kindle and ePub), an audiobook, and an mp3, while also growing a collection of music CDs, movies, and online databases, and they are expected to do all this on frozen or shrinking acquisition budgets, and without any additional staff hours. The budgetary crisis is such that Palfrey laments of ever finding enough resources, short of a new philanthropist emerging to become the Andrew Carnegie of the digital era. At the same time, libraries must figure out how to preserve access to all the new digital resources as formats shift every few years, and the hardware and software necessary to access old files becomes increasingly unavailable. The information in these first two sections is clear and well-articulated, and should do a good job of convincing most readers why libraries are still important, but also at a crucial crossroads.

Early in Bibliotech, Palfrey states openly that his target audience is the public, “all those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions.” He aims to make clear to these folks why libraries are still important, and how they need to evolve. However, he sometimes loses sight of this stated purpose, since many subsequent sections are more internal in nature, and clearly directed at a professional library audience. For example, he writes that “if the DPLA is successfully built and the public never knows about it but comes to love their local libraries even more, then the DPLA movement will have been an enormous success.” In addition to a lack of clarity about his intended audience, this statement also shows a misunderstanding of a deeper problem, namely that lack of knowledge about the resources and services the library provides is a tremendous issue that contributes to the persistent idea that libraries are becoming obsolete or irrelevant. We do need digital platforms, but more than that, we need platforms that are known and valued by more people than librarians and school teachers in order to ensure their continued support.

While our physical libraries need to be highly individualistic spaces tailored to serve the needs of the community in which they reside, Palfrey argues that our future digital endeavours must be much more collaborative, harnessing the numbers and power of the library community. As we continue to digitize our existing works, while also archiving the massive amounts of data that are now born digital, we need to link these efforts together into systems that avoid multiple institutions redoing the same labour. What Palfrey does not touch on here is the fact that while libraries certainly need to collaborate rather than compete, each institution must also inevitably have an eye on preserving its own sufficiency if another member of the network should fail. However, he does spend a chapter on how the existing copyright statutes complicate such efforts, though he does not seem optimistic about the chances of reforming them.

Like libraries in analog-to-digital era, this book straddles an awkward divide, sometimes addressing the public, sometimes librarians. The breadth is possibly more than most members of the public will be interested in reading, and the depth is insufficient for those already well-versed in the issues. Bibliotech is worth reading for an articulate description of why libraries still matter, and the challenges they face, but the map to the road forward is general rather than specific, and Palfrey basically rules out making progress through additional public funding for libraries, or democratic reform of copyright laws. This likely stems from a desire to give libraries a way to move forward without a change in external conditions, but while we must continue to do the best we can with what we have, nor should we give up on needed reforms simply because the political environment is difficult.

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