Information literacy and the art of detecting crap

Information literacy is the ability to tell good information from bad information, or crap. According to Sturgeon’s Law 90% of everything is crap. (Well, I just looked it up. Sturgeon actually said “crud,” but it’s usually quoted as “crap.”) On the Internet, no editor or gatekeeper has filtered out the 90%, so it is not only publicly visible, but there is so much more of it than ever before.

I’m sure anyone reading this has received more than one forwarded email warning of certain doom from (choose one) a new computer virus / a defective product / poisoned food / etc. The first few are so alarming that you (and I) have followed the instruction and forwarded the warning to everyone in our address book. After a while we learn that forwarded emails asking you to forward them some more are almost sure to be hoaxes.

When I was in school, long before email or even personal computers, teachers had to warn students about a simple but non-obvious fact. Just because we find something printed somewhere does not mean that it’s true or useful. (I don’t think the term “information literacy” existed yet, but the need is much older than any name for it.)

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Since it is simply not true that all information is somewhere in the Internet, that is still a useful warning. But now that so many people will not touch print until all online searches have led to a dead end, it has become even more important to recognize that not everything on the Internet is trustworthy.

Exhibit A is the Plavix commercial where a well-meaning and concerned teenager points out that the parent has a very serious condition that could lead to a stoke or heart attack. All of the information comes from Plavix’s own web site, so of course the kid begs the parent to go to the doctor and ask about Plavix. That might be an effective way to make a commercial. I shudder to think of people making decisions on such a basis in real life.

In his essay The Essential Skill of Crap Detecting, Alan Shapiro quotes Ernest Hemingway as saying that a great writer needs “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” We all need that. And we need to apply it rigorously to everything we read. For instance, Shapiro quotes most of his examples of crap from either Republicans or big business. Are not Democrats, big labor, academia, or media outlets across the political spectrum just as likely to put forth crap?

The rest of this post is adapted from The CRAP Test, a reminder of what questions to ask by way of a clever initialism. The original seems wholly aimed at web-based information literacy.

C is for Currency

A twenty-year-old journal article may be quite useful and even current for answering some questions about history, literary criticism, or other disciplines. It would be pretty useless for chemistry. For some uses, information may become obsolete after only a month or so. Do you know what is current for the purposes of your question? Can you find the necessary dates on the information you find?

R is for Reliability

I suggested earlier that a drugĀ  company’s web site is probably not the best source for general medical information. On the other hand, if you’re looking for information about the drug, you need to use that site–among others. All the information there exists to make the drug and the company that makes it look good–and ultimately to increase sales of the drug.

Doctors have long relied on the Physicians’ Desk Reference (now on the web) for drug information, including comparisons of similar drugs by different manufacturers. It exists to provide clinical information without preference to a particular company.

In every field, some writers and organizations have developed a particular reputation for reliability. Anyone looking for information should learn who they are. Less well-known individuals and organizations may also be reliable. Generally speaking, an article that cites its own sources is more reliable than than one that doesn’t.

A is for Authority

The concepts of reliability and authority overlap. The Physicians’ Desk Reference is reliable because the medical profession recognizes it as authoritative. The CRAP Test questions not only the identity and credentials of the author or creator, but also the publisher.

In the print world, a number of publishers of books, newspapers, magazines, professional journals, etc. have developed excellent reputations. That does not mean that everything they publish is good or that everything published by less well-known or highly regarded publishers is bad. You still have to read and evaluate everything on its own merits, but the reputation of the publisher still indicates the likely value of their publications.

Online, some sites also have reputations as being authoritative. Of course, anyone can put up a web site. And anyone can write something and get it published on any number of article sites. Those sites have, or ought to have, profiles of each author, which can help determine how much authority they have on what they write about.

Most web sites, it appears, are commercial in nature. You will notice that I have affiliate links and and various advertisements on my blogs. That is because I want to make some money from them. For some, the presence of ads raises a red flag about the authority of the site. I will only say that readers should take note and decide the author’s purpose in publishing the information.

P is for Purpose/Point of View

People write and publish–especially on the Internet–for a variety of reasons. Some desire to inform: to present facts about a topic, for example, or to give instructions on how to do something. Others intend to persuade people to adopt a particular viewpoint or buy a particular product. Still others want to entertain or to vent their opinions or even work out answers to personal troubles.

“Information” seems to be an elastic concept. I have heard it defined so broadly that it takes in anything of interest to someone somewhere–a definition put forth explicitly to exclude any concept of misinformation. After all, we mustn’t judge. (Hmmpf!)

In library school, I read a librarian’s statement of disapproval of the whole concept of filtering computers to prevent children from viewing porn at the library: the library should not interfere with the “information needs” of middle school students!! A librarian wrote that. Librarians are the people who are supposed to teach us information literacy! (Sorry, that’s something I had to read for a library school class. I’d cite a source if I could remember it.)

Even though we seem to be living in a society that has dumbed down the definition of “information” so much that it excludes nothing, we still live in a society where people need to develop information literacy. That entails keeping a healthy concept of misinformation. Truth differs from lies. Facts differ from opinions. Humanity has probably always needed “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” Never any moreso than now.

Now here’s the odd thing about the CRAP test: notice that the higher the scores on C, R, A, and P, the better. Everything with low scores is just crap!

Also recommended: Crap Detection 101 by Howard Rheingold


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