How to Know Things

I’m working on a lecture that I want to hold in a few weeks. Here are some stray thoughts about it.

The present has been called “the post-truth era”. We are awash, it is said, in “fake news” and “alternative facts”. But something was amiss already in the middle of the twentieth century. Norman Mailer insisted on the existence of a “real world, where orphans burn orphans and nothing is more difficult to discover than a simple fact.” He was a novelist, of course, and twenty years earlier the poet Ezra Pound had defined literature simply as “news that STAYS news”. Today, we seem starved for facts that stay facts.

In this lecture, I will offer a number of practical strategies for surviving in the real world without getting burned by misinformation. Some of these simply involve building a certain habit of mind–cultivating a healthy skepticism and adopting a critical posture. But some of them also require an understanding of the sources of information and developing a technical facility with databases. The library has always been there to help us sort the true from the false and the truly new from the fake innovation. These days, perhaps more than ever, you will not regret knowing how to use one.

This does not just mean learning how to use our newspaper databases, although this is an excellent place to start, finding the actual “version of record” and tracing the development of a story over time as more and more facts come to light and early reports are corrected.

Many facts and figures that are reported in the media can be verified using the Library’s databases. Sometimes it’s a very simple matter. Also, recent events and facts can be compared to historical records of the same facts, letting you decide whether the purported “news” really is news. For example, if there’s a spike in demand or a dip in employment in any given month, is that something that the current government should take credit or blame for, or are we just seeing a seasonal variation that comes around every year?

Basically, I want to show that being an academic, and even just being a student at an academic institution, should make you “smarter” than the media. This mainly means not just accepting claims as true as they appear on your computer screen. Rather, a few simple checks can be carried out to see if what you’re being told even make sense.

In his usual hyperbolic fashion, Mailer explained the need for this sort competence: “we act in total ignorance and yet in honest ignorance we must act, or we can never learn for we can hardly believe what we are told”. One of the things we can do, one of the acts that is always available to us, is to go the library and read. We might construct and answer to Mailer’s complaint: we can, albeit with a little difficulty, believe what we read.

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