Sunday, March 9, 2008

Skepticism, An Essential Information Literacy Attitude

In a recent column Time magazine's Michael Kinsley discusses his concern over two memoirs which were admitted by their authors to have been faked. One, written by a white woman, was about growing up as a half-Native American gang member in South Central (Los Angeles). The other was the story of a woman who claimed to have been a Holocaust survivor as a child, which features an episode of her having been protected by a pack of wolves for a time. Kinsley refers to these fake memoirs as "autophoniographies."

After the infamous episode a couple years ago in which James Frey's memoir turned out have been padded with tales which were exaggerated or non-existent, I moved his book from the biography section of the library to the fiction section. His wasn't the first and certainly won't be the last of such books.

Kinsley's response to the publication of these books was interesting and has implications for information professionals and those we teach: "[B]ook publishers--unlike newspaper and magazine publishers--do virtually nothing to check or warrant the accuracy of what they print." (I have a feeling Time will be getting a few letters over that comment).

I think we sometimes mislead our students when we imply in any way that they can be secure in using books (print or digital), online subscription databases, or any other source of information without scrutinizing each source with a skeptical eye.

I continually remind my students to "check every source." No source of information is perfect and all have to be taken with some skepticism. As a matter of fact, the entire process of research should be based on a kind of skeptical mindset.

And this doesn't just apply to bogus memoirs. Another recent incident in the news revealed that a study which most likely played some part in the author's winning the 2004 Nobel Prize for Medicine had to be retracted because the author couldn't later verify the results.

The bottom line is not that we throw up our hands and quit looking for information, stop creating knowledge, cease producing results--but that all of us model how to be careful in assessing and evaluating information no matter what the source.

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