The past two weeks have featured an explosion of discussion about how to address lies in the political life of a democracy. Lying in public life is so pervasive that we have taken to an elaborate system of ruefully, but also sometimes gleefully, calling lies something else — misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, alternative facts, truthiness. As scholars, librarians, and publishers we all believe that we have vital roles to play in the defense of truth in this teeming environment. We can earnestly celebrate our contributions. But, we must recognize that no amount of information literacy, and no amount of education, no amount of gatekeeping, and no amount of dialogue, can alone address this challenge. 

An illustration of a tortoise swimming while carrying a scorpion on its back
It’s my nature….” A tortoise carries a scorpion on its back across a river, fol. 40b, The lights of Canopus W.599, 1847, Walters Art Museum.

“We Need More Education”

Some scholars, looking on in horror at recent events, have concluded that our educational system should do more. We’ve read pablums about the value of education in protecting democracy, with one famous historian saying (perhaps exaggeratedly): “The only protection against demagoguery is education.” Others believe we need more civics education and more civic-minded universities. No doubt more education and institutions that are more civic minded would be beneficial. But, technical skills and critical thinking abilities are not sufficient to prepare learners to discern truth and reject lies. It takes little time to make lists of those with liberal arts majors and advanced graduate degrees participating in, even leading, movements for vaccine denial, election outcome denial, and climate change denial. More education is surely better than less but being educated doesn’t prevent a liar from lying nor does it alone prevent lies from spreading.

“We Need More Information Literacy”

Information literacy is an oft-lauded strategy for addressing what UNESCO has termed the “disinfodemic” of our times. IFLA’s “How to Spot Fake News” infographic is available in no less than 46 languages! Nonetheless, as currently conceptualized, information literacy instruction is not up to the task. Based in educational settings and rooted in the assumption that students (and scholars) are using “closed garden” collections of carefully selected library materials, the models assume a truthful context rather than a search for truth amid a sea of lies. So much so that you won’t find any of the words true, truth, or fact in the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. Put more succinctly, “information literacy has never been about truth.” Would it be worth teaching students how to discriminate between truth and lies in the information they encounter and the narratives that are foisted upon them? Absolutely — but that would require an entirely different framing of information literacy than currently exists. Being able to recognize an information need and then search for, select, and use information to meet that need are indeed valuable skills to have — but they won’t save someone from using them in the pursuit of a lie.

“We Need More Gatekeepers”

Publishing executives have been watching political challenges to science in recent years with apprehension. Elsevier’s Olivier Dumon has said that, “the Enlightenment is fragile.” Taylor and Francis’s Annie Callanan gave a powerful speech emphasizing that, “more information is generated now than at any time in the past and yet shared truths have never felt more elusive.” Annette Thomas, then at Clarivate, emphasized that, “for me, publishing has always been about responsibility.” And yet, we face so many kinds of scholarly malfeasance and outright disinformation that take advantage of the process of scientific dialogue which publishers facilitate. To be sure, there is great value in the authority/expertise signals conveyed through scholarly communications processes and a need for stronger gatekeeping to enforce the quality, and defend the integrity, of the scholarly record. Nonetheless, there is no existing gatekeeping model that adequately protects the scholarly record from the attack vectors it faces. And, gatekeeping alone, even if well-executed, doesn’t prevent lying and it definitely does not prevent lies from spreading when “the public is a vector, not a target.”   

“We Need More Dialogue” 

And, of course we must consider the most common refrain — the call for dialogue, for mutual respect, for understanding. While presumably well-intentioned, this notion that truth can be pursued through compromise ignores the reality that “truth is not some compromise halfway between the truth and the lie, the fact and the delusion, the scientists and the propagandists.”  We cannot be afraid to call a lie a lie — sometimes one side is just wrong. Mutual respect, and the dialogue that can result from it, is founded on the basis of a common commitment to truth. Dialogue alone cannot save us.

We Need Fewer Liars

Certainly, more education is valuable; improved information literacy is needed; stronger gatekeeping would be beneficial; and dialogue can be informative. But, in an environment littered with lies, what we actually need most of all is fewer lies, fewer liars, and far less amplification of lies and promotion of liars. We need to strengthen our resolve and avoid the temptations to just go-along, to ignore lies in pursuit of our own interests and comforts, to call out lies only when we have political disagreements with their implications, and to hope that truth will emerge through compromise. As members of our communities and as experts, as scholars, librarians, and publishing professionals, we have the choice to insist on the truth. 

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Research Professional Development in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences, European Union Center, and Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


18 Thoughts on "Truth and Lies"

All the things you outline are fine, but the list seems to assume that regulators won’t get involved.

I think regulation of “Internet broadcasters” is almost a certainty after what has happened. There are plenty of precedents for this among other broadcast media, and the Internet may not be the only one affected by new or renewed regulations. Legislators are already talking about reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present information in a way that was “honest, equitable, and balanced” — many of the things that are missing from the current information space.

I am so glad to see someone call out the need for regulation of misinformation and outright lies in broadcasting. Fox News, Newsmax, and others like them have been pandering to Donald Trump and his followers to build their ratings and revenue at the expense of truth and their audience. The have been primary instigators of the insurrection we witnessed January 6. But it goes much deeper than that. It generates from family culture.


Yes, we need to be more information literate. Regarding calling “lies something else — misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, alternative facts, truthiness,” please note the distinction between being “misinformed” (incorrectly aware of the facts of a situation) and “disinformed” (having been purposely made incorrectly aware of the facts of a situation). It is a disinfodemic, not a misinfodemic. Disinformation is disinformation. On numerous occasions, journalist Ali Velshi (MSNBC) has reiterated the important distinction between misinformation and disinformation. One is a deliberate lie, the other is not. We should not shade this by distinguishing “disinformation” and “outright disinformation.”

Thanks Donald. We used the term “liars” quite intentionally to express the volitional nature of the act of telling a “lie.” We also specifically refer to the disinfodemic. I would hate for you (or any other reader) to think we are doing anything to “shade” this.

Thank you for the clarification Roger. We should also note that misinformation can sometimes morph into disinformation. For example, I would reserve the term “outright disinformation” for information that is first sincerely presented (“misinformation”), but is unresponsive to subsequent correction by another party. A correction may be advised (say in PubPeer), yet the misinforming party, while recognizing the error, offers no further clarification. Since few journals link their articles to subsequent PubPeer comments, then the original misinformation becomes disinformation. Thus, there are lies (disinformation) and damned lies (outright disinformation).

As scientists and scholars, we should indeed be careful with terms. While the phrasing “one is a deliberate lie, the other is not” seems, at first glance, appropriate to describe misinformation and disinformation, it still lacks what is particularly relevant in scholarly debates. At least in Europe, disinformation has often been defined not only as a deliberate lie but as a nefarious lie that is explicitly designed, presented, and promoted to cause harm (or to achieve other goals, such as profits or political points).

In addition to what Kent says, the science of science communication community has also singled out in recent years the importance of reaching influencers. Too often, doubling down on education efforts can have the perverse effect of driving an even deeper wedge into fraught conversations. Instead, what can be more effective is to learn from and speak to the opinion leaders of “dissenting” communities to better understand and address their concerns. These dissenting communities aren’t comprised of stupid people who should know better. Rather, we all employ perceptual filters to understand the world around us, and “dissenting” communities aren’t always hearing society’s truthful messages as intended. So, part of the solution to our collective objectivity problem needs to involve better understanding how truth is failing and why, and not overreacting with bans, crackdowns, and condescension. There will always be charlatans who manipulate the truth to please their audiences and pad their wallets. The bigger problem may be whether these charlatans succeed at scale, or just as small time snake oil hucksters.

I believe this is the heart of the matter and what we need to understand for future change: “…what can be more effective is to learn from and speak to the opinion leaders of “dissenting” communities to better understand and address their concerns. These dissenting communities aren’t comprised of stupid people who should know better. Rather, we all employ perceptual filters to understand the world around us, and “dissenting” communities aren’t always hearing society’s truthful messages as intended.” There must first be empathy, not judgment.

For those who advocate a sequential approach (e.g., empathy first and then judgement), I’m interested in your explanation of how long the empathy phase should last and/or what the criteria are for moving to the judgement phase?

I did not mean to imply there was a formula. Of course it’s difficult not to judge. But what if, for instance, you are dealing with a beloved family member?

On a more professional note, I came across this today, from “It’s not enough to build a good tool that will accurately determine if a news story is fake,” said Dorit Nevo, an associate professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer and one of the lead authors of this paper. “People actually have to believe the explanation and advice the AI gives them, which is why we are looking at tailoring the advice to specific heuristics. If we can get to people early on when the story breaks and use specific rationales to explain why the AI is making the judgment, they’re more likely to accept the advice.”

Personally, I would pursue a non-sequential approach … beloved family member or not.

Hoping the truth will emerge seems like a weak solution to this problem. It won’t. I’d favor your other stated strategies, despite their limitations. As long as it’s in the best interest of the liars to lie, they will.

I agree, completely. Both terms are necessary to describe the current political atmosphere. The American public has been subjected to both disinformation and misinformation at various times in our history, but to my knowledge (I am an educated 77 year old woman) we have never experienced anything so egregious, so foul, as what we have been subjected to during the Trump administration. His followers have morphed into a cult. Since we no longer send people to camps to be deprogrammed, the only cure for a cult is to bombard them with truth.

Epistemology plus morality. Good idea, but terrific problems with implementation.

And, I might add, we need fewer barriers to sources of reliable information. The clickbait shared across Facebook and other social media sites is almost entirely free to read and share. Yet, the reliable news sources and scholarly research that could be used to counter the lies are far too frequently sealed-off behind paywalls. I am not necessarily against paywalls–quality journalism costs real money–but until we find a better way of funding journalism and a different model for disseminating scholarship, falsehood will fly and truth will come limping after.

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