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.
“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.