Intellectual dishonesty, hypocrisy, laziness, and information literacy

I would imagine many of us are guilty of this: we read something in the popular press or blog, then we quote that “fact” in an argument or discussion we’re having. I know I have. I’ve been guilty of trying to impress others how much I know on a topic, without qualifying where I got the information.

Well, an interesting tidbit was found in a blog, too good to pass up as a conversation piece. You assume it is true. You hope it is true. You make the assertion without “fact checking.” Fact checking means seeking corroboration from an authoritative source, if possible.

Educators, students, politicians, and especially librarians should try to adhere to this high standard. I say especially for librarians because we are in the business of teaching people to do just that—it’s called information literacy, of which evaluating information being a key part of it. If we don’t practice what we preach, then we deserve being called hypocrites, even intellectually dishonest. Perhaps even laziness can be pinned on us, because in many cases it’s a matter of not wanting to do the extra work to corroborate the information. (Former presidential candidate congresswoman Michelle Bachman could be a poster child for this intellectual sloppiness, as she gained notoriety for tons of untrue or half-true statements.)

Our choice of words when offering “facts” (or more accurately, “opinions”?), could be better chosen than just a flat, dogmatic statement. That’s why “allegedly” is such a great word and should be used for more than just crime reporting. How about using “supposedly,” “purportedly,” “ostensibly,” “reputedly,” “seemingly”? And if we’re, wrong, we’re off the hook, especially if we use “allegedly,” which protects reporters.

The blog is very articulate, impressing us with its spouting of facts. But perhaps this popular source we quote got its information from another popular source. The source we saw may say, According to a study or poll or survey such and such. But did the source actually read the original study or survey? They may simply have been recycling what they saw in another blog.

The viral dissemination of inaccuracies is not uncommon with the Web. Rumors or misinformation is rampant on the Internet, one of the dangers of casual googling. Michelle Bachman said such and such–after all, if a Congressperson said it, it’s probably true (I’m sorry to be picking on Bachman, but she is such a good example).

A good example came across me recently. A student had a quote by Shakespeare, but couldn’t find the citation for the exact source of the quote (from any play or sonnet).

It was curious that googling showed site after site after site attributing this quote to Shakespeare. But not exact citation. Everybody seemingly knew it was a Shakespeare quote. I searched an online and print Shakespeare concordances for the quote, and nothing even reasonably close came up. Then, with a little more googling, I saw the quote attributed to a Roman poet. Checking some respected quotation reference books confirmed that it was a Roman poet who was responsible for the quote.

Mark Twain is another case where someone has been misquoted or erroneously attributed. You can actually find quite a few examples of such intellectual mangling if you take the time to look around.

We should learn from this to not be fast and loose and careless with our information, but, human nature being what it is, we’ll continue to be sloppy and lazy, perhaps even hypocritical. I know I’m no exception.

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