August 28, 2020
Thanks to Peter Ponzio, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Over the past few years, the notion that facts are malleable and can be manipulated to support one’s position has gained increasing prominence in this country. As an example, consider the debate surrounding the coronavirus. Many in the medical community advocate the wearing of masks to stop the spread of the disease, yet a group of protestors believe that wearing masks are ineffective. Similarly, there is doubt that the number of coronavirus cases and deaths reported by Johns Hopkins is overstated. Given these public misgivings, how can an informed citizen come to grips with a method to evaluate disparate reports of fact?
The notion that facts can be manipulated in order to support a person’s opinion is not new; In the Sophist, the Athenian stranger notes: “Is it not possible to enchant the hearts of young men by words poured through their ears, when they are still at a distance from the truth of facts, by exhibiting to them fictitious arguments, and making them think that they are true, and that the speaker is the wisest of men in all things? (Plato 560).” The goal then, as now, is to determine how to distinguish between fact and falsehood, especially in an age when people can consult thousands of websites that purport to report factual news.
More recently in a collection of essays published by the New York Academy of Sciences entitled “The Flight from Science and Reason,” Susan Haack, professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Miami, writes about truth, and why it matters:
And then there is what I have come to think of as fake reasoning: attempts not to get to the truth of some question, but to make a case for some proposition to which one’s only commitment is a conviction that advocating it will advance oneself—also a familiar phenomenon when, as in some areas of contemporary academic life.
Sham and fake inquiries aim, not to find the truth, but to make a case for some proposition identified in advance of inquiry. So they are motivated to avoid careful examination of any evidence that might impugn the proposition for which they are seeking to make a case, to play down or obfuscate the importance or relevance of such evidence, to contort themselves explaining it away. The genuine inquirer, by contrast, wants to get to the truth of the matter that concerns him, whether or not that truth comports with what he believed at the outset of the investigation. . .. (Haack 58)
When I was an undergraduate, we learned that there was a method to attempt to ascertain truth, especially when it related to research and writing. In other words, there was a hierarchy relating to research that started with foundational texts such as the volumes in the Great Books, then peer-reviewed scholarly publications, next textbooks, then general purpose magazines such as Time or Newsweek, and finally newspapers and other periodicals. It seems as though this methodology has been largely forgotten.
Several years ago, the Modern Language Association (MLA) published guidelines which attempted to revive the idea of guidelines for evaluating published sources. Since the time of my undergraduate work, online research has become more prevalent, and the MLA guidelines attempted to address the issue of the whether or not these online sources of information were trustworthy. A few years ago, I consulted the MLA guidelines and attempted to write a rubric which spelled out the guidelines in a way that was easy to understand and implement. Since then, the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at Loyola University of Chicago has adopted the guidelines for use by our students. The rubric appears below.
Source Evaluation Rubric, Adapted from the Modern Language Association (MLA)
a. Has the work been subject to Peer Review?
b. Is the author’s name prominently displayed? Does the article or work list the author’s credentials?
c. Is the text reliable or has it been modified in some way?
d. Is the publisher or sponsoring agency reliable and bias-free?
2. Accuracy and Verifiability
a. Are the work’s sources indicated?
b. Can the sources be verified?
c. Are sources properly cited?
a. Except in cases of original documents (such as the Constitution of the United States, the “Gettysburg Address”, etc.) is the work recent, and is a date of publication provided?
b. In some cases, there may be articles or books that might be considered “seminal,” and hence, the currency rule may be relaxed (e.g., Walden, or “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when discussing civil disobedience).
a. Does the article or work present two sides to an argument?
b. Is the work opinion-based and lacking in factual accuracy?
a. Does the work cover the subject in-depth?
b. Is the work written at a level appropriate for a college or professional level?
a. Is the work relevant to the topic being discussed or written about?
The use of guidelines, such as the ones listed above in the source evaluation rubric, go a long way towards answering the question of whether facts are malleable. Of course, guidelines such as the one presented above are not the sole determinant of truth or facts, but combined with a broad liberal arts education, can make it easier to sort through the various claims made by competing sources.
Next time you hear a claim about a “fact” that seems dubious, go through the rubric: better yet, go through the rubric with the person who claims to have the “facts” on his/her side. You might not be able to convince them that the “facts” that they propose are not verifiable. You will, however, have demonstrated that there are ways to establish the trustworthiness of online and print sources that go beyond mere opinion.
Haack, Susan. “Concern for Truth: What It Means, Why It Matters.” The Flight from Science and Reason, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Ed. Gross, Paul R, Norman Levitt, Martin W. Lewis. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1996, 57 -63.
Plato. Trans. Jowett, Benjamin. The Great Books of the Western World. Ed. Adler, Mortimer. Vol. 6. 60 vols. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007. Print.
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