What is Truth?

In the New Testament Bible, John 18:38, Pilate responds to Jesus’s statement that he should bear witness to the truth with this question, “What is truth?”  Two thousand years later, we seem to still be grappling with this question.

TruthThis past year, 2016, was a year in which “truth” became very nuanced.  Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the 2016 international word of the year.  It defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  We saw this play out in the United States presidential election.  Fact-checkers described numerous times when candidate Trump stretched the truth, and yet this seemed to not matter to his followers.  According to a Washington Post-ABC News post last November, Trump was seen as more honest than Clinton by an eight-point margin.

This is the backdrop to next week’s EDU 6323 lesson on web-based search.  Google Search is the most used search engine on the web, handling more than 3 billion searches every day.  Last year’s statistics ranked it with nearly two-third’s market share globally.  The main purpose of Google Search is to hunt for text in publicly accessible documents offered by web servers. It was originally developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1997. I remember using Alta Vista before that…but Google rapidly became the search leader. Google Search provides several features beyond searching for words. These include synonyms, weather forecasts, time zones, stock quotes, maps, earthquake data, movie showtimes, airports, home listings, and sports scores. There are special features for numbers, dates, and some specific forms, including ranges, prices, temperatures, money and measurement unit conversions, calculations, package tracking, patents, area codes, and language translation. In June 2011 Google introduced “Google Voice Search” to search for spoken, rather than typed, words – an alternate to Apple’s Siri.

Search EnginesMy lesson includes an exploration of advanced search on Google, as well as an exploration of web site ownership through WhoIs and the Wayback Machine. I am asking my students to pick a 2016 political action committee from this website … and then first search for this PAC using Google to provide the baseline information for analysis. They will then compare their Google returns to those generated by Bing, DuckDuckGo and the Chinese search engine Baidu, Do they get the same results?  What is different? Which do they prefer?  Then I will have them analyze the website for their SuperPac to see if they can find who registered and authored that website. Using the Wayback Machine, they will see if they can determine how long the has website been around.

My hope is that this exploration will generate some discussion around “truth”.  Dan Rockwell noted this past week that when he asked CEO’s at a dinner what kept them up at night, several shared ideas around truth (among others):

  • Biased media creating mis-perceptions.
  • Seeking input from others.
  • Being viewed as trustworthy.
  • Navigating transparency.
  • Getting it right when people ask for advice.

The Chronicle of Higher Education this past week published a special report called “The Post-Truth Issue.”  Two articles stood out to me. Safiya Noble, in “Google and the Misinformed Public,” noted that “…Google and Facebook have no transparent curation process by which the public can judge the credibility or legitimacy of the information they propagate.”  She goes on to say:

“Online search can oversimplify complex phenomena. The results, ranked by algorithms treated as trade secrets by Google, are divorced from context and lack guidance on their veracity or reliability. Search results feign impartiality and objectivity, even as they fail to provide essential information and knowledge we need: knowledge traditionally acquired through teachers, professors, books, history, and experience.”

Lucy Ferriss, in “Post-Truth and Chaos,” had an interesting closing:

“Truth, in other words, is a thing — a goal, a bedrock, a provable hypothesis, a conclusion from evidence, an insight to which, per Keats, the perception of beauty can bring us. Post-truth is a strategy. Its relationship to truth is strategic. Its goal is the exploitation of emotion. And while it cannot kill truth, it does in a way look past it, as a hubristic traveler might try to look past that North Star, and find beyond it utter darkness, nothingness, chaos.”

Determining validity on the web should be a part of digital literacy.  At lunch this past month with Enoch Hale, Director of VCU’s new Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, he made an interesting comment that his job really was more about “thinking” – thinking critically – than teaching or learning.  As we approach this next week, I want my EDU6323 students to think critically about what they find on the web, and about truth.

Truth?

{Graphics: Edgar, EvidenceUnseen}

Truth 2.0?

There was a very interesting article by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post this past Sunday entitled “Truth: Can You Handle It?” The article starts with a well-known witty saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

“How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

Monica points out that while you can find this quote in some 11,000 different web pages – including Brainy Quote and World of Quotes – Abraham Lincoln never said this. Lincoln’s quote was about a cow, not a dog. Her question – what happens to the concepts of truth and knowledge in a user-generated world of information saturation?

Truth

She goes on to talk about how students today rely on Wikipedia and Google searches without validating the information. They count on the wisdom of the crowds, and that wisdom is typically pretty good. If, however, they never question the “facts,” then pretty good will eventually fail them. For instance, a Google search for “smoking does not cause cancer” returns 4,530 webwsites. One of the key points of this article is that students today are increasingly passive and want their information fast….not necessarily accurate. Watching my emersion into Web 2.0 world of blogging and twittering, I wonder increasingly if the same can be said about us early adopters?

This was on my mind this weekend as I graded papers from my graduate students. These are all K-12 teachers working on their masters degree, and I had asked them to draft a paper describing the challenges school administrators face in implementing change in school systems. I had suggested to them that they might review some blogs written by school administrators in researching their papers, and was pleased to see that several did in fact quote from blogs. I mentioned my pleasure on Twitter and got an email back from Jeff Nugent framing questions that immediately connected my tasking to Hesse’s article. The email asked:

  • Can blog postings be used to support / refute arguments in academic papers?
  • How is the authenticity / authority of blogs determined?
  • Does collective intelligence approximate a form of peer review?

This obviously goes to the question of the validity of blog posts as a form of scholarship…but I had not dropped that conceptual thought down to the homework level. I can not find the percentage of school administrators who blog, but I would suspect that it is relatively small. If administrators who blog are on the fringes, can their views on implementing change be generalized to school systems nationwide? I really do not know, but it is troubling that I had not thought about this before making my suggestion to my students.

We are swimming in Web 2.0 rapids where information washes over us 24/7. My personal learning network consists of RSS feeds into Google Reader, network feeds into delicious, and Twitter feeds round the clock. However, as Michele Martin noted so eloquently in “Understanding Homophily on the Web,” we tend to associate online primarily with those people who think as we do, which in turn can cause us tune out the possibilities that there are other ways to think.”

She says:

“One of the things that I think we easily forget online is that there are a lot of people who are NOT represented there. Zuckerman, for example, argues that there’s a very real digital divide between developing nations and the developed world when it comes to using social media. We also have continuing divides within our own nations. In the US, only 56% of African Americans are online. I was unable to find the percentages of them who are blogging, but I would assume that it’s even less than what we see with white Americans because there are fewer African-Americans online. And Danah Boyd has done a nice job of raising the issue of socioeconomic class in MySpace and Facebook, pointing to another kind of digital divide. My point here is that if we are getting a lot of information from and engaging in dialogues with other bloggers (as many of us are), it’s easy for us to forget who is NOT part of the conversations. We end up operating in siloes without even knowing it. ”

Dog Leg

Abraham Lincoln talked about cows, not dogs. I point my students to blogs as sources of information, but do those sources have a leg to stand on? In posting this question here on the web, I am posting it to the community I identify with and feel comfortable with…so one wonders if I will hear alternate opinions?

What do YOU think?

[Photo Credits: Jean-Francois Chenier, Stella Dauer]