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?


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]

4 thoughts on “Truth 2.0?

  1. Thanks for picking up on this thread, Britt, and demonstrating how you’re struggling with the issue yourself.

    I think you’re right to wonder if administrators who blog will be representative of administrators as a whole. I suspect not. I also suspect that they will be far more open to change (although I could be wrong) than administrators who are not online, which might give you and your students a somewhat skewed sense of the challenges administrators think they face in implementing changes.

    This issue of getting to the people who aren’t online is something I’m thinking more about. I saw that Darren Draper was posing questions about why Open PD wasn’t being adopted more widely, but of course these questions were being answered by an online community who could only guess at what is holding back their off-line peers.

    I’m also very aware of this because of work that I’m doing with some African-American students right now who are relatively clueless about social media (other than YouTube and MySpace) and have little idea of how these tools could be used to mobilize for action or for advocacy–two key areas that I think could create phenomenal change.

    Definitely a lot to think about. . .

  2. To me, blogs are a great source of information because they come from personal experiences. Many times there is a great divide from the “book” learning and what actually happens in the classroom. I have learned a lot more from someone who is in the trenches than from textbooks.

  3. I read this entry and was immediately intrigued by the dialogs that are created around what constitutes “truth” within the Web 2.0 world, more specifically blogs.

    My immediate reaction is to argue why this is NOT considered truth, what educational philosophers may refer to as “little-t truth”. This is the truth based on the evidence and circumstances that are presented at that time for that blogger or administrator. Now, you can then argue, with validity, the generalizability of the blog entry, hence the absence of “Big-T truth”. Therefore, you take a collection of blogs and search for a common thread present. Why can’t you then start to see this/these theme(s) as “truth”.

    Pat made an excellent point in reference to the connection of theory and practice. We now have a unique and potentially rich link, yet others want to invalidate the information presented in the blogs as “not academic”.

    I echo Michele’s last statement, “Definitely a lot to think about.”

  4. This is one of the most refreshing online articles I’ve read in a LONG time! Thanks! (I came across it in my search for the actual text of the Lincoln quote…)

    I believe that we have entered the most self-absorbed time in history. We no longer have to engage with people having opinons that differ from our own. We can actively choose to stay within the world of ideas that feeds our comfort. Worse, when we do encounter contrary opinions, rather than engage in civil discourse, there is a reflex to scream ad-hominem attacks.

    This loss of reason frightens me. I worked for many years as a Technical Writer, in which my purpose was to uncover facts and present them so that diverse audiences could quickly and easily access the material they needed and could put to effective use. I see this as one of the last refuges of rational thinking in non-academic locales, but I have concerns about academia as well, where lax thinking is becoming more prevalent.

    I assert this from observations of personal experience; this is not a scientific study. But it brings to mind an attempt I made to explain to a high school student how “casual rationality” works.

    He was asking me to cite every statement I made, and validate every assertion. I reached a point where I had to explain that, at my advancing age, I cannot possibly recall the precise source of things I know, let alone the author or the exact wording. Most of the stuff I’ve been exposed to, I’ve had to summarize, extrapolate, and make inferences from.

    I described to him the ways that I use “facts” and “confidence”. Certain things I absolutely know: 2 + 2 will always equal 4, even if I’m upsidedown on the moon. The value of Pi? 3.14 is “good enough” for most of my needs. The amount of gold on Earth? I don’t know, but I could make a “good guess.” I would have to derive it from other known facts, each introducing further uncertainty, but with the assumptions clearly presented, a number could be given. However, the accuracy would also have to be assessed. So, I research the weight of gold and the estimated weight of the planet, find some figures that estimate the percentage of gold among the other elements (in the Earth’s crust, or in its core as well?), I could interpolate. But how sure am I of that answer.

    I could be 100% sure that my estimate is “off” by about 50%. Or I could be 50% sure that my estimate is completely wrong.

    For each “fact”, I associate how confident I am that its information is reliable. I’m 100% sure about 2 +2, 100% sure about Pi, but I wouldn’t be too confident about the gold.

    So, the “aspects” I use to manage my internal datastore are:
    – unambiguous statements
    – a measure of accuracy of the statement
    – a list of assumptions and assertions upon which the accuracy depends
    – a measure of confidence in the statement and its accuracy.

    I was pleased to see that your student challenged the scope of the audience, and that you re-evaluated the assignment. Both of you were exercising care and qualifying the validity of the thoughts, and being careful to not assert as fact things that were questionable.

    So, more than your discussion about the relevance of the assignment, you demonstrated in practice the very lesson that needed to be learned.

    Very elegant!

    I enjoyed it, and wanted to share that with you.

    Best regards,

    BTW, I love the quote in your banner!

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