Can teaching media literacy really backfire? A librarian ponders the scary argument

The recent rise in interest in fake news has given us librarians a reason to once again trumpet loudly the value of what we do in teaching information or media literacy.

Librarians were quick to establish our turf by calling out articles that mention information literacy without mentioning librarians.

After all it’s our superpower it seems.

Besides the expected library sources, pieces began to appear in mainstream sources such as the Salon, U.S. News & World Report and most recently PBS began to praise the role librarians can play in fighting the rise of fake news & many librarians were ecstatic, finally our moment in the sun has come!

So it was extremely refreshing not to mention thought provoking to see Danah Boyd’s provocative piece Did Media Literacy Backfire?

Boyd’s interesting if not scary argument

As a academic librarian in faraway Singapore in southeast Asia who has only visited the US as a tourist, I admit to not fully understanding the politics or the socio-economic context of the country.

Still, an argument she makes on how media literacy can makes things worse caught my eye.

At the risk of misreading her, this argument runs as follows.

Step 1 : We train people to believe they should and are capable of evaluating all arguments and statements.

We’ve been telling young people that they are the smartest snowflakes in the world. From the self-esteem movement in the 1980s to the normative logic of contemporary parenting, young people are told that they are lovable and capable and that they should trust their gut to make wise decisions. This sets them up for another great American ideal: personal responsibility.
In the United States, we believe that worthy people lift themselves up by their bootstraps. This is our idea of freedom. What it means in practice is that every individual is supposed to understand finance so well that they can effectively manage their own retirement funds. And every individual is expected to understand their health risks well enough to make their own decisions about insurance. To take away the power of individuals to control their own destiny is viewed as anti-American by so much of this country. You are your own master.

Step 2 : We train people to think critically about what they read i.e we train them to doubt

Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have.

Step 3 : There are no universal agreed authorities/sources that one must bow to.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) recently launched its’ new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and it states that “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual”

See for example a librarian’s explanation of ACRL’s threshold concept in the PBS article.

The framework recognizes that information literacy is too nuanced to be conceived of as a treasure hunt in which information resources neatly divide into binary categories of “good” and “bad.”
This new approach asks students to put in the time and effort required to determine the credibility and appropriateness of each information source for the use to which they intend to put it.
Real progress in information literacy will require librarians, faculty and administrators working together.
For students this is far more challenging than either a) simply accepting authority without question or b) rejecting all authority as an anachronism in a post-truth world.

Step 4 : People have a deep distrust of media sources and information literacy teaches them to question authority. Remember “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual”

If the media is reporting on something, and you don’t trust the media, then it is your responsibility to question their authority, to doubt the information you are being given.

Add the natural tendencies of people to privilege evidence that supports their original beliefs and media literacy backfires.

People believe in information that confirms their priors. In fact, if you present them with data that contradicts their beliefs, they will double down on their beliefs rather than integrate the new knowledge into their understanding.

Boyd’s argument sounds pretty scary to me, she basically says that by telling people that they are smart enough to evaluate facts and arguments and by teaching people to doubt and do critical thinking and in particular doubt authority, we may lead them to become more likely to make errors because they overestimate their ability to tell the truth from falsehood!

In fact she implies that in many matters it’s better for people not to try to figure out the truth themselves but to just trust the experts.

I believe that information intermediaries are important, that honed expertise matters, and that no one can ever be fully informed. As a result, I have long believed that we have to outsource certain matters and to trust others to do right by us as individuals and society as a whole. This is what it means to live in a democracy, but, more importantly, it’s what it means to live in a society.

Is Epistemic learned helplessness a good thing?

Coincidentally I had just read recently about the concept of “Epistemic learned helplessness” by Scott Alexander and Boyd’s argument reminds me strongly of that concept.

The idea here roughly is that there are some (or perhaps many) arguments and areas that you are not capable of evaluating because you either aren’t smart enough (or the person you are arguing with is just that much intellectually superior) or more likely didn’t have the time to acquire the background knowledge to work your way around the minefield of arguments between multiple sides, so any attempt to evaluate the arguments will leave you hopeless confused and getting “Epistemic learned helplessness” where you refuse to evaluate arguments anymore and stay with your default state is a good thing!

Scott points out quite fairly, that he can probably win most arguments through sheer force of intellect and knowledge regardless of position taken. If you think this isn’t likely consider that most adults can argue circles around most 12 year olds even ones that are pretty smart due.

I don’t think I’m overselling myself too much to expect that I could argue circles around the average high school dropout. Like I mean that on almost any topic, given almost any position, I could totally demolish her and make her look like an idiot. Reduce her to some form of “Look, everything you say fits together and I can’t explain why you’re wrong, I just know you are!” Or, more plausibly, “Shut up I don’t want to talk about this!”

He points out that he himself is subject to this issue and mentions becoming totally confused on the arguments and counter arguments on a topic in ancient history.

And there are people who can argue circles around me. Not on any topic, maybe, but on topics where they are experts and have spent their whole lives honing their arguments. When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.
And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn’t believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.
And then I read the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct that I felt silly for ever doubting.
And so on for several more iterations, until the labyrinth of doubt seemed inescapable.

He then concludes he is just “gullible” in the field of ancient history and is just incapable of sorting out the truth without years if not decades of study. Like Boyd he states that in many cases it is perhaps smarter just to throw up ones hands and trust what the experts believe unless he himself has the background to evaluate the arguments.

As a dilettante in many areas, I fully understand how Scott feels. I have felt this way when reading various philosophical subjects such as the nature of free will, the newcomb paradox, the anthropic principle, the simulation argument, the possibility of a singularity via strong AI etc.

Perhaps a even better example for me personally might be the merits of creationism. I remember as a teen and young undergraduate reading enthusiastically every popular science book on evolution (Dawkins, Gould and later Dennett I read them all). I was confident armed with all this facts and knowledge I could easily laugh at arguments of creationists. Obviously in truth it wasn’t so simple, the best creationist arguments were not that easy to dispel and that’s why I suspect most debaters debate past each other because they don’t know how to counter each others points.

Taking a librarianship example, when I first started reading about the arguments and counter-arguments between various open access advocates (who at times don’t seem to be able to agree on almost anything!), I was tempted to throw up my hands and yield to Epistemic learned helplessness.

But most of these arguments are exotic and far from common day matters (even in the case of evolution vs creationism, perhaps less so for open access if you are a librarian) and while they are fun to muse over they have little real world effect.

Boyd’s argument reminds me that the lack of “Epistemic learned helplessness” can in fact be damaging when it comes to day to day matters for many when they try to decide on matters or arguments they aren’t capable of. (As I write this, it feels very “wrong” to my bones).

In a way it can be argued media literacy teaches you not to have “Epistemic learned helplessness” even when it’s not a good idea. Think Boyd’s examples of antivxers. Or conspiracy theorists who lack the knowledge and ability to see past complicated falsehoods.

Scott in fact argues similarly.

I consider myself lucky in that my epistemic learned helplessness is circumscribed; there are still cases where I will trust the evidence of my own reason. In fact, I trust it in most cases other than very carefully constructed arguments known for their deceptiveness in fields I know little about. But I think the average high school dropout both doesn’t and shouldn’t. Anyone anywhere — politicians, scammy businessmen, smooth-talking romantic partners — would be able to argue her into anything. And so she takes the obvious and correct defensive manuever — she will never let anyone convince her of any belief that sounds “weird” (note that, if you grow up in the right circles, beliefs along the lines of astrology not working sound “weird”.)


As a academic librarian who is closing on a decade of experience in librarianship and who tries to read widely, I consider myself fairly well qualified to judge for myself on most matters involving librarianship.

But in this matter I will have to pull the “Epistemic learned helplessness” card, as information literacy was never my strong suit, not to mention philosophy. :)

Still I wonder, what is the appropriate stance to take when evaluating information and arguments? Is it better to be slightly over-confident or under-confident in our ability to sieve out falsehoods to get to the truth? With the Dunning-Kruger effect can we even know?

At what point do we decide that we are out of our depth and either refuse to make a judgement or defer to the experts (whatever that means).

Or does bayesian reasoning as an approach to information literacy offer a solution?