Fact Denial and the Record Under Threat

Despres

George Despres, CRM
Program Director for University Records Management, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

As if we don’t have enough challenges, controlling information today. Part of our culture, at least here in the U.S., has embraced the acceptance of non-truths and the repudiation of facts in the record. It has also embraced the pseudo-record and fake news. Most of us, at least in this profession, know that we need to question all sources of information. There are also healthy debates around interpretation of evidence, and this is a good thing. But when the dominant conversation becomes an impossible stalemate based on spin, then the output value of information is neutralized. If we can’t ascertain some facts in consensus, then the record is mute. While those in our profession should be equipped to identify and segregate responsible journalism and authentic records, we live in a bigger world.

This world is convoluted by noise from bogus, malicious, and third-rate sources. Cranks with nothing better to do (or looking for a buck) post and masquerade screeds based on very little information, often supported with doctored images. Holocaust- and moon landing-denial hopefully provide two clear and non-partisan examples. There are many others that I refrain from posting in the hope of keeping this conversation above board. This shady content, further encouraged as click-bait, is no longer limited to Star and Enquirer front pages at the grocery store check out. Its prevalence is unprecedented given the channels that feed it. Freedom of expression is a core Western value. But next thing you know, we’ll be chasing down Sasquatch, mystical unicorns, and space zombies in earnest.

The rise of anti-intellectualism in our culture also undermines our professional values. A revolt against the “fancy, book-larnin’ types,” who have admittedly failed miserably in seeing and appreciating the big cultural picture recently, suggests that one doesn’t need to consult authentic records and record sources when gut feelings and “what cousin Joe said” will do. Real intellect and knowledge are derived from a true, authoritative record base. And they are in tough times.

Journalist Charles Taylor recently made the distinction between not knowing and not wanting to know. Initially stating that we can’t blame people for the former, as an educator, he rethinks this contention. Why? Because:

“Too many students [are] unaware of anything before they were born: creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are. A teacher’s job is to teach, not shame. But how do you teach when, even when they reach college, students are not expected to have basic knowledge of our history, our culture, our government?”

Our Principle of Integrity – “An information governance program will be constructed so the information generated by or managed for the organization has a reasonable and suitable guarantee of authenticity and reliability” –  is threatened at the societal level by the fake news and fact denial phenomenon. Both fake news and purportedly fake news have also been so highly politicized on both sides of the spectrum that consensus as to the real record in these cases seems hopelessly mired in partisanship. In other words, if you look at something hard and long enough, you just might see what you want to see.

One can argue that the Principle of Integrity covers organizational records and not society’s. But what prevents a society that embraces such confusion and fact rejection from filtering into the organizational culture? And how do we as keepers of the record foster and champion fact integrity in our broader culture? Do we take a position on this issue as a profession? Or is that not our concern? I think that we should care about this.

Happy holiday and New Year wishes to my friends and colleagues.

 

2 responses to “Fact Denial and the Record Under Threat”

  1. zshovein01 says:

    An interesting treatment of a timely topic! You may have seen recent reporting from some small towns in Macedonia where enterprising teenagers have been making money off of fake news, what I take from that is a reminder that the motivations can be less straightforward than the traditional concept of propaganda or influence supposes, and the line between information and entertainment thinner.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-38168281

    To pose a provocative question, what is the difference between:

    1) the Glenn Beck or O’Reilly type, who uses mutually acknowledgable or agreeable fact claims in the course of making ideologically novel arguments ( e.g. “Southern Dixiecrats were racists, FDR expanded government with support from Southern legislators, therefore the purpose of the welfare state is continued racial oppression)

    2) an Alex Jones type that fabricates their facts from whole cloth, someone for whom facts are indistinguishable from preconceptions and everything is ultimately circular. “The government is tyrannical, it put fluoride in water, fluoride itself must have tyrannical properties, it could be controlling your mind, therefore fluoride mind control is proof the government is tyrannical.”

    3) a professor at Brandeis, who uses various disciplinary methods to advance a controversial fact claim (say some finding in evolutionary biology) without addressing that the presuppositions of that disciplinary method are potentially controversial (e.g. methodological naturalism/empiricism as opposed to reasoning from the acceptance of religious revelations)

    Now, depending on who we are, we are going to want to say that these activities are different and one of them is valid over the others, but in every case there are unacknowledged underlying controversies about what truth is and how it can be established, what the role or importance of facts are and how they relate to truth. Which one of the three we sympathize with is rarely a function of our having worked out a complex articulation that systemically addresses those philosophical questions– instead we choose between them for fundamentally sociological reasons, i.e. what type of person we are, level of education, income, race, so forth. When we hear things that are sociologically agreeable we accept them with little thought and we feel good for having accepted them– for knowing that our tribe is righteous and we are capable of perceiving why– we have received the information, even if it is as complex as the Brandeisian professor’s journal article, in a basically complacent, self-affirming way. We receive it as entertainment.

    If that’s the case, then promoting truth in records and factuality in journalism is a lot more like socializing outsiders into the values of our tribe than it is like making an impervious mathematical proof that will prevail in a measured philosophical argument. When an institution, like the modern university, is structurally exclusive, both financially and in terms of what it considers prerequisites to admittance, then it’s going to be handicapped when competing with those who are willing to evangelize to all believers like Fox News. The difficulty the professor faces isn’t primarily that their claims and arguments are so complex and factual– Glenn Beck can get convoluted, he certainly requires intelligence to follow!– but that the self-conscious entertainers are meeting the audience where they are instead of trying to reinforce a hierarchy of expertise.

    Socrates wandered the streets of Athens. Diogenes lived in a trash can. But the wisest professor at Brandeis lives out of an office and teaches students who came into the class in basic agreement about what they expect to learn, students who are going to experience the class as passive consumers of ego-affirming entertainment: the same mode as fans of Beck or Jones. When this is the case can we be surprised, in light of the global distribution of income and education, that Macedonian websites will become dominant in the infotainment business? Those Macedonian teens are the ultimate competitors because they are totally ends-oriented profit-seekers, whereas even Alex Jones has to flatter himself by believing that all his claims serve a coherent ideology, the teens are free to write stories based solely on what they think will sell.

    Those mourning factuality should realize that they are really upset at having been forced to recognize their prior complacency!

  2. Kobi says:

    I am not certain what makes some people not mind or not know about phony news! It seems to me that it is an issue of cultural literacy, history and well-rounded learning. And in a society where “all” (LOL) information is presumably free and available 24-7 on the internet and we are consistently overwhelmed, I understand the laziness that leads to less retention. It is a very slippery slope, however, especially in times where net neutrality is threatened and someday soon our access to a variety of sources to choose from may be compromised. In addition, teaching to the test in our schools leaves little time to develop critical thinking skills. It is an interesting time we live in. Sorry for sounding like a curmudgeon – I am always like that when expressing my own personal opinions! I don’t know what the answer is, but chances are when we find it, it will complicate our work exponentially, just like digital records did, LOL.

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