a question about information literacy

Yesterday my husband and I were talking about a library world blog I had pointed him to (which shall remain nameless; I bear it no disrespect). He found it utterly meaningless, full of jargon he could not map to any sort of real-world phenomena.

I suspect, of course, that blogs written by and for people in his field (software) would have similar issues to readers from outside that field. The words are meaningless because you don’t know the jargon of the field, but also because you don’t know the assumptions; cultural norms that pass unquestioned in one place can look frankly bizarre in others.

Which got me to wondering — and I am asking for help from you information-literacy experts on this one — how can an outsider to a field (i.e. most of us, vis-a-vis most things we read, assuming we read at all widely) distinguish the genuinely meaningless from the merely to-us-obscure? When you don’t know the jargon, when you don’t know the assumptions of the field, what markers can you use to disambiguate navel-gazing windbaggery from serious discussion engaging with ideas you do not happen to know? (Are there such markers? I certainly hope so. Otherwise this whole Web 2.0 information filtering thing, as well as a lot of reference librarianship, is pretty much doomed.)

I realize I don’t have a good intuition for whether I already have a subliminal way of doing this, and that worries me.

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10 thoughts on “a question about information literacy

  1. Well, arXiv vs. snarXiv comes to mind as a recent site exploring exactly this question (in a rather different context). I don’t know if you’d thought if it yourself yet.

    There’s actually rather a lot of research on the relationship between a person’s understanding of a topic and their ability to accurately assess their understanding of that topic. Here’s a recent NY Times article touching on that a bit. My impression of what I’ve read elsewhere is that it takes a lot of work to be able to deal with jargon successfully, but that it is sometimes possible to reach that point without becoming an expert on the subject involved. (The example I’m thinking of was a sociologist or anthropologist who spent a year or several years surrounded by astrophysicists(?), learning their language and culture. He found at the end that he could do a reasonably good job impersonating one as long as the conversation didn’t become overly technical. I wish I had that link…)

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    1. I think I heard about that socio(?)logist — the one embedded at CERN? What a great job.

      (And something I sympathize with; I think I can adequately impersonate a coder as long as I’m not expected to contribute too much to the conversation. And it’s easy to get other people to talk about things they’re interested in, as long as you smile and nod and ask questions at appropriate places.)

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  2. There are some stylistic markers I tend to *distrust*: navel-gazing windbaggery is one. Anyone convinced that everyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. Anyone who cares too much that his particular opinion or idea is recognized.

    A big positive marker is self-deprecation, as it indicates someone accustomed to respect. (But not fake showy self-deprecation.)

    None of these are necessary or sufficient. People are tricksy.

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    1. So how do you identify navel-gazing windbaggery when you aren’t familiar with the field? (I think I would tend to identify it, at least in part, by the empty jargon, but if I don’t *know* the jargon of the field, I cannot tell what’s actually empty, and what just sounds meaningless to outsiders…)

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  3. The problem is genuinely hard: That’s why (for example) science journals do peer review. Even editors who are presumably used to the material can’t (with sufficient reliability) distingiush between good enough and not-good-enough.

    Sometimes it’s easy … but those aren’t the cases you’re worried about, I think.

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    1. I’m actually very interested in the easy cases. Remember I used to teach middle school, which meant I had lots of students who didn’t have information literacy skills much at all; I could see things they were doing wrong but I couldn’t necessarily articulate why they were wrong or what they should do better. Even the easy cases are not necessarily easy to teach, and I do care about the teaching at all levels. So I’m interested in what you have to say about the easy cases.

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  4. Jargon can in general be looked up. To some extent, using unfamiliar words is OK: the process of looking them up often entails some minimal instruction in the ideas behind it.

    The real issue, to my mind, comes when using words and phrases that people *think* they know. (If the library community decides to be the next to redefine ‘entropy’ you will all go to hell. Just saying.)

    As to evaluating… Yeah, hard problem. For many day-to-day things, this is why we have journalists, who are expected to know a bit about both the subject matter and the audience, actually know nothing about either, and so tend to fail abysmally at the task. And Steuard already beat me to linking the Dunning-Kruger article, so I’ll stop there 🙂

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  5. You can already guess what set of my detectors on the post in question: Unqualified “all” and “must” statements about the macroscopic properties of real humans.

    For any given definition of “wibble” and “snert”, the sentence “All worthy humans wibble the snerts” is almost certain to be meaningless, tautological, or false. Untrue, meaningless, and trivial statements can be much broader and more general than significant, true ones, so in any group of statements, the broadest should be the most suspect.

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