In my last column, I discussed research on cognitive bias and the human mind, and speculated that what librarians call information literacy is a deeply unnatural state. The human mind hasn’t evolved to analyze carefully or think critically without a great deal of effort, and even then, the effort is often misplaced. That’s of course one reason we educate people, and higher education particularly values traits like intellectual curiosity and critical thought that often help us overcome our natural intellectual inclinations. But education is not necessarily a salvation.
Last time I mentioned a study of college students from Finland who had trouble “fully differentiating the core ontology of physical, biological, and mental phenomena.” Phrased like that, a lot of us might have trouble, and for all I know I go around undifferentiating core ontologies every day. But it’s a bit easier to see what they’re getting at when you find that half the students considered at least four out of thirty statements like the following to be literally true: “stars live in the sky,” “a home misses people,” or “the sun can see a long way.” One doesn’t have to be trained in literary criticism to understand those are metaphors, or that houses are inanimate and thus highly unlikely to have feelings.
Sometimes higher education seems to increase beliefs that one might expect it to reduce. An article on “Paranormal Beliefs: an Analysis of College Students” compared a 2001 Gallup poll of average Americans with a poll of college students in the Southwest. The “Gallup Poll participants were decidedly more skeptical of psychic or spiritual healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, ghosts, clairvoyance, and witches” than were the students surveyed. In fact, contrary to their expectations, the researchers “found that an increase in education level is associated with an increase in the number of people reporting ‘belief.’ In other words, as people attain higher college-education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases.”
A study on “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs” found what the researchers call a “sophistication effect,” which means that people who are more knowledgeable about a topic are more resistant to ideas they disagree with. When analyzing pro and con arguments, “sophisticated participants produced many more thoughts overall than did their less knowledgeable peers.” When examining arguments that were either congruent or incongruent with their currently held beliefs, “incongruent arguments elicited far more thoughts than did congruent ones, and these were almost entirely denigrating.”
The sophistication effect is perhaps a more justifiable effect than mere confirmation bias, where we tend to look for evidence to support our beliefs rather than to the evidence for our beliefs in the first place. It even makes sense that someone more knowledgeable about a topic would be resistant to positions they disagree with. They’ve possibly thought a lot about the topic and thus have already reasoned their way to a conclusion. Except that the sophistication effect seems to hold across the board. It really doesn’t matter what the rationale, if any, for our beliefs is. Even if the opposing position has better evidence and support, we’re still likely to spend more time attacking the opposition than examining the strength of our own beliefs.
Education and intelligence can make it even harder to have an open mind, or to follow the evidence to belief rather than searching for evidence to support beliefs. In his book on why people believe weird things (excerpted here), Michael Shermer asks what he calls the “hard question”: “why do smart people believe weird things?” In that excerpt, he discusses beliefs in alien encounters, where the credible and available evidence is thin to nonexistent. Nonetheless, some very smart and well educated people believe in such things, even while acknowledging the lack of public evidence. What is obviously a matter of faith, the conviction of things hoped for and the assurance of things not seen, they consider to be something else, and can rationalize the beliefs to themselves even if they can’t convince skeptics. Shermer’s easy answer to his hard question is that “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
The mental difficulty, the unnaturalness of information literacy even when educated, accounts for some behaviors academic librarians often see, but should consider strange rather than commonplace. For example, most reference librarians have encountered a variation on this question: “I have my thesis; can you help me find sources to support it?” It took me a long time to be able to say, “possibly, but I won’t, because that’s not how you should approach your research. Instead, I’ll help you find a range of sources on the topic, and you should read them to help decide your thesis.”
All well and good, except I have no idea how often that actually works. ACRL Information Literacy Standard 3.5 states that, “The information literate student determines whether the new knowledge has an impact on the individual’s value system and takes steps to reconcile differences.” What the standard (understandably) doesn’t address is the likelihood that people will reconcile their differences by spending most of their research time trying to debunk stuff they don’t agree with, and will probably still not agree with it even if they’re wrong and the new information is right. And many of them might never do otherwise.
Last time I suggested that the unnatural requirements of information literacy, broadly conceived, mean that we shouldn’t feel bad if librarians can’t accomplish much with the time available to us, especially because, while academic librarians have embraced the concept of information literacy, it really includes everything we would expect of a good liberal education. Considering how difficult it is even for people with some higher education to think clearly, examine evidence, and change their minds in accordance with the evidence, we should be even more amazed that anyone ever becomes information literate in the full sense of the ACRL Standards.