Good Sources, Academia, and Fake News

Fake news is a hot topic, these days, for reasons that are too complicated to get into here. But just the other day I was in a meeting in which the legitimacy of student sources came up, and I was reminded of two things:

  1. Teaching students how to tell the difference between good and bad sources is a recurring challenge in education at all levels, including graduate school, and
  2. It is largely education’s responsibility – to society – to cultivate the “information fluency” skills necessary for distinguishing between good and bad sources.

One of the education writers I follow – Mike Caulfield, through his blog Hapgood – recently wrote a compelling post on the subject of fake news and its manifestation in the classroom. To sum up his point – and I encourage you to read it yourself – Caulfield is skeptical of the universal effectiveness of heuristics like RADCAB and CRAAP because they do not require students to develop or exercise knowledge in a specific domain in order to judge the quality of resources purporting to belong to that domain. Using one of his examples: the website dedicated to saving the – fake – endangered tree octopus does not necessarily fail those heuristics. Those of us able to recognize that the website is probably fake don’t do so by checking the website’s sources – which it does list – nor whether it’s been recently and regularly updated – which it has – but because even a basic understanding of what an octopus is makes the website’s concept seem absurd:

That’s the weird thing about the Tree Octopus. And that’s what would make any informed viewer look a bit more deeply at it, not RADCAB analysis, not CRAAP, and not some generalized principles” (Caulfield).

Caulfield thinks that we need to know something about the domain in order to tell “fake” or illegitimate or “bad” resources from those that are rigorous, supported, and able to support deeper inquiry. He is critical of abstract steps or checklists, or at least critical of educational programs relying solely on those checklists (not recognizing knowledge as equally essential).

I’m not sure I agree or disagree with Caulfield; This feels like a conversation that can only benefit from additional perspectives, which I’d love to see expressed in the comments below. I am especially interested to hear from scholars in different domains weigh in on his idea that knowledge of the domain is an essential component. If that is the case, then I’d also like to hear answers to his questions, which he asks near the end of his article but which I’ll rephrase for our purposes here:

Do we teach our students to verify their sources with “detective work that uses a combination of domain knowledge and tricks of the trade”, or do we teach our students to do so by “asking abstract questions” without encouraging them to exercise their domain knowledge?

2 thoughts on “Good Sources, Academia, and Fake News

  1. Amy Storch

    What a great piece!! I will agree that students as well as a plethora of other individuals do not engage in enough detective work in verifying whether information received / being read is actually legit. Caulfield makes many excellent points and I think that his presentation as well as thought provoking questions should be integrated into a foundation course for our students. Knowledge is power and with this information, students would benefit in the long run as well as become better scholar-practitioners for the experience.

  2. Cadence Atchinson

    I agree that relying solely on checklists is at least lazy, especially at the graduate level, but I do think checklists and other tools have a place in making students aware of the process of evaluating sources. Empowering students to strengthen their evaluation skills is an ongoing challenge, one made more visible by the sudden ubiquity of fake news online. I like the example page–it definitely illustrates Caulfield’s point well!

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