Truthiness and library instruction

Last week I tried something new in library sessions for students taking the Global Health Capstone Seminar.  They’ll be working in groups to investigate and analyze a global health issue.  I wanted to frame their research in a bigger, more conceptual way before I launched into my song and dance about finding resources.

I started thinking about what is different/unique/challenging about global health information.  I came up with these factors (there are probably more factors, and of course these challenges can apply to information on many other topics).  Global health information is:
•    Produced by diverse stakeholders/players
•    Interdisciplinary
•    Highly politicized and potentially biased
•    Subject to differential access (information haves and have nots)
•    Written in many different languages

When I thought about the politicized or biased nature of global health information, I remembered the term “truthiness” that Stephen Colbert coined on the pilot episode of The Colbert Report.  Truthiness became Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2006, and was defined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” October 2005) and “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006).  As a reference librarian,  I especially like when Stephen Colbert said  “Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen.”

I started off the library instruction sessions by asking students about the challenging aspects of global health information and eliciting the list above.  Then I showed the Colbert Report video, which got some laughs.  I mentioned that last year Charles Seife wrote a book called Proofiness which looks at how statistics are used and misused – another good lesson for students researching in global health.  My take home message to the students was to interrogate information sources using the questions “Who says?  How do they know?  Who cares about these issues enough to produce information?  Why do they care?”

Was my approach effective?  Only time will tell, as students do their research and produce their capstone papers and presentation.  It was engaging, I think, and not the usual library instruction session.  It got me out of a rut and into thinking about information in a new(er) way.