media literacy and the social discovery of reality

If you’re concerned about media education in the current fraught moment, you should read danah boyd’s “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?” and Renee Hobbs’ response in Medium.

In my crude summary: danah boyd surveys some media literacy programs and sees a simplistic set of assumptions about the way media does–and should–work in our world. Hobbs replies that the actual field of media literacy education, which she has labored skillfully to build, welcomes complexity and diversity of views and nurtures sophisticated programs that boyd has overlooked. Hobbs also wonders why boyd selects media literacy education as her target instead of big media companies that are making money by degrading the public sphere.

I’m no danah boyd, and I’m no Renee Hobbs, but I recognize the appeal of both perspectives from my own work in different fields, such as service-learning, civic education, and deliberative democracy. There’s a role for the relatively detached critic who raises basic questions, but also for the field-builder who tries to create networks that enable experimentation and debate.

In the case of media literacy, I can offer my own view of the philosophical issues at stake, for what that’s worth. I don’t know to what extent people working in the field agree or disagree with the following ten theses. As I present them, I’ll use climate change as an example. Climate scientists make strong claims about truth, professional reporters must decide how to cover their claims, educators must decide whether climate change is a fact or rather a topic for debate, and the public is deeply polarized about all of the above.

  1. Truth claims are social. At least, that is true of claims like “human beings are causing the globe to warm by burning carbon.” No individual can have a justified true belief about the global climate, all by herself. No one can read all the secondary literature, let alone check all the analyses in that literature, let alone reanalyze all the data, let alone collect all the data, let alone create the methods and instruments needed to collect the data, let alone train all the scientists, let alone pay for all of that. We can each check some other people’s work, abstracting it from the rest of science. But we must leave most of the edifice unchecked. When people tell you they have “looked into” climate science and found it either true or false, they are exaggerating their personal expertise.
  2. Institutions require trust. An individual must trust the scientific enterprise as a whole in order to believe its specific results or even to take them seriously. Trust is directed at people, institutions, or social processes, not at facts. Many institutions do not merit trust.
  3. Social institutions represent power. For example, scientific labs, universities, and newspapers are funded, staffed, and managed. The human beings who manage them are exercising power. Most other people do not have the same power or equivalent degrees, titles, educational pedigrees, access to information, etc. Thus we are asked to trust people who have power over us. That is easier for someone like me–a colleague of climate scientists who works in a Boston-area research university–than for someone far away and in a different cultural setting.
  4. Truth is deeply intertwined with values. We really are warming the globe by burning carbon. But if that implies that we must regulate economic activity–even at the expense of liberty–it becomes a value-claim. Also, we know that we are warming the climate because we have invested in certain kinds of research. Motivating those investments are concerns about the globe as a whole and about the long-term aggregate welfare of people plus other species. If your concerns were different, you wouldn’t spend the money to collect the data that has produced these facts.
  5. Politics is about values and power. When we disagree about values or about who has power (or both) we are engaged in politics. Thus politics is necessarily involved in topics like climate change.
  6. Ideology is an unavoidable tool for managing complexity and uncertainty. The word “ideology” has different meanings in different circles, but if we mean fairly general heuristics that allow individuals to make sense of the world, then we all depend on it. Ideology is unavoidable. And it tends to merge causal theories, value-claims, and identities.
  7. Some values are better than others. I’ve said (see #4) that climate science depends on values. But the underlying values of climate science are good ones. We should be concerned about all human beings, about other species, about natural systems as intrinsic goods, and about the long-term. If we were only interested in the short-term wealth of US citizens, we wouldn’t care about climate change, but that would be a worse moral stance. Values are contestable, but our responsibility is to choose the best values.
  8. Truth can be socially discovered, not just socially constructed. Knowledge emerges from human institutions, like laboratories and newspapers. Change the people and the way they work together, and you will probably get different results. That is a causal claim. For some, it implies skepticism. But people do obtain justified true beliefs–for example, that we are heating the globe by burning carbon. This is not socially constructed knowledge; it is socially discovered. The discovery requires cooperation, just as it takes a bunch of sailors to reach a destination by sea. But their ship can actually find a new place, not merely “construct” one.
  9. Institutions for discovering truth are scarce and fragile. Behavioral science has uncovered an immense number of human cognitive and motivational limitations, many rooted in our biological origins as hunter-gatherers. We are ill-equipped to make sense of large-scale phenomena and are unlikely to care about issues that affect other people far away. Yet we have built institutions like universities and newspapers. These are highly problematic and fallible entities, with long records of errors and abuse. They are also miraculous achievements that defy the prediction that homo sapiens will never want to discover truths or succeed in that effort.
  10. Media literacy thus means exhibiting the right mixture of trust, support, skepticism, and critique. It’s possible for people to trust a given institution, such as a newspaper, too much. And it’s possible for them to trust it too little. Trust is an emotion that is related to personal identity, but it ought to be informed by good values and rigorous knowledge as well.

See also: the Pew climate change survey and the state of sciencemini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategies (which led to a special issue of The Good Society, now in production); why we miseducate children to think of values as opinions; a media literacy education articlethe history of civics and news literacy educationis all truth scientific truth?don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalisticCivic Science; pseudoscience and the No True Scotsman fallacythe press loses its leverage; and generational change and the state of the press.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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