There has been recent interest among education bloggers about how we can help students evaluate information they find on the internet. This topic was particularly relevant to an article about Wikipedia’s accuracy. Recent posts by Miguel and Clarence Fisher also addressed the question. Both Miguel and Clarence seem to suggest that there should be a standard for truth that transcends the social criteria we apply when we rely on “trusted sources” and experts for our information. Even trusted sources and experts need to be challenged sometimes. Nobody is infallible. Miguel is uncomfortable with the danger of becoming insular and not remaining open to new ideas, which is something that I mentioned in my last post. New ideas are the breeding ground for innovation and creative inspiration, which is one of the great features of reading and writing on the web. Dissent is obviously important in a democratic society. The problem Miguel sees comes when ideas are recycled so many times they become dogma and displace critical thinking. The danger that Clarence mentioned is that accepting information as truth simply because it’s popular, or “common knowledge” leaves us vulnerable to accepting unsubstantiated beliefs in place of truth. There is a more structured approach to the problem that I’d like to share here.

Phi Carspecken offers a method for evaluating truth claims in his book, Critical Ethnography in Educational Research (1996). His theory sets forth validity criteria for assertions about the nature or condition of the world we as we know it. Carspecken acknowledges the thinking of Jurgen Habermas and American pragmatists Dewey, James, and Pierce in the development of this critical epistemology, which he sums up by saying that whenever we consider a truth claim, we need to look at the validity conditions associated with it.

Claims and Realms
There are three different kinds of truth claims, each appropriate to a different communicative realm.

  • There are statements of objective fact.
  • There are subjective claims.
  • And there are normative-evaluative claims.

These three communicative realms each require different validity criteria.

The first communicative realm is “objectivity.” Truth claims that are made about objective reality are assumed to be similarly observable by anyone. A disagreement in this area is due either to either a perceptual error, or to a discrepancy in the understanding of terms that are being applied to the observed phenomenon. An example of an application of validity criteria in cases such as these might be if someone were to say, “My new truck is 4-wheel drive.” The validity test would be to know if there is a new truck (perceptual accuracy), and to find out whether ‘new’ and ‘4-wheel drive’ have the same meaning for all communicants. Statements of objective fact must meet the test of “appearance vs. reality.”

The second communicative realm is “subjectivity.” Truth claims made within a subjective background are understood to have privileged access. That is to say that knowledge of the subjective realm is always available to the speaker, but may be concealed from others. The sorts of things that fall into this domain are emotions, desires, thoughts, etc. Others who are included in disclosures of these subjective claims must assume that the speaker is being honest if they accept what the speaker has to say. Carspecken says that “disputes taking place over subjective-referenced claims are ultimately structured by the self-knowledge vs. performance distinction” (p. 70). These claims always boil down to reputation and reliability because there is no way to ascertain with certainty another person’s subjective state.

The third category of truth claim is the normative realm. These are special types of claims about what is proper or appropriate. We can always agree or disagree with claims such as these based on values about what we believe to be right or wrong. These claims reference the nature of our shared world, as opposed to the objective world or a subjective world. Disagreements in this realm hinge on values and can’t be resolved unless there is first an attempt to reach “common ground” and to understand the values held by each participant in the dispute.

I like this model for evaluating truth claims because it offers a rational, and fun way to think about what you hear in everyday talk. You can begin learning to think about the validity requirements that are implied in conversation, or in what you read in the paper or hear on the news. Most statements have multiple layers of meaning so that even simple exchanges can be understood to imply a variety of truth claims. Students at the elementary level can learn to differentiate fact from opinion. It might be a stretch to get them to think about ‘validity criteria’ but I think we could involve them in analyzing the subjective ( my world) / objective (the world) / normative (our world) distinctions.

Using validity criteria, a person can know what sorts of evidence are necessary to substantiate (or refute) a particular claim. It’s important to note that we can’t know whether something is true or not from using this heuristic, but we can think about the sorts of arguments that need to be brought to the discussion. In the case of someone looking at “trusted sources” honesty is one of the criteria for subjective claims, but is not necessary for objective claims, since we all presumably have access to the same information. I suppose a need for trust arises when we for some reason need to verify an information source that is not immediately available to us. In the case of the “echo chamber” mentioned by Miguel which concerns adopting opinions within an insular social network, those would fall within the normative-evaluative realm, and are a question of values and what we believe about how the world should work - a subject that gets a lot of exercise.

At the very least, it’s something to think about while everyone else is busy talking.

Carspecken, P. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research. New York: Routledge.