The Answer is Only as Reliable as the Question

 

The problem is…our questions aren’t usually very reliable in the way that we ask them…

 

Dangerous Information Ahead road sign

 

So I was at my usual haunt yesterday—the local university library—and once again I was arrested in my tracks by that bookshelf near the front entrance with the sign that reads “New Arrivals.” I have to give kudos to the acquisitions librarian, whomever he or she might be, for stocking the library with current and relevant titles that should have students clawing at them for insight… But with all the students apparently buried in their class textbooks and engrossed with their own personal social acrobatics, the bookshelf before me was free from gawkers…I had it all to myself. On this particular bookshelf, all the books stand on brackets face-out to show their titles and jacket art. One book with its fairly modest blue cover stood out for me, though: Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an information Sleuth by Leslie F. Stebbins (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).

 

Fingind-Reliable-Information-Online Book Cover

 

I hadn’t previously heard of this particular author, and I wasn’t sure from the title how “cheap” the information might have been. Was it a cautionary tale for high school-aged readers? A treatise on the recent phenomenon of “fake news” sources? A novice’s workbook on how to use a search engine? This is how cynical I have become…to be wary that the term “reliable” in the title of the book could somehow be a relative term dependent on one’s politically partisan perspective. Yikes.

 

But I grabbed the book, found a seat, and dug in, abandoning my originally intended focus of research. (Damn you, New Arrivals bookshelf!) And what I found was a highly interesting reflection by an individual who has Masters degrees in Technology Innovation and Education as well as in Information Science…someone who is an investigative warrior, as I like to say. And among all the smart stuff she had to say about the answers to questions we can find on the Internet, of course I found parallels and similarities to the subject of which this blog is about…tarot reading.

 

Because, let’s be honest. The majority of amateur tarot enthusiasts and tarot readers and clients who use the 78 cards of the Tarot deck pretty much treat the cards like they were a search engine on the Internet…

 

We ask a question… And we expect the cards to answer like Siri for all our travails and concerns in the moment. Even I, myself, am guilty of making the brash and overreaching claim that “the Tarot can answer absolutely anything that you throw at it.” This statement is partially true. Except that it’s not really the Tarot deck that is answering the question; rather, the Tarot deck—as a tool—can show or reveal to us clues and inspiration that we can use to address absolutely any question.

 

Share-Your-Question road sign

 

Be that as it may, too many misguided souls still think there is some sort of magic fairy invisibly living inside the deck that mystically provides direct answers to direct questions. Here is some of Stebbins’s writing about people’s use of the Google search engine platform, and if it doesn’t ring bells for you about how a lot of people approach using the tarot…then you’ve been as duped about the tarot as you’ve been duped and manipulated about using online search engines…

 

“…[L]ike most people who search Google…results were limited by the question…asked and by the failure of Google to identify the most useful information…

“Most people rely on Google when looking for a quick information fix, and many people treat Google like a Magic 8 Ball, therapist, lawyer, or trusted friend. The number of people that seek relationship advice using Google is so large that a whole slew of websites…has grown up around providing relationship advice, combined with advertisements, in order to cash in on this high demand. Similarly, health information is one of the most commonly searched topics on the Web and as a result content is being pumped in daily to attract readers: some sites provide reliable and useful information, others provide sketchy or limited information or are designed to push a specific product or service.” 1

“…By starting out the search process often in a biased manner, by asking the wrong questions, we frequently head down a road that has foregone conclusions…” 2

 

The author of Finding Reliable Information Online does her best to absolve us of a similar misconception…that the Internet is the end-all, conclusive authority for all knowledge known in the universe…when in fact, the Internet and search engines can be a misguiding bastion of misinformation, trickery, commercialized marketing, and even vandalized crowd sourcing information. How are we supposed to know what the truth is? Why would someone vandalize a Wikipedia page with fictitious or damaging information? Why would marketers promote falsified scientific information just so we’ll buy more of their products?

 

…Why would an unethical tarot reader tell you that you’re cursed and that the only way to eradicate the curse is by purchasing the special protective amulet mojo bag she’s prepared for an additional fifty-dollars?

 

…Because human beings can be awful creatures, that why. We are at greater and greater risk of not just being duped by information, but of having our cognitive biases shaped and manipulated by the huge influx of data on the Internet and in our lives in general. Our evolutionary habits and traits are not up to the task of deciphering the massive amount of data that is presented to us in our daily lives. And so we use coping mechanisms to mentally sort it, file it, and process it. One of those coping mechanisms is using cognitive bias. If you only have to believe what you want to believe, then you can discard all the uncomfortable and conflicting stuff and live in a mental existence that is much more stable and static. Since we humans hate change, this is a routine go-to coping mechanism, and we are able to live in the stability of our convictions, whether correct or incorrect as they might be.

 

Confirmation-Bias-Ahead road sign

 

But Stebbins, the author of Finding Reliable Information Online, has some thoughts and some recommendations, and she backs herself with the documents of organizations like the Association of College Research Libraries and their documents concerning Standards for Information Literacy Competence:

 

“Increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability….The uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information pose large challenges for society. The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complimentary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.” 3

 

Journalism students and editors of source materials in days past used to use an old-school evaluation list in order to test source information. That evaluation list could be summarized like this:

 

Currency

Relevance

Authority

Accuracy

Purpose

 

But in the crowd-source philosophy of platforms like Wikipedia and the free-for-all data presentation of the World Wide Web, those evaluative techniques don’t hold a candle to the wind. Instead, we have inadvertently fallen into—perhaps “evolved” into—a new set of heuristics (shortcuts) for processing our online information research:

 

Reputation

Bandwagon

Consistency

Persuasive intent

 

With these new evaluative techniques we have effectively reduced the amount of cognitive decision-making necessary to receive an answer…but they can also lead to systematic biases or errors in judgment. Beyond that, platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon take a lot of the discernment equation out of the picture for us because of their algorithmic targeting. Because it happens behind the screen of a …well, screen…we don’t consider the invasion of privacy that it entails…or the intrusion upon our unconscious psyches. But as Stebbins points out in a recent (and somewhat unsettling) blog entry on her own website, “there are large prices to pay for having algorithms dictate most of what we consume every day.” 4

 

Stebbins offers a new set of evaluative techniques that might more squarely address the conflicts of information discernment in the modern age of Engines, the Internet, and the pervasiveness of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Stebbins recommends that these evaluative standards be addressed even before the question is asked… And maybe we, as tarot readers, should consider: “Are these standards applicable to how we ask our questions when consulting the tarot?”

 

Confusing-Directions road sign

 

I would tend to shy away from anything that becomes formulaic when using the tarot with a client, because ideally every client who comes with a question is unique, has unique needs, has unique character. But that said, most tarot instruction often comes with very formulaic-type recommendations: we often commence our learning with the use of card definition books with dictionary-like entries, and pretty much every tarot book uses the same or similar outline; we are taught to use spreads, which in-and-of themselves represent an organization of thoughts and ideas, and it becomes easy to fall into using our favorite spread routines over and over. But as a system of self-check, perhaps we should more often conduct ourselves with a set of precursory standards to gauge the efficacy of how we’re addressing the questions we ask. After all, ethical tarot readers already have a set of codes that we use to determine whether the question is ethical (for instance when a client’s finance question is more relevant for the services of a certified accountant or financial advisor, or when a medical question can only be answered by a licensed physician…the client should ethically be referred to these professionals forthwith)…So why not another standardized set of codes to determine if the question is asked correctly? If the codes determine that the question could be asked in a more relevant way, then perhaps a reformatting of the question is in order

 

Here are Stebbins’s six strategies for finding reliable online information: How might we adapt these as a precursor to formulating our questions for the tarot?

 

(1.)      Start at the Source

“Hunt for a source of the information first and then the information itself… This conceptual approach is indebted to the work of Marc Meola and his radical notion of ‘chucking the checklist’5 as well as the many librarians involved in the new ‘Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.’”

 

(2.)      The Psychology of Search

Involves eliminating our cognitive biases that we bring to the search…ways we can develop metacognitive habits—thinking about how we are thinking—I order to adjust our search behaviors.

 

(3.)      Expert, Amateur, Crowd

Making conscious decisions about what type of advice is best or more richly relevant for the particular type of search or question. Example: A medical discussion may want the precision and expertise of a doctor…but for dating advice a peer may be the superior choice. Keep in mind, however, that “some researchers suggest there is a paradigm shift taking place in how we define credibility as we weight expectations about expertise, accuracy, and absence of bias with the desire for interactivity, transparency, and identification.”

 

(4.)      Context, motivation, and Bias

Context relates to everything surrounding the information, including the context of the search itself…is it a bar bet?…a research paper? “Context” also includes: determining purpose of the information; understanding how it was constructed; and asking questions such as “Was it vetted/edited/peer-reviewed/published/commented on?” Many of us rely on a very few trusted sources for many of our information needs…which is itself a bias tendency.

 

(5.)      Comparison and Corroboration

Treating every-day searches more like scholarly research…building upon previous findings. This particular strategy becomes harder and harder as more [untrustworthy] data infiltrates search engines. “The comparison process needs to involve [the use of] independent sources and the corroboration process [should involve] unpacking factual claims and confirming that they hold up.”

 

(6.)      Going Deep…or Not

Recognizing when a quick piece of information will suffice…and alternatively knowing when it’s going to be a long process of research and unearthing.

 

Overall, this book is highly readable and pertinent, and I would recommend it as a companion to thinking about and understanding current events and the malleable trust of information raging in the American discourse right now, and about which warning signals and signs are eminently flashing and ringing.

 

It’s hard to imagine that Stebbins thought her book—published in 2015—might have had the relevance and importance that it does today considering the accusations thrown at the media as an “enemy of the state.” These days we are faced with different levels of truth, as well as different truths altogether…and sadly it’s up to the consumer to determine their validity.

 

 

 

 

NOTES:

 

[1]       Stebbins, Leslie F. Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth. (Latham, Massachusetts: Rowman & little Publishers, 2015), p. 2.

 

[2]       Stebbins, p. 4.

 

[3]       Association of College and Research Libraries, information Literacy Competency Standards, 2000. (http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency ).

 

[4]       Stebbins, Leslie F., “Who’s Your Information Daddy?” Finding Reliable Information Online Blog, February 5, 2017, http://www.easybib.com/guides/citation-guides/chicago-turabian/how-to-cite-a-blog-chicago-turabian/ (last accessed 3/14/2017).

 

[5]       See: Marc Meola, “Chucking the Checklist: A Contextual Approach to Teaching Undergraduates Web-Site Evaluation,” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 4 2004.

 

 

 

 

 

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