The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ultracrepidarian as “Expressing opinions on matters outside the scope of one’s knowledge or expertise.” While this phenomenon is nothing new, it has become a recent concern of mine when students are determining the credibility of a resource. In fact, authority and credibility are often used interchangeably, while delving into expertise is a bit more complicated. When considered in conjunction with one another, determining authority, credibility, and expertise can be the most powerful defense in determining if a resource should be used in support of a claim.
When an educator or school librarian asks students to determine a resource’s “credibility,” it usually means determining overall correctness. While defining correctness can be challenging in itself, to use a resource as evidence it must “conform or agree with fact, logic, or a known truth” (Merriam-Webster). The dynamic nature of information offerings has increased the need for examining a resource’s correctness. While the notion of disseminating disinformation is not new, occurrences have certainly increased.
Emerging as a generic term, “fake news” now encapsulates more than fabricated news generated by money-making opportunities. When a claim of “fake news” is made it can very well be the reporting of misleading information or an act of subversion that distracts from the truth. Because we may never really understand the intentions of an individual or organization to knowingly report misleading information, school librarians have a responsibility to consistently prepare students and educators to properly examine resources beyond the past practices of using a resource evaluation checklist model. We now have to unearth the resource from various angles to ensure correctness before it is used as evidence.
When determining a resource’s credibility the first step is to consider the authority. Who is the writer or creator? When a student researcher cannot determine a resource’s authority then we ask them to it set aside. This initial step, in many of the resource evaluation checklist models, is most important. Checking authority determines if a person or organization possesses the educational levels or years of expertise to ensure the information is correct.
Yet in my practice, students often stop checking authority after noting the overarching indicators of an author or creator’s background. They take for granted that the resource is created by an individual with an impressive educational background; the interviewee works at a high-level government agency; the company has been in business for 30 years; or the master craftsperson is the leading expert. All of these are legitimate when considering a resource’s credibility but may not establish corresponding expertise with the resource. Reflecting on my instruction, I had to ask myself if students were also checking for individual credibility to determine expertise.
Unearthing the details of authority must include pairing the authority’s expertise with a resource’s information. I have upped the ante in my resource evaluation instruction by asking students to determine the author or creator’s individual credibility when I realized students were simply looking for overarching indicators of authority. Overarching indicators are not enough when the information presented by a person of authority in one expertise is speaking as an expert on a completely different subject. Consider transcript proceedings of a celebrity speaking on a specific cause. While the celebrity is passionate and draws attention, he or she most often lacks the individual credentials that indicate expertise associated with the resource. Other examples include using a doctor’s judgment, prominent officials, or expert testimony to promote or persuade in areas that are not always within their expertise.
As educators, we realize these examples are nothing new. In fact, they fall under the logical fallacy indications of Appeal to a Celebrity or Appeal to an Authority. However, in today’s bombardment of information, we can only arm our students with a better set of tools. Requiring students to spend the time to check authority, individual credibility, and expertise can challenge ultracrepidarianism and build stronger responsible researcher skills. As we wade through this ever-changing information environment, consider how our school library resource evaluation practices and models need to adjust to the times. One of our greatest gifts to students is ensuring they become skilled at thoroughly evaluating a resource before they, in fact, make a claim.
Author: Georgina Trebbe
Georgina Trebbe, Ed.D. is the school librarian at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. She is also an adjunct instructor for Simmons University’s SLT program. Georgina’s interests include information literacy, collaboration, and school librarians as researchers.