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Scholar Outliers and the State of Scholarship
By
Volume 42, Number 2 - March/April 2018

Scholarship under attack

We live in an era in which solid scholarship is under attack from forces outside of its ranks. Some are political (denial of tested and replicated findings in favor of political ideologies that don’t approve of those findings). Some are part of an alternative movement that debunks science as biased, fake, or unreliable based on who knows what. Both, sadly, are becoming more prominent all the time.

We may see this as a passing fad, but I don’t think it is. In an era when the world’s best access ever to every kind of in formation comes through the internet, we have raised the role of the non-specialist to that of the specialist. This may well be an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, by which those least-competent at a task are the most likely to overestimate their ability (avaresearch.com/files/UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt.pdf). We have elevated the non-specialist and downplayed the expert. Sadly, if you don’t know the field you are working in or critiquing, you may believe your judgment is as good as anyone’s, but it is not.

The very wealth of digital information freely available to us is fostering a false sense of information competence that is simply not the case. Whether we like it or not, those who have paid their dues in scholarship are generally more competent than the rest of us by a fair margin.

Lessons for Information Literacy

I believe that scholarship today is in pretty good shape. Sure, we have junk science, fraudsters, and some outliers who are too far “out there” to be safe for scholarship. But scholarship grinds on. The conversation continues.

We do, however, have challenges. First, the cult of the outlier—the rebel or the hero on the edge—is still a tremendous draw. Society loves outliers, and both mainstream journalism and conspiracy theorists revel in exploiting the purveyors of novel findings. Helping students recognize the necessary checks and balances for outliers is a major task. Second, the huge doubts that have grown in the past few decades about the findings of mainstream scholarship have put the whole scholarly enterprise at risk. When terms like “so- called science” or “the scientific establishment” are used as weapons to debunk solid research, our students need to recognize that casting doubt in this way puts scholarship itself in peril.

Our message to those who are developing their information literacy must include the following:

  1. Despite all the naysayers in today’s digital society, scholarship is based on solid methodological foundations, foundations that we absolutely must rely upon.
  2. Most scholars (and I do mean most) are doing sincere, trustworthy work that is advancing knowledge on multiple fronts.
  3. We need outliers and novel findings, but anything that is new must be evaluated by the same methods the discipline uses to evaluate mainstream research. Being an outlier does not privilege its work so that it is immune from scrutiny and critique.
  4. There is no establishment conspiracy against outliers. De spite criticism that scholarship is an old boy’s network hanging onto turf, I see little evidence of this. Outliers may take time to be recognized, but this is not because of entrenched traditionalism. It is because scholarship verifies findings and does not buy into the novel without such verification.
  5. The mainstream of scholarship is vital to the scholarly enterprise, both because it keeps the knowledgebase stable while it grows incrementally, and because the mainstream tests and replicates the findings of the outliers. The mainstream represents quality control.

What message are we sending our students about scholarship? Critical information literacy is well and good if done judiciously, but if we are leading our students to believe that scholarship is rife with corruption and failure, we are sending the wrong message. Certainly, we are challenged by junk science, predatory journals, and research fraud, but these are nowhere near the mainstream of things. Any enterprise in life has similar flaws that need to be addressed but do not negate the good being done by the central players.

Scholarship, despite all its faults, is all right. In the main, it is doing the tasks that it sets out to do, and it is doing them well. If we encourage or even allow the message to go out that scholarship is buggy to the core and ripe for a revamp, we not only fail to tell the truth, but we jeopardize the very foundation upon which the world’s knowledgebase rests. Our students must understand that scholarship, its knowledge, culture, and methods, is something to honor. We can criticize it judiciously, but, for good or ill, we have to support it.

That is why I continue to assert that scholarship is in good shape. It is. Even with its outliers. Let’s trust those who do the work of scholarship to exercise solid quality control. They’ve done a great job so far, and I see nothing that tells me that they will fail to do so in the future. Long live scholarship.


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William Badke is associate librarian at Trinity Western University and the author of Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, 6th edition (iUniverse.com, 2017).

 

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