Sunday, December 20, 2020

Democracy Dies in Darkness


Democracy Dies in Darkness


With universal information platforms, we all become exposed (literally) to the  dangers of misinformation. A recent article in Health News Daily addressed some public-health threats associated with the vulnerability of contemporary media:


People who believed conspiracy theories in March were less likely to be wearing face masks in July, versus non-believers. And their intentions to refuse any future COVID vaccine intensified…distrust is extending beyond the usual "hardcore" conspiracy theory crowd, according to [Dan] Romer, who is research director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia…But to sway Americans, health authorities need their trust. And that could be a tall order, Romer said -- considering the confusing "mixed messages" that have come from government and the abundant misinformation spread via social media and certain media outlets.[1]


As the “information age” blossomed in the 1990s, there was a great excitement about the impending democratization of data. For centuries museums, universities, and a host of plutocratic organizations owned the storehouses of knowledge.


With the explosion of digitization projects, scholars and students could access an unprecedented trove of primary materials and data sets from around the globe at any time of the day from the comfort of their own homes or a terminal in their local public libraries.


Perhaps the most exciting elements of these new information resources was that in many cases anyone could use them. Access to these intellectual luxuries was no longer the sole domain of members of elite institutions. Even the unaffiliated soon had full membership in the treasury of learning, breaking what John Adams referred to as the “temper of mankind” that had kept knowledge exclusively in the hands of the powerful.[2]


Now that imbalance has been inverted — we all have too much.


It didn’t take long for educators to recognize a new, desperate need for training in “information literacy.” When I was a student researching some arcane subject, I might have been lucky to find five good sources over the course of weeks. Now a Google search may yield a couple of million sources in less than a second, but there still may be only five good ones. Knowing how to find the wheat among all that chaff requires real skill.


Forty years ago, information literacy meant being able to track it down, once you found a source, the probability of it being useful was very high compared to today’s odds, because the choices had been curated: librarians, archivists, publishers, and editors each had a chance to vet what was available. The process was far from infallible, and probably more important material was lost to the sifting process than kept, but there was some justification for our confidence that what we found had applicable meaning.


Some of that same vetting continues out of a hive approach. I am often surprised by the detail and sophistication of many Wikipedia pages, and the scholar version is truly valuable, as are tens of thousands of new-media sources. The challenge today is that these sources cohabitate the internet with countless unlegitimated neighbors, and there is little to differentiate them.


The challenges this places on scholarship are miniscule in comparison to sifting through the comparisons of valid and manipulated news, opinion, and social media.


On college campuses it is remarkable how many of our challenges are tied to social media. Rumors become propagated as fact, individuals post insensitive or hateful messages, and viral campaigns erupt without rhyme or reason. That scourge is all the greater in the broader community.


Much of our contemporary rancor and divisiveness has been bred and cultivated through misinformation. Some of that decline has been the result of a steady onslaught upon the validity of legitimate news sources by those who wish to insert alternate narratives.


The best practices of journalism have depended upon corroborating sources, fact checking, and rigorous editorial oversight. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in the Washington Post, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”[3] The Post’s motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” A free and open democracy depends upon a free, open, and independent press.


Effective citizenship requires being an informed member of society. Voting is a remarkable privilege that deserves to be exercised responsibly. Being a member of a free state is a privilege that also deserves responsible participation.


Our local and national news sources are struggling mightily to shape good public behavior, yet, every day, we see our neighbors flouting the recommendation of the CDC and the federal and state governments to abate the pandemic. When confronted, many of these scofflaws respond with conspiracies they have read on social media or “alternate news sites” that thrive on delegitimizing the bona fide press.


The democratization of information has created great opportunities, but it has also helped to obscure the truth, and in that darkness, our democracy is literally dying — 313,000 and counting.


As we prepare to emerge from this dark year, I hope that we begin to find a way to regain our shared possession of facts and govern ourselves in light of them.

[1]Conspiracy Theories are Helping Fuel Rejection of Masks and Vaccines,” Health Daily News, 25 September 2020.

[2] John Adams: A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, 1765.

[3] In a column in the Washington Post, 18 January 1983.


Friday, December 4, 2020

Please Try to Be Like Our Students


Please Try to Be Like Our Students

What America and the World Can Learn from Small Residential Colleges


The Chronicle of Higher Education published, “The 5 Biggest Lessons We’ve Learned About How Coronavirus Spreads on Campus” on 3 December. The five lessons outlined in the article are:


·      With precautions in place, classrooms and other formal on-campus spaces aren’t important vectors of viral spread.

·      Off-campus social gatherings are the top drivers of coronavirus at colleges.

·      Residences have been the primary on-campus place where the virus has spread.

·      Entry and surveillance testing are critical.

·      College-student outbreaks can lead to infection and deaths among vulnerable people.


Smaller institutions with four-year residency and robust testing and prevention protocols have fared surprisingly well. In recent conversations with presidents from peer institutions, we all acknowledged that the spread of the virus in our surrounding communities has been much worse than any outbreaks on our respective campuses.


There are a number of reasons for this:


·      We have used scientifically-based approaches to mitigation and prevention.

·      Those of us that have been able to de-densify our residence halls have been able to reduce the spread of cases when there has been an outbreak on campus.

·      Systematic testing has been invaluable for early detection and for identifying and isolating asymptomatic positive cases.

·      We have built a cultural of compliance that includes consequences for those who do not adhere to community expectations.


Among the scores of presidents with whom I have spoken, none reported the transmission of COVID-19 in a classroom or other formal campus space. On each of our campuses, we have set up protocols for reduced occupancy, adequate distancing, mandatory mask wearing, and increased sanitation and airflow.


At Susquehanna, all spaces are labeled for occupancy, doors and hallways are labeled to create one-way navigation through buildings, UV air scrubbers and hepa filters have been distributed in buildings, and we have ongoing individual and wastewater testing. We have also asked all members of our campus community to register their travel. There is a shared sense of responsibility that has prompted many of our students to exceed our guidelines.


Most of the cases we have had on campus can be traced to a handful of students who visited another campus for a social gathering.


The object lessons to be taken from our experience are:


·      We are dependent upon each other to stay safe.

·      Adhering to scientific guidelines works.

·      Maintaining best practices will protect us all.

·      Curtailing travel and remaining masked in the presence of all those who are not your roommates/housemates are of paramount importance.

·      A small number of non-compliant individuals can have a significant negative impact.


Throughout the fall semester, when students were alone off-campus, they frequently remained masked even when they were nowhere near others. I have had many people from the surrounding community praise our students for being good role models for the borough.


I hope they can be role models for all of us. As a nation, if we can muster the same commitment and resolve to keep each other safe that we have witnessed on our campus, the curve will flatten again as we wait for widespread inoculation. It is on all of us to keep each other safe.




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