In Document we trust

How do we decide what information can be trusted? There are, of course, innumerable factors that come to play in that decision: the stakes involved, the subject matter, the situation, time constraints…

But if we had to draw out some generalizations when it comes to trusting information, it seems that we inherently trust some kinds of information more than others. Broadly, we can talk about this in terms of formal and informal information. Formal information is information that is organized, structured and traceable by others, and examples include a printed book, an agendaed meeting and a computer database. Informal information, on the other hand, is disorganized, unstrctured and untraceable, and examples include a meandering conversation over coffee, a handwritten memo and smalltalk. If you’re like me, these two categories may immediately strike you as fuzzy; indeed, I think we can best think of formal and informal as poles on a continuum rather than distinct binary categories.

Given this distinction, I’d posit that we inherently trust formal information more than informal information. Broadly speaking, that is. In academia, it’s de rigueur to reference a written source but generally unacceptable to reference a hallway conversation—even if the conversants are established experts. In everyday life, we may not believe what people say unless they can back it up with “sources.” Of course, there are some people we would trust just based on who they are—a loved one, perhaps, or a tour guide—which is an interesting phenomenon to explore further. For now, though, I’ve been thinking about why it is that we—again, broadly and in general—trust formal information more than informal information.

I broached the subject in a recent paper in the Journal of Documentation called “How the Document Got Its Authority.” In that paper, I suggest that human trust is based on persistence (that is, unchangingness), and we trust formal information (that is, documents) because they are persistent.

This spray-painted "No Parking" sign doesn't seem to have much authority
This spray-painted “No Parking” sign doesn’t seem to have much authority

And the more formal a document is, the more trustworthy it seems to become. For instance, near my apartment in Philadelphia I noticed a “sign” spray-painted in the parking lane that said NO PARKING. People didn’t seem keen to obey, as you can see in the photo to the right. To me, it seems that this is because a spray-painted “No Parking” sign is not as authoritative as the metal, permanent “Yes Parking” sign on the post nearby.

The feature of human cognition that seems to encourage us to trust persistent things more than less-persistent things can make us vulnerable. Not everything permanent is to be trusted. In the article, I give the example of The Onion, a satirical newspaper from my home state (Wisconsin), which was sometimes mistaken as “real” news because of the way it mimicked the newspaper format.

cato-phony-not-sciBut less innocuously, we can sometimes fall prey to those with pernicious intentions. I recently saw the documentary Merchants of Doubt, for instance, which details how big companies manipulate the public. The film talks about the cigarette industry, for example, and how cigarette companies used manipulative tactics to make the science behind the unhealthiness of smoking seem less clear-cut than it actually was. And the same thing is happening regarding climate change in recent years: Virtually all scientists agree that human-exacerbated climate change is really happening, but a few corporations have managed to put out information that is formal and seemingly authoritative enough to garner respect, making the scientific community seem like it doesn’t have the consensus it does. In the image (source) above and to the right, you can see the legitimate scientific report on the left, and the corporate-sponsored “rejoinder” to the right. The rejoinder features fabricated information that closely mimics the format of the legitimate report.

In my view, education around what I call document literacy is vital in today’s society. When fake reports and real reports share a common format, how can the average person know what to trust? Those of us who are trained as information professionals are better at this than the average person, and I think it’s our duty to teach our strategies to the public.

Visual, verbal

Aztec Codex
Aztec codex from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

An insight underlying my view of written language is that written language necessarily takes a visual form. Well, that seems obvious, doesn’t it? But what it means is there’s not a clean line between what is “visual” and what is “verbal.” Even so, common parlance and academic discourse alike consider “visual” to be implicitly non-linguistic and “verbal” to be linguistic.

Text is readily considered “visual” only when it verges on graphic design, as in company logos and poster headlines. However, all text should be considered visual: We undeniably perceive text using our visual faculties; moreover, all text is formatted, and this formatting can contribute to a text’s meaning. Some work has explored the non-verbal aspects of text. Edward A. Levenston, for example, argues that literary meaning is derived not only from the cognitive/linguistic meaning of the words on the page, but also from how those words are presented. He surveys how spelling, punctuation, typography and layout can modulate a text’s meaning, using examples ranging from Aristophanes and Chaucer to Shakespeare and e. e. cummings.

Along these lines, W. J. T. Mitchell discusses the notion of “imagetext,” which recognizes that every medium is a mixed medium—that images and text are inextricable. Vivid descriptions conjure images, just as images conjure descriptions, and all text can be seen as interpreted pictorially or visually. Years later, in a 2005 paper, Mitchell concluded that “there are no purely visual media because there is no such thing as pure visual perception in the first place.” Indeed, all media are mixed media.


More recently, sociolinguists like Mark Sebba have begun to focus on how orthography can be a site for social action quite apart from anything inherent in the meaning of the words themselves.

This also comes to the fore in the notion of “document,” which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I’ve been preparing my prospectus for PhD candidacy. In past lives, I studied advertising and linguistics. I thought I loved linguistics, but somehow it was never viscerally satisfying to me. I realized why only recently, upon reflecting on the “document.” Linguists talk about texts, manifestations of language. But this ignores everything we just talked about—the fundamental and inescapable entanglement between text and page, content and form. The document acknowledges this, whereas other concepts don’t seem to.

This is just a very brief post, but there will be more to come.

Reversing the English-only trend in science

Heart of Gold, a mandala by Jay Mohler
“Heart of Gold,” a colorful God’s Eye by Jay Mohler. Jay sells his sculptures on Etsy.

Often we think of science as uncovering a God’s-eye-view of the universe—dare I use the word objective? Sure, this may be the ultimate goal of some branches of science, but even in these cases, the road to God’s Eye is anything but monochromatic.

Our language colors the way we think. Words and phrases may reveal connections that would be invisible to speakers of other languages. (For a riveting exploration of human analogy-making, check out Doug Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s 2013 book Surfaces and Essences.)

In science, then, scholars who speak and write in different languages may take vastly different approaches to solving problems. They may identify different problems, to begin with, but even in exploring the same problems as scholars in other languages, they may proceed differently. This is another reason why I am a proponent of linguistic diversity: These different approaches serve to enrich the human scientific enterprise.

A recent BBC article by Matt Pickles brings attention to the trend toward English-dominance in science, and academia in general. Higher education is becoming ever more Anglophone, as is scientific communication. We write in language, of course, and the way we write also interfaces with the way we think. From this series of perhaps-obvious observations, we can appreciate that language, writing and thought are intertwined. Because science advances through writing, the linguistic white-washing of scientific communication also serves to white-wash science itself. For instance, because international journals are unlikely to accept non-English quotations, authors who want to publish in these journals (often used as a measure of their success as researchers) may be coerced into subscribing to Anglophone theories and methods, as “nonstandard” approaches may not be deemed publishable.

The move toward all-English has an interesting historical parallel, drawn out in the article linked above. Centuries ago, science was written in Latin. A German campaign for scientific linguistic diversity reminds us that Galileo, Newton and Lagrange abandoned Latin in order to write in their vernacular. (We see the same in the literary world: Dante, for instance.) Professor Ralph Mocikat, a German molecular immunologist who chairs this campaign, says that the vernacular “is science’s prime resource, and the reintroduction of a linguistic monoculture will throw global science back to the dark ages.”

What can be done to foster linguistic diversity in science? Because of all the machinery involved, it will surely be a slow process. But it has to start somewhere. Here are a few ideas that come to mind:

  • For academic institutions:
    • Require second-language proficiency in all PhD students.
    • Find ways to facilitate searching the literature in other languages.
  • For journals:
    • Allow space for translations of papers, perhaps one article per issue, or perhaps in an annual special issue of translations.
    • Publish abstracts in multiple languages, even if the content itself is only in one language.
    • Provide translation services to facilitate access of academic work in other languages.
    • Broaden your base of peer reviewers to include researchers with other native languages.
  • For researchers:
    • Participate in international conferences, particularly smaller ones. Talk to researchers in your field whose native language is not English.
    • If you don’t speak another language, start learning one. It’s easier than you think. If you do, search the literature in that language the next time you write a paper.

What else?

Update: This post spawned an interesting conversation on Facebook with a few of my friends. When assessing this trend, we should also consider the needs and values of specific fields. Though I stand by the above discussion for the kind of research I do (humanities and “soft” sciences), a linguistic monoculture could indeed be valuable for certain work in the natural sciences. Clarity means safety, as a friend who works with dangerous chemicals said. Moreover, using one standardized term for a phenomenon rather than a panoply of regionalisms has benefits, such as making a literature search easier.

Thanks to Dr. Deborah Turner for bringing the BBC article to my attention.