Cognitive authority

1. Introduction to the activity

This activity is designed to be done early in the Media & IL course. It corresponds to the first on-campus class. You are being asked to find out some information to answer two questions, but the focus is not on the answers themselves, though the questions are serious ones. You have complete freedom as to where  you go – online or off – to find out the answers. There is no ‘right answer’ as such, and you can answer them in as much or as little detail as you choose, but there are certain key facts I would expect any information literate person to come up with in each case.

What is more important is that you use this information search as a way of reflecting on your own present level of information literacy and the nature of cognitive authority. It does not matter what your understanding of this term (IL) is at the present time; indeed, that is part of the reflection.

Before beginning the search – indeed, before moving on to read the questions – ask yourself:

  • What do you think is an “information literate” way of going about this search?
  • What criteria do you think you will use for judging the validity of the information you find — in other words, how will you judge the cognitive authority of what you discover? [There is a brief discussion of ‘cognitive authority’ below, but try to answer this question before you read it.]
  • Where do you think you will start your search? Where do you think it might take you?
  • How do you think you will judge when you’ve found enough information?

Note the careful wording of these questions: I’m trying to get you to think about what you will do, not what you’re ‘supposed’ to do, however you understand that. You are not being told to exhibit ‘good’ or ‘information literate’ behaviour – just your normal behaviour. Also, I want you to think about this in a general sense, and not with respect to a particular topic, which is the point of asking you these things before you read the list.

Write down your answers to these questions so you can refer to them later. Then click on the tab below to move onto the list of topics.

2. The topics

Just to repeat – these are genuine questions, which have findable answers, but it really doesn’t matter whether you get the answer ‘right’, and you are definitely not being graded on whether you do so. Just see what you can find out: it’s a piece of mild detective work in each case. No clues!

Incidentally, if you already know the answer to any of the questions in any detail, you will get far more out of the exercise if you pick a different one about which you are largely ignorant.

Question a): Why is there a specific law that applies only to housing in the town of Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire? What is the law?

Hebden Bridge, viewed from Horsehold Road
Hebden Bridge, viewed from Horsehold Road

Question b): The gentleman in focus in this photograph (grey hair) is called Dick Knight. I would say he has made two notable, but entirely separate, contributions to UK public life in the last 20 years. Can you establish what both of them are?

  Dick Knight, 2/11/13

3: Post-search reflection

Once you feel you have done enough, feel free to write up a short summary of your answer. I stress again that this is not graded, but it will give you something to refer to when discussing your search. Notes from this activity end up in your final portfolio, remember, so again, keep notes.

Have a look back at the answers you gave in part 1 of the activity. Question 1 can be passed over at first, but what about your answers to the other three? Did you in fact live up to your own expectations? What did you actually do in each case?

Then, ask yourself: do you think you conducted yourself in this task in an information literate way? Why, or why not? Did you find any conflicting information? Did you get it all from Wikipedia (be honest!)? Did the search lead you in any unexpected directions?

4. Cognitive authority

The best book in this area — in fact, it suggested the term ‘cognitive authority’ — is Patrick Wilson’s Secondhand Knowledge (1983). I do not think a full digital version exists online, but it is back in print and available fairly cheaply. A short, but good summary of it by Soo Yung Rieh is available through this link, and you should read this.

What you were implicitly doing in the searches above — and I know you were doing it, because these processes are implicit to almost all information searches — is making assessments about the cognitive authority in the texts you consulted above. I say ‘almost all’ because one exception — and Wilson would say the only one — is when you gather primary data from direct observation, or have direct experience of something: that is, you are gathering the data first-hand. However, unless we can do this — and for the questions I posed, there was no real way to do so — we rely on second-hand knowledge: put most simply, information that has been presented to us by others. Who should we listen to? Why do we do so?

There may seem to be simple rules that come into play here. You believe things because your teacher tells you, because you read it in a book, because your friends believe it, because this newspaper says it’s so. But there are no hard-and-fast rules and many of these judgments depend on context and interpretation. I may believe what I read in one newspaper, but not another, which declares a different political position. I  may trust the advice of a doctor on matters of health, but this is by no means a universal position, and would I assign a doctor the same cognitive authority if she came to me with advice about where to go on holiday?

The question is, then, what are the bases for the judgments we make? How do we assign cognitive authority? That is a greatly complex question, but is also dealt with in this course by the set of materials on Judgments, which you will be spending some time on.

We can also easily fall into habits and routines, make assumptions about the nature of an information task or practice. The information search you have just done is an example. The on-campus students won’t read this until after the class, so I’m safe to declare here that I bet none of the on-campus students think about simply asking me to give them the answers. This despite the fact that for question a) they know I live in Hebden Bridge; and as you’ll realise, question b) is linked to my interests too. The assumption will almost certainly have been that because I have said I want them to work out how to get the answer, that means I won’t tell them it if I’m asked. Regardless of whether, on the day, I do or I do not give them the answer, I am still an obvious source of information seeing as I set the question — a strong cognitive authority at that point. But I am usually right in the prediction that it is a potential source of information that the students’ minds will (I am predicting) subconsciously filter out because they are making assumptions about the task they face and where they should be going to seek this information. And before you distance learners get too smug about this, I bet none of you thought of e-mailing me either, although I do appreciate that in your case — that is, the context of your search, the communication tools available to us both, the weighing up of costs and benefits — it almost certainly would be quicker (but not easier) to find the answers out for yourself.

These issues suggest that cognitive authority is not just a matter of whether something is ‘known’ or ‘unknown’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; but is also a matter of circumstance, habit, techniques of enforcement or marketing, control over media and information, etc. Should we believe government announcements on what it is like to live one’s life under the poverty line — or the voices of those who actually do live like this? But how easy is it to hear the latter, particularly on national televsion; and when they are heard in that medium, are they being heard unmediated? (Witness the controversy that currently surrounds the UK Channel 4 ‘documentary’ (some say, fictional work) Benefits Street.) Topic a) above was rather a dry topic, probably not open to a great deal of ambiguity — and that is the intention of law as a genre of information. But topic b) treads on areas (in both cases) that are more emotive, and about which there will be contrasting opinions. My subjective beliefs influence the question of whether either of Mr. Knight’s ‘two notable contributions’ are in fact notable at all. ‘Cognitive authority’ here is far less clear-cut, therefore, and yet we are still making judgments, still trying to get a sense of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ — and making these judgements against not just scientific criteria but also personal and collective ones.

In essence then, it is information literacy which helps us establish cognitive authority. There’s more to it than that, but that is the point of the rest of the course unit.

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Media and Information Literacy by Andrew Whitworth/University of Manchester is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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One comment

  1. Seeing as we did this in the on-campus class yesterday (30/1/12, the opening class), some other things came up about the searches and how they might apply in real-life situations. Without giving the game away, question a) is connected to issues of where a community developed an unexpected learning need; but has also managed to create resources as a result, that are useful to other communities in the same situation. (Events like this had occurred before, but this was arguably the first one to develop in the UK in the Internet era – post-1996 really.)

    Question b) is a genuine legal matter, something I remember the solicitor, acting on our behalf when we bought our house, had to become aware of, and which we (as owners of HB property) also must. But it would not necessarily be ‘public’ knowledge, in the sense of being widely known.

    Question c) led on-campus students in two different search directions, one to travel web sites, one to history. Both reached the same end point, however.

    Feel free to reply to this comment if you want a discussion, or to share any of your own insights. [Click the ‘notify me of follow-up comments by email’ box below to make it easier to follow a discussion.] Or, use the course discussion board inside Blackboard.

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