Dean's Update: Trust but Verify

Dean's Update: Trust but Verify
Jenny James Lee
December 2, 2015

[The Dean's Update is a column introducing each issue of the Libraries' monthly e-newsletter In Circulation.]

Information is increasingly easier to exchange. But knowing that it is truthful and authoritative may require more effort than finding it. Trust, but verify is a strategy that marks the making of life-long learners – the outcome of those pursuing higher education.

During the Cold War, President Regan adopted a Russian proverb to use in discussions of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. “Doveryai, no proveryai” became his signature statement. Translated as “trust but verify,” this is advice to trust seemingly reliable information, but also research its sources to verify its accuracy and trustworthiness. Recently the advice has resurfaced in reflections about President Obama’s participation in the United Nations Paris discussions on global change, with illustrative headlines: “As the US heads to climate talks, it seeks a plan to ‘trust but verify’,” [Conversation, November 30, 2015] and reprinted as “ Trust but verify should be a motto of Paris climate talks” [Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 2015].

But the advice is easy to overlook.

A recent email exchange brought attention to the vulnerability – even among highly educated scientific minds--of being duped into accepting reports easily shared via social media. A PhD botanist with over forty years of pursuing her life-long passion of science and research around the world, shares impressions of various topics through email updates during her travels. It was not unusual to receive from this friend the “message to the world” her physician cousin sent her that described horrible conditions in German hospitals as a result of current global migrations and amidst reports triggering fear of massive cultural shifts. The message described patients attacking hospital staff with knives, being escorted by police with K-9 dogs, , along with government restrictions forbidding journalist to write about the situation. A few days later this victim of trust without verification sent an apology of sharing false information after her cousin acted on her apprehension and checked

The Snopes website debunks or confirms urban legends, forwarded emails, and stories of unknown origins. Its small group of experienced researchers post evidence about their analysis of sources from which investigated communications are verified. This website has been called the Urban Legends Reference Pages and has millions of monthly visitors, according to a New York Times article reported in Wikipedia. [Stelter, Brian (April 4, 2010). "Debunkers of Fictions Sift the Net". The New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2013.] The identity as a “reference page” comes with acknowledgement that the site does not merely disclose rumors and misinformation, but that it sites evidence of its conclusions.

This implies and reflects the professional and much trusted practices of reference librarians. At Drexel, as in other academic institutions, librarians extend this traditional habit of verifying sources with an expanded focus to guide people to learn to do so themselves as information literate readers. Our staff go beyond use of tools of the library trade such as catalogs and bibliographies, and tap trusted networks of experts and research scholarly communications published in peer reviewed journals. We partner with faculty and work directly with students to encourage development of an inquisitive mindset that evaluate sources of information.

The contemporary and responsible literate individual understands that not all information is worthy of being shared and promotes the principle of trust but verify to the public exchange of information.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries