Real life information literacy

I recently saw a very interesting case study of information literacy in a blog I follow, but before I tell that story, I need to provide a little background first.

About a month ago I attended two information literacy events at Purdue University: the first was a day-long workshop by Ross Todd, from the library school at Rutgers, titled “New Foundations: Building An Inquiry-Based Information Literacy Agenda.” One of the goals of Todd’s workshop was to get us to change our vision of what the end product of information literacy instruction ought to be.  The goal is not to produce “information literate students.”  It’s certainly not to produce mini-librarians. Rather, the goal is to produce adults who can use information to solve problems.  He emphasized that all the rhetoric about information literacy being essential to “survival” in the current age is just that: rhetoric.  People can survive just fine (most of the time; see below re: health literacy) while lacking IL skills.  But they won’t be able to solve the world’s problems.

The second event was the May meeting of the National Forum on Information Literacy, which is an organization I had not previously heard of, but whose mission is to promote information literacy through partnerships with community organizations.1 This meeting was interesting in other respects; for one thing, I learned a little bit about this organization that you would think I would have encountered before now.  We heard reports from people working on information literacy in agriculture, and people working on health literacy,2 both of which are areas where lots of people who have no experience with higher education really need information literacy skills.

So anyway, all this got me thinking about what I think about when I imagine an “information literate” adult, and keep in mind that this is only one image, but it’s a particularly vivid one for me, and one that I return to frequently as a kind of a touchstone for why I do what I do:

a pregnant woman.

No, really, hear me out: middle- and upper-middle-class pregnant women (and new moms) are bombarded by so freakin’ much information, so much of it contradictory, so much of it loaded with agendas – it was nearly overwhelming for me, and I consider myself to be a pretty darned information literate person, thank you very much.

Breast or bottle? Give birth in a hospital or a birth center or at home? OB/GYN or midwife? Eat peanuts or avoid them? Vaccinate, or not, or delay?3 Cloth diapers or disposables? Crib or co-sleeper?  “Cry it out” or not?  It’s endless – and very little of the information out there is actually evidence-based, and even less is from truly disinterested parties.

So with that in mind, I can get back to the little case study I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The Environmental Working Group recently released a report evaluating the safety of the active ingredients in a wide variety of sunscreens, and raising concerns that some ingredients (oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, primarily) may increase the risk of cancer.  Magda Pecsenye, (nom de blog Moxie), mentioned the report in a blog post, and the ensuing discussion in her comments was a fascinating study in information  literacy.

Now, I should mention that Moxie has assembled a remarkable community of compassionate, respectful, intelligent, and good-humored commenters.  Trolls and flame wars don’t happen at Moxie’s blog, which as you probably know is unusual for a longstanding blog.

Anyway, the comments started out in a predictable trajectory:  the usual panicky, “oh my god the sunscreen we’ve been using for years is horrible” and “but all the recommended products are exorbitantly expensive and not available in my rural community” comments.  But then something interesting started happening: people started calming down, and then started questioning the EWG’s study, getting down to interrogating their methodology and some of the underlying assumptions behind their research.

First we have this comment, which advises proceeding cautiously with the results of the study, and in the excerpt I’m quoting below, astutely identifies the attention-grabbing headline/soundbite the EWG used:

On this data, I’m not sure I’m as 100% persuaded as folks here seem to be that some sunscreens are this big, bad, baddie worth freaking out about. I also don’t think I buy the “some sunscreens cause cancer!” line anymore than I would pay heed to a headline that screamed “news flash: the sun causes cancer!” I don’t mean to be glib. Sun protection is a valid concern, but let’s not go overboard with the worry.

Then there’s this comment that followed shortly afterwards, which I’m going to quote almost in its entirety because if a student of mine ever said this I would fall down on my knees and thank a Higher Power:

If you’re really worried, I would check out some of the science on PubMed. This is just my personal opinion, but EWG appears to be the kind of environmental group that tends to overstate risks and does not present a balanced picture – according to them, it seems like everything is toxic and every toxin is highly dangerous. I have my doubts about whether the scientific literature they cited is an accurate representation of the current knowlegde [sic].4

And then immediately following, we have this commenter, who in addition to criticizing the EWG for fear-mongering, also did a little legwork and figured out something about the EWG’s methodology — which, as it’s described here, seems a bit dubious:

[I]t is important to note that they only did their rankings based on the ingredients, they did not do actual tests of the products. There is no accounting for the amounts of each ingredient in the product, and with any ingredient, the risk is in the *dose*. … In summary, I think that their ratings are half-baked, not scientific, but more or less a resource for ingredients in sunscreen…. The best form of sun protection is the one that you use, or that you can get on your kids.

Then a commenter who’s an actual scientist weighs in with some really heavy-duty evaluation of their methodology:

[M]y quick skim of their methods section doesn’t really tell me the gory details, like whether they included every single study they could find in their meta-analysis, and if they didn’t, what their exclusion criteria were. Also, how do they compare results across studies with different methodologies? I know that there are methods for doing that, but I can’t tell what they did.

And she continues with:  “I’d feel a lot better about their conclusions if they would write them up in a scientific paper and submit them for peer review [emphasis added].”  Whoa.

The conversation continues, with commenters sharing what sunscreens they use and how well they work for them.  And at the very end, someone posts an unsourced “article” from a dermatologist who appears to be representing the American Academy of Dermatology, which questions the report’s findings (and points out that their study was not peer-reviewed).  But my point is, here are a bunch of people on the internet, using their very best information literacy skills to make informed health decisions for themselves and their families. (And doing a pretty darned good job, I have to say.)  This is what we are trying to accomplish, right?


  1. At least, that’s what the presenter said their mission was. On examining their website, I can’t actually find a current mission statement.
  2. I have to admit, I’m a little dubious about the validity of “health literacy” as a concept. The presenter, citing the Institute of Medicine, defined it as the ability to “obtain, process, and understand health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”  Notice that there’s no “evaluate” in there, so supposedly all “health information” is valid, reliable health information? And how, exactly, is this different from information literacy, except as it relates to that subset of “information” that is “health information”? And depending on how you parse that sentence, the ability to “obtain…health…services” could be part of health literacy, so someone who’s whip-smart and knows exactly what she needs, but lacks health insurance, can’t be considered “health literate”?  Something about this doesn’t really make sense for me.

    Update: Rachel Waldman, in the comments, recommends a much better resource, from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, for understanding the concept of health literacy.  Among other things, this explanation clarifies that “health information” generally consists of things like prescription instructions, patient care information sheets, and the like — so, reliable health information.  That’s good.

  3. See this cartoon for an excellent summary of the recent Andrew Wakefield affair.
  4. This comment leaves aside the question of whether a non-university-affiliated person would have access to any or all of the journal articles cited by the EWG, which is a whole separate issue. -ed.

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    And how, exactly, is this different from information literacy, except as it relates to that subset of “information” that is “health information”? – I think the two are obviously linked, but health literacy has some additional or special components; the focus is not on all information, but particular types and forms of information encountered by patients. Here’s a decent starting point/overview: http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/hlthlit.html

  2. Catherine
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for that link, Rachel – that really helps clarify what kinds of information the standard is talking about, and I’ve updated the post above to reflect that.

    I do still think that there’s another element of health literacy that’s essential, but not stated in the definition, which is a basic conceptual understanding of the biological and chemical processes that underlie how the human body works. So, for example, if you’ve never encountered the concept of “germs,” you’ll have a hard time understanding how antibiotics work, etc.

  3. Posted June 24, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Oh, I agree. I think there are certain problems – like antibiotics overuse and resistance, or why doing something a certain way is important – that can require teaching some of that basic content knowledge to have a chance for anybody to understand or care about them.