Qualifying Credibility

QUaliifying CredibilityI long for the good ol’ days when every­one agreed that facts were true and fic­tion was make-believe and made-up facts were lies.

Sev­er­al years ago, the dis­sem­i­nat­ing of cur­rent events entered the truthi­ness zone — only to emerge in today’s sur­re­al “alter­nate facts” par­al­lel universe.

It is under­stand­ably dif­fi­cult for many peo­ple — and espe­cial­ly young peo­ple — to know how to dis­cern fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion from that which is mere­ly pur­port­ing to be true. Why should a read­er trust the infor­ma­tion in a non­fic­tion book? And as impor­tant­ly, how do they know it can be trust­ed? (Beyond, and in addi­tion to, sources, sources, sources!)

Here’s one thing I look for: hedging.

First and fore­most, does the author use qual­i­fiers — spar­ing­ly — with­in the text? (A qual­i­fi­er is a word or phrase added to anoth­er word to mod­i­fy it — usu­al­ly lim­it­ing it, some­times enhanc­ing it.) Some refer to this as “hedg­ing” and con­sid­er it poor autho­r­i­al form — a sign that some­one does­n’t have their facts straight.

But many of us believe it’s just the oppo­site. A well-placed qual­i­fi­er sig­nals to the read­er that the author is con­fi­dent­ly stat­ing a like­li­hood that falls just shy of cer­tain­ty — known in acad­e­mia as a “con­fi­dent uncertainty.”

Qual­i­fiers such as:  seems, appears, sug­gests, often, or rarely can mod­i­fy evi­dence and con­clu­sions that, in most like­li­hood, are indeed facts, but for var­i­ous rea­sons, can­not be proven beyond a shad­ow of a doubt.

A qual­i­fi­er tells the read­er that the author refus­es to sim­ply state some­thing as an irrefutable fact if there is even a smidgen of doubt, or a minute piece of the puz­zle that remains unknown or inconclusive.

While it might seem counter-intu­itive to judge the trust­wor­thi­ness of a book that qual­i­fies some of its state­ments, the very prac­tice shows two crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant things: the author did their research well and under­stands the top­ic they are pre­sent­ing, and the author is not afraid to say what is not known for absolute cer­tain. Such an admis­sion serves only to strength­en the text overall.

Here are four things stu­dents can do:

  1. Have stu­dents active­ly look for the author’s use of qual­i­fiers, such as: approx­i­mate­ly, near­ly, most, some, some­times, often­times, etc. Why was a par­tic­u­lar qual­i­fi­er used in a giv­en sen­tence? How did that qual­i­fi­er help dis­tin­guish between the known and the unknown? The near­ly cer­tain and the indis­putable fact? What ques­tions were raised by the read­er when encoun­ter­ing (and pon­der­ing) the qual­i­fied statement?
  2. Encour­age stu­dents to ask ques­tions — par­tic­u­lar­ly about state­ments that include qual­i­fiers. Encour­age them to fol­low up on their own ques­tions with fur­ther research — which will sure­ly lead them on their own path of dis­cov­ery. The very act of intel­lec­tu­al­ly ques­tion­ing, of being curi­ous as to why cer­tain things are still unknown, of think­ing about how those ques­tions might some­day have answers, is pre­cise­ly what learn­ing is all about.
  3. Encour­age stu­dents to read with an open mind and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a skep­ti­cal mind. They should be encour­aged to think and ask: okay, how does the author know this? How does the sci­en­tist or his­to­ri­an or oth­er expert know what’s being pre­sent­ed is, in fact, true? If the book is well-researched and well-writ­ten, the answers to those ques­tions will be evi­dent: they know such-and-such because of all these stud­ies and evi­dence and doc­u­ments, which are reli­able because of rea­sons “A,” “B,” and “C”; and they don’t know for cer­tain these few things because the evi­dence isn’t con­clu­sive yet.
  4. If a text has no qual­i­fiers, what might that indi­cate? Encour­age stu­dents to con­sid­er how the absence of qual­i­fiers might raise ques­tions — or pre-empt ques­tions with cer­tain­ty and clarity. 

It is incum­bent upon the non­fic­tion author to build a foun­da­tion of trust with­in the text so the facts and truth can read­i­ly be iden­ti­fied by the read­er. Some­times, that means “hedg­ing.” Often­times, that leads to reduced ambi­gu­i­ty … and enhanced credibility.

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