An NAS Statement on Mis/Disinformation (Abbreviated)

National Association of Scholars

Editor's Note: The National Association of Scholars has since 1987 issued policy positions on various controversial issues in American higher education. We have done so sparingly and only after significant consultation with our members and a concerted attempt to comprehend the underlying disagreements and the relevant scholarship. As a result, our policy statements are more than declarations of what we consider the best answers to perplexing questions. They also lay out distinctions, consider arguments, and examine parallel matters that bear on the larger issue. 

In this case, we offer both the full policy statement (click here) and an abbreviated version focused on the essentials (see below). The shorter version focuses directly on the concepts of misinformation and disinformation, rather than their use as tools of illegitimate censorship.

What Is Information, and What Is Fact?

The terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” are increasingly used in higher education to stigmatize opinions with which college and university authorities, including faculty members, disagree. This NAS statement is intended to clarify the meaning of these terms and how they have been misused in contemporary debates both to promote illegitimate censorship and to prevent legitimate censorship.

Some facts are sufficiently well established as to be counted as “known truths.” Water is best conceived of as H2O, though actual water can take on many states (liquid, solid, gaseous) and can behave in poorly understood ways. A triangle has apices whose angles add up to 180°, although perhaps not if the triangle is inscribed on a nonplanar surface. HIV is the cause of AIDS, and antiretroviral drugs are not a white conspiracy to kill black people. Humans produce one of two, and only two, types of gametes, the larger ones defining females with eggs and the smaller ones defining males with sperm. No human produces both eggs and sperm.

In briefest compass, every field of study depends on the transmission of accurate information. This is as true of the humanities as it is of the social sciences and the natural sciences. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. “Transmission,” in this context, means more than recording information that can be retrieved by others, though it includes such recording. Transmission also means conveying the information to someone who understands it in context and either commits it to memory or recognizes it well enough to recall it when needed. No education is possible without a substantial transmission of information. 

What Is Misinformation?

Misinformation is simply incorrect or misleading information. The term first appeared in English in 1587, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It can refer to information that is incorrect or misleading for a variety of reasons. It may well be purely accidental. The focus of this word’s definition is the content of the information.

Misinformation jeopardizes an essential aspect of education by undermining the confidence of the learner in the sincerity and truthfulness of the teacher. Every student learns sooner or later that teachers make mistakes and, sometimes in good faith, transmit misinformation that they wrongly believe to be true. Part of education involves learning to distinguish error, misconceptions, and reliable facts.

What is Disinformation?

Disinformation is the intentional dissemination of misinformation. It is literally “apart from” (dis in Latin) information. The purpose of disinformation is to influence the views and behavior of the information’s receivers. It is a modern term that was first used during the Cold War, when both the KGB and the CIA used disinformation as a tool of state action. It refers not only to the erroneous or misleading content of the information but also to its deliberate manufacture and delivery. The focus of this word’s definition is the intention of the information.

When a teacher or scholar engages in disinformation, he is guilty of a severe form of professional misconduct. For instance, a medical researcher may avow the effectiveness of a given therapy, despite knowing this claim to be false, as a result of funding or sponsorship or ideology. Likewise, a faculty member may give higher grades to certain students out of some misplaced sense of obligation or activism, thus intentionally misinforming those students about their performance in the class.

Are Information and Knowledge the Same?

All information has the potential to become knowledge, but knowledge is a broader concept that includes context, personal experiences, intuition, insights, and transcendental matters. Knowledge without information is impossible, but information alone is insufficient for knowledge. Knowledge implies an active and integrative mind and a desire to synthesize information into a picture of the world and to apply that information appropriately. Misinformation and disinformation are a barrier to knowledge because they poison the ingredients. However, high levels of information are themselves no guarantee of knowledge. To the extent that excess information (“information overload”) prevents the mind from engaging in the second-level cognitive processes noted above, it may well hinder knowledge.

The important point for our purpose is that education has to deal with the conflict between received knowledge and discoveries that challenge received knowledge. Education is never simply an accumulation of facts. It necessarily involves knocking down some ideas and replacing them with others; it involves trying out novel approaches and discarding those that prove to be mistaken. In this context, misinformation is not a failure of legitimate inquiry but an inevitable part of the search for the truth. Disinformation, however, in the sense of deliberately false claims presented as truth, is a dire threat to education.

Legitimate Censorship of Information

The NAS does not oppose all forms of censorship. This is a fraught subject, and it is best that we present at the outset the forms of censorship that we regard as legitimate. We address ourselves to the academic world in these points, in full recognition that our strictures differ from those of the courts and those in other spheres of social life. However, the points below have wide application to related areas such as public libraries, media, and the arts:

Areas where we uphold censorship as legitimate include:

  • The publication of normally private information about an individual without that person’s permission. Such information may include one’s home address, details about one’s spouse and children, health records, bank accounts, and travel itineraries. Often called “doxing,” the publication of such material is typically intended to harm the targeted individual.
  • The publication of copyrighted material presented as the original work of the copyist, i.e., plagiarism. 
  • The publication of non-copyrighted material, such as private correspondence, without the permission of the original author or the rightful owner of the material. This applies mainly to living or recently deceased individuals. Non-copyrighted correspondence from historical figures should not be censored, though its fair use should follow whatever legal restrictions are applicable.
  • The publication of libel. The muddled definition of libel in U.S. law makes this difficult to enforce or identify. Calling someone “a skunk” is not libel; declaring that “every word she writes is a lie,” likewise, is not libel. The expression of strong opinions about the character of another is a legitimate exercise of free speech, even if it entails exaggerations, cruel intent, and literally false statements intended metaphorically. As a general principle, libelous speech is outside the bounds of civil discourse.
  • Publishing scientific findings that have not yet been released for publication by the primary researchers. Premature release may harm the researchers as well as introduce false or misleading details into broader discussion.
  • The publication of test questions and answers that were not intended for public circulation.
  • The publication of officially classified information that may harm the interests of the country, such as the identities of covert agents or the battle plans for the defense of allied powers.

We do not intend this list to be exhaustive. There may well be other sorts of expression that responsible publications should disallow—which is to say censor—in an academic context. Our broader point is that censorship per se is not always wrong. It depends on what is being censored and why.

Legitimate Censorship of Misinformation and Disinformation

Censorship may legitimately protect the vulnerable against both misinformation and disinformation. In theory, both justifications are appealing, and there are indeed cases where they provide compelling reasons for censorship.

Well-established laws against fraud, for instance, penalize individuals for making false or misleading statements in order to harm others or acquire an undue benefit.

To take another example, children are vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation about sexuality, maturation, science, the climate, the racial history of America, and other subjects. To the extent that schools have become avenues for teaching ideologies that forward the agendas of groups that are eager to normalize their beliefs by establishing them as undisputable facts in the minds of young people, who do not yet have the capacity or the opportunity to question those beliefs or to gain familiarity with contrary perspectives, these kinds of disinformation imperil the psychological—and, in some cases, even the physical—wellbeing of children.

Censorship may also legitimately prevent the spread of misinformation that harms individuals by encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors:

  • Government regulation prevents tobacco companies from touting the health benefits of smoking, which would lead people to take up the habit.
  • University authorities are within their powers to prevent faculty from committing the ecological fallacy through misinformation about the prospects of individual students based on group-level patterns in areas such as income, IQ, or athletic prowess. For instance, while whites evolved in a culture without the rhythmic traditions of West Africa, a given white student may still have excellent prospects to become a jazz drummer. It is reasonable for university rules to prohibit faculty from insisting on misinformation to the contrary. For the same reason, it is reasonable for university rules to prohibit faculty from insisting on other forms of ecological misinformation, such as the idea that all white students enjoy “privilege” or that non-white students are “marginalized.”

Illegitimate Censorship of Information

While there are many areas in which censorship may be legitimate, the National Association of Scholars opposes efforts in higher education to stigmatize opinions with which college and university authorities, including faculty members, disagree. Such illegitimate censorship includes:

  • Treating contentious topics, such as anthropogenic climate change and so-called gender identity, as having been “settled,” and treating data that is not consistent with these theories as information that should be censored;
  • Forbidding public debate on such topics;
  • Forbidding the classroom description of heterodox opinions on such topics;
  • Criminalizing as “hate speech” or “denialism” documented facts about indigenous peoples in Anglo-settlement colonies, such as their pervasive cultures of war and violence or their largely voluntary participation in colonial education and governance systems.
  • Treating disputes in the sciences as having been settled by majority opinion;
  • Treating statements of opinion as illegitimate on the grounds that the speaker received (or is alleged to have received) funding from a stigmatized source;
  • Treating statements of opinion as illegitimate on the grounds that the speaker belongs to  a stigmatized organization; and
  • Treating statements of opinion as illegitimate on the grounds that the speaker approved or endorsed a person or organization that is suspect in the eyes of the censor or curator.

Illegitimate Censorship of Knowledge

Because knowledge is largely subjective, individuals will naturally develop different knowledge based on the same information.

When it comes to education, we face the very difficult task of laying all such alternatives before students and giving those students the tools to examine and evaluate without prejudice all sides of the debate.

That is, there are legitimate cases for censorship, but knowledge claims should never be censored at the university level since they refer to subjective approaches to information. Indeed, the cultivation of independent judgment is the sine qua non of college-level education.

University authorities increasingly wish to censor not only information but also knowledge that has been acquired by university members. Examples include:

  • Compelled speech, e.g., requiring individuals to use the “preferred pronouns” of others.  This practice effectively censors the person who wishes to use standard English pronouns based on a knowledge claim about the falsity of gender ideology and the importance of language standardization.
  • Classifying various words, phrases, or opinions as “hate speech,” regardless of context.
  • Speech codes that label various common nouns and ordinary English expressions as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise unacceptable.
  • The practice of treating the expression of opinions as “harming” those who disagree with those opinions.
  • “Land acknowledgements” that compel university members to accept contested knowledge claims about the status of land control and its evolution in early American history.

Following Facts, Contesting Knowledge

Higher education exists to train young people in the traditions of thought and practice that will ennoble their lives and prepare them for productive vocations. The rigorous pursuit of truth requires, first and foremost, an open search for facts and information. With few exceptions, as noted, such information should never be censored. Attempts to censor valid information on the grounds that it does not comport with some ideology are illegitimate. So are attempts to censor knowledge claims that are contested by an activist minority, or even majority.

Misinformation and disinformation are real. The former is best treated with an open and adversarial information environment, where information that is more valid carries the day because it appeals more consistently to shared standards of justification. In some cases, however, as with children, misinformation about topics like gender ideology or racial scapegoating should be quashed. Disinformation, including the intentional propagation of misinformation about a certain knowledge claim being “fact,” is even more dangerous because of the ill intent of the disseminators.

A free and reasoned society is within its rights to challenge institutions and structures that engage in disinformation and to mobilize democratic processes to bring them to account. However, calling contested knowledge claims disinformation is a disservice to a free society. Knowledge claims are, by definition, dependent on subjective assessments of context and meaning. Weaponizing the terms misinformation and disinformation to silence dissent strikes at the heart of a free society. If higher education has any key role, it is in preparing young people and communicating to the public the precious Western heritage of open debate.

Image: Adobe Stock

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