BYO Truth Multidisciplinary Conference held by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences

David Hunter, Staff Writer

On Oct. 18, 2017, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences held its sixth annual multidisciplinary conference titled BYO Truth: Language Matters and (Mis)Information in the Public Sphere.

The conference’s goal was to hold a discussion for the students and university community at large about the nature of truth and the circulation of misinformation. It was held in the University Commons Ballrooms.

An innovative approach of the conference was that students could tweet their questions using the #BYOTRUTH.

There were two panel sessions with a keynote address in between. A capacity crowd of more than 300 students, faculty, administrators, and other guests were in attendance for each session, with standing room only for the keynote address.

Political Science Professor Fanny Lauby began the conference by telling the students that it was about having conversations about what is truth and how we know it. Pointing out that the nature of truth has become increasingly individualistic, she also raised the issue of what sources can be trusted in both traditional media and new digital media.

Immediately afterward, Dr. Kara Rabbitt, the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, addressed the audience.

She spoke about the role of the conference as a platform for addressing the timely issues of our day, as well as how these issues impact the William Paterson University community. She also talked about the importance of a commitment to ethics, equity, and truth, affirming “the power of story to tell truth and the importance of language.” Finally, she emphasized “the importance of a shared understanding in a time where accepted data is under fire from various directions,” making it even more important “that we agree upon facts.”

The first session was Language, Truth, and Storytelling. The first speaker was Dr. Ana Celia Zentella, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego. She was named the 2015 Public Intellectual of the Year by the Latin American Studies Association. The second speaker was Dr. Sara Gorman. She is the founder of Critica, an organization which seeks to increase public trust in science and increase scientific literacy.

Dr. Zentella’s talk, “Combating Alarming Misinformation about LatinUs and Our Language(s),” discussed misinformation about the Latino community and the Spanish language.

Zentella connected the discrimination Latinos and other immigrants currently face to that encountered by Italians and Jews in the early twentieth century. She also noted how discussions of race have been remapped from biology to language. It is no longer appropriate in public settings to stereotype physical features as having superior and inferior qualities, but it has become more acceptable to stereotype different language accents. Commenting about someone’s language has become an indirect way of commenting about their race.

Gorman works in the field of public health and her talk was “Science Denial in a Post-Truth World.” She talked about the psychological and social factors involved in the decisions people make about health. In a world with conflicting information, especially concerning nutrition and the causes of chronic diseases, how scientific information gets communicated is often tied to what people want to believe is true. This phenomenon is known as “confirmation bias,” the seeking out of information that attends more closely to things that people already believe. And this bias has a “backfire effect,” which she defined as a resistance to changing one’s views when presented with conflicting information. Confirmation bias and backfire effect are barriers to convincing people of the “truth” of factual information.

The keynote address, “Ignorance and the Community of Knowledge”, was delivered by Dr. Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University. His speech addressed the notion that knowledge communities can make people think they understand how things work better than they in fact do.

“It gave a lot of insight into what truth is and hearing that there is no proper way to convey truth to people,” said Liliana, a history major, about the conference. “It’s interesting because it’s not that easy to convince people with opposing views with evidence. A more accommodating approach and being open-minded is important when communicating with people who disagree with you.”

The second session, “Circulating Truth and (Mis)Information,” focused on the movement of truth and misinformation through digital platforms.

Dr. Jennifer Forestal, professor of political science at Stockton University, discussed the issue of propaganda in the digital sphere through her talk, “Beyond Gatekeeping: On Propaganda & Digital Politics. She talked about the spread of misinformation in this sphere, highlighting the serious problems with public use of digital media.

She also talked about gate keeping or self-regulation by companies, such as Google and Facebook, as not enough to prevent the spread of misinformation. She ended by encouraging students and other users of digital media to participate in the process of sorting through spurious information.

Dr. Paul Mihailidis, a professor of marketing communication at Emerson College, continued this discussion, focusing on civic engagement in digital sphere. His talk was titled, “Civic Media Literacies: Re-imagining Engagement for an Age of Distrust.” He noted that social media companies prioritize sensational, partisan, and reductionist expression. An example is the “recommended for you” tab on the site YouTube. Clicking on this tab only sends the user to videos with similar themes.

He called for a change in the way we see information, since mainstream digital media at present “has no stake in helping us make sense of anything.”

During the second session’s Q&A period, a student asked Mihailidis about the cause of increasing apathy among the younger generation. Mihailidis replied that research has discovered that people who have been using technology since a very young age have witnessed a shift in that the technologies they once used solely for personal connection are now being used for public awareness. Yet this exposure to public discourse on the web is often vitriolic and unproductive, reinforcing cynicism rather than encouraging skepticism.

The WPU Provost Dr. Warren Sandman ended the conference with profound statements about language. He said:

“Language reflects our culture and shapes what our reality is,” said Sandman. “Our language and symbols matter. A choice of words is a choice of worlds. Language can be a tool to disguise and repress, but we also have to realize that language can be a way, and is the only way, to build things. Tearing things down is easy; building things is far more difficult. It is up to us to use those tools that we have to make a better tomorrow.”

This conference was filmed and will be made available on the William Paterson University website via the College of Humanities and Social Sciences webpage.