Context Matters!

In library school, we spent a lot of time discussing the nature of data and information, debating the differences and relationships between them. This may seem frivolous to some, but remember that the essence of librarianship is to curate and provide access to quality information in a community. While there are many competing definitions of information, most people are willing to accept some version of this:

Information is data put into context.

It’s the “put into context” part that’s important here – raw data doesn’t really tell us anything in-and-of itself; it must be placed into meaningful context in order to be useful.

Context is everything.

Case in point – consider this photo that I ran across on Facebook:

Ann Romney Motherhood

This photo was accompanied by a call to action to share it if you think that “motherhood is the most important work there is”.

On the surface, I can’t say that I disagree with its sentiment – I do believe that motherhood is an important job. It does bother me to think that some people claim it isn’t.

But what’s the context of this image?

On April 17, 2012, at a “Moms for Mitt” rally outside Philadelphia, Ann Romney made the following statement regarding equal pay for women in the private sector workforce:

Why should women be paid equal to men? Men have been in the working world a lot longer and deserve to be paid at a higher rate. Heck, I’m a working mom and I’m not paid a dime. I depend on my husband to provide for me and my family, as should most women… and if a woman does work, she should be happy just to be out there in the working world and quit complaining that she’s not making as much as her male counterparts. I mean really, all this wanting to be equal nonsense is going to be detrimental to the future of women everywhere. Who’s going to want to hire a woman, or for that matter, even marry a woman who thinks she is the same, if not better than a man at any job. It’s almost laughable. C’mon now ladies, are you with me on this?

Now, if I were to speak in a public forum and offer my opinion regarding some intractable problem of physics, my critics would be quick to point out that I’m not a physicist: I have no formal training in physics beyond high school, and absolutely no experience as a professional physicist. They would be entirely justified pointing this out, as it has direct bearing on the legitimacy of my opinion regarding physics issues.

Ann Romney made a public statement in which she offered her personal qualitative assessment of the role of women in the private sector workforce. Moreover, she explicitly referred to herself as a “working mom” – a phrase which has a very specific meaning in our society and which implies that she’s comparing herself to women employed in the private sector workforce. It’s entirely reasonable for her critics to point out that she’s not a “working mom” in the commonly understood sense of the term, that she has never in fact been a member of the private sector workforce; therefore, she has no direct personal experience of what it’s like for women who do work in it. This speaks to her authority (or lack, as the case may be) on the subject.

Again – no one ever said that she hasn’t been a dedicated mother or that motherhood isn’t hard, important work. Critics who stated that she’s “never worked a day in her life” were specifically referring to her lack of experience in the private sector workforce, in reaction to a public statement that she made on the subject.

While no one with any respect for mothers can disagree with what this photo says about the importance of motherhood, as an attempt to undermine criticism of Ann Romney’s public statements, it only works if we completely disregard salient factors in the context that surrounds it.

But it doesn’t stop there. As best anyone can tell, the earliest verifiable source for this quote is a post dated April 18, 2012, on the website Free Wood Post. There’s no identifiable source that predates this post. Free Wood Post has a tagline that adds yet more important context to all of this: “News That’s Almost Reliable”. It has navigation categories such as, “Almost News”, “Shady Facts”, and “Sorta True”. It even has a “Satire Disclaimer” that states:

Free Wood Post is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within FreeWoodPost.com are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental, except for all references to politicians and/or celebrities, in which case they are based on real people, but still based almost entirely in fiction.

Free Wood Post is a fake news site.

According to Snopes.com the quote is a false attribution.

Ann Romney never said any such thing.

In my previous post, I stated my belief in the importance of critical thought. Critical thinking requires you to understand the context of things, to know when necessary context is being disregarded, to recognize when false context is being imposed – to discern what context is relevant and what is not.

Because context is the only thing that can turn data into reliable information.

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