“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.” “” Ernest Hemingway
I was a teenager when I first came across that quote from Hemingway. He was speaking about the most valuable quality that a fiction writer should possess. Crap detection kept writers honest, according to Hemingway, and fiction writers needed to be honest. Their job was to “invent out of knowledge.” This can mean writing about what you know, about personal experience. Better yet, it should mean constantly educating yourself, so that your fictional worlds ring true, with or without personal experience.
The thing about quotes like this one is that sometimes they take on a life of their own. Hemingway’s “crap detection” certainly did. A version of it appeared in an essay that Neil Postman read at the convention of the National Council of Teachers of English. He told his audience that “helping kids activate their crap detectors should take precedence over any other legitimate educational aim.”
Why? Because, given the deluge of information available to us, we all need to learn how to separate manure from gold. The question is, how many of us realize that we do need a built-in crap detector? Moreover, if we in fact have developed one, how often do we use it?
I’ve been interested in crap detection for a while, and I’ve written on the subject for the Trinitonian before. The reason I keep writing and talking about it is because it’s harder to separate fact from fiction. We keep getting duped by stories that seem plausible, but are completely fabricated. Of course, not everyone gets taken in as thoroughly as ESPN did with the Manti T’eo story, yet many of us have shared things that turned out to be false.
Why do we keep doing it? Luke O’Neill, at Esquire, thinks it’s a combination of factors. He writes, “Readers are gullible, the media is feckless, garbage is circulated around, and everyone goes to bed happy and fed.” I agree. However, I would add that the barrage of hoaxes we’ve been subjected to in the past few months might smack us out of complacency. In fact, feckless clickbaits like BuzzFeed have done wonders for my own willingness to check. If I can’t check, perhaps because I don’t know how to be a proper sleuth when it comes to people like Elan Gale, the thought of being duped AGAIN has made me more reticent to share.
So yes, I am working on my crap-detection skills. Everyone should. In a liberal arts institution like Trinity, we should talk about crap detection more often, and we should make it abundantly clear that it’s not just an academic skill. It’s a life skill. Think about it, a good crap detector will spare you the embarrassment of having your friends correct you when you share a hoax. But more importantly, crap detection is a skill that employers are looking for, except that they don’t call it that. They call it by its more polite name, information literacy, which means the ability to find, evaluate and use information effectively.
Learn these abilities early. Use them often. Don’t graduate without them.
Cynara Medina is a communication professor.