The Owl and the Duck: On Failures of Vigilance

by Ron Sadan

What makes people more vigilant about false information? For philosophers and cognitive psychologists, the term “epistemic vigilance” describes a set of “methods people routinely use…to filter out liars and the uninformed” (Michaelson 214). But where do these routines come from? It would be a mistake to simply exhort society to be more vigilant or to blame individuals for failing to be so. For one thing, the capacity to practice epistemic vigilance is not guaranteed at an individual level. The assemblage of skills, tools, and intuitions needed to adequately distinguish truth from falsehood is not available to everyone equally, nor are the techniques we learned in schools necessarily applicable to current epistemic challenges. Moreover, the disposition to be epistemically vigilant as a population is a cultural and institutional, and hence, historical achievement – not the possession of epistemically virtuous individuals. Accordingly, if we think epistemic vigilance is in short supply today, we might ask: How have societies succeeded and failed to generate cultures of epistemic vigilance in the past? Can the history of epistemic vigilance provide us with any kind of instructions in our current crisis?

Looking at a well-intentioned failure to create a culture of epistemic vigilance in the past is instructive as to what it is and what it takes to build and sustain it. In the years following World War I, the history of epistemic vigilance became a research priority for German academics concerned by what they took to be the growing power of the press to capture minds and mobilize bodies for questionable ends. A band of scholars from various academic disciplines founded research institutes at universities across Germany to study the use and abuse of media from a scientific perspective. Calling the novel discipline Zeitungswissenschaft, or “newspaper science,” its practitioners hoped their efforts would yield precepts to reform a delinquent industry and, perhaps, even create a society of better, more critical readers: epistemic vigilantes, so to speak. The only problem was that none of the academics involved in the enterprise could agree on exactly how the young “science” was supposed to proceed, or even what its object of study properly should be.

A Linnaeus of the Newspaper

One of these academics was the media historian Karl d’Ester (1881-1960). Trained as a Germanist, d’Ester became the first professor of Zeitungswissenschaft in Germany in 1924. For three decades, until his retirement in 1954, d’Ester served as the director of the Institut für Zeitungswissenschaft at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.1 Like others in the founding generation of the discipline, d’Ester aspired to counter the epistemic anarchy supposedly brought on by the perpetration of mass media on an epistemically naive public. But ironically, the professor’s own epistemic commitments invalidated his pursuit of social impact in a way that was itself naive.

Karl d’Ester (1881-1960). Credit: Zeitungswissenschaft. Zweitmonatsschrift für internationale Zeitungsforschung. Ed. Karl d’Ester and Walther Heide. 6.6 (December 1931).

An adherent of historical positivism, d’Ester believed the study of the past should uphold the ideal of scientific objectivity as constituted by the order of facts, rather than interpretive judgments. Accordingly, d’Ester spent his entire professional life quarrying the press and its history in pursuit of sources that would show how things ‘actually were.’ For this purpose, he amassed one of the most significant private research collections on newspapers in the world.2 D’Ester’s documenting earned him a name as “a kind of Linnaeus” of historical newspaper studies (Roegele 392).3 But unlike the 18th century founder of taxonomy, the professor’s efforts never produced a coherent theoretical position from which he could adequately assess the objects he studied.4 He thus found himself unable to meaningfully address the social issues that led him to pursue those inquiries in the first place. In the end, d’Ester was more successful at institutionalizing his science than he was at making it useful. A bookplate d’Ester used in his collection encapsulates this sad irony.

The Owl of Wisdom?

Ernst Maria Fischer: Bookplate for Karl d’Ester. Photo by author.

Sometime in the late 1930s, d’Ester commissioned a bookplate from the Munich-based artist, Ernst Maria Fischer (1907-1939).5 Fischer’s engraving presents a comic scene of vigilance and negligence toward truth. Against the light of a burning candle, a bookish owl confronts a newspaper-wielding duck. A symbol of erudition, the owl scrutinizes the literal embodiment of a Zeitungsente, or “canard.” Perching on books, the owl seems to know better than the duck, which nests in newspapers. As the duck opens its bill to tell a canard, the owl eyes it with distrust verging on menace. Its expression seems to encapsulate the skeptical attitude d’Ester hoped Zeitungswissenschaft would adopt toward its object. Like the learned owl, the “science of newspapers” should be able to detect quackery and disarm bunk appearing in a thoughtless and pernicious press. Although its primary investment is research, represented metonymically by the open book, Zeitungswissenschaft should also become, in d’Ester’s view, a guardian of epistemic vigilance.

Ironically, Fischer’s image subtly subverts this interpretation. Fischer presents the owl and the duck appear as a quibbling couple. The owl’s vigilance is merely reactive to the duck’s misinformation, not preventative of it. No matter how harshly it glares, the duck won’t become more like the owl, nor will the newspaper become more like the book. But d’Ester’s vision for Zeitungswissenschaft seems to call for this transposition. It requires that newspapers adhere to the standards of Wissenschaft, symbolized by the book, even though Zeitung’s basic function—as d’Ester knew well—was not to serve as a medium of scientific truth, but rather of Aktualität (relevance).

On Failures of Vigilance

Ultimately, d’Ester failed to understand that epistemic vigilance is not something that can be upheld by the bookish actions of an erudite few. Had he understood better how societies keep in touch with the truth, he might have recognized that epistemic vigilance is a whole dispositive of social attitudes, habits, and norms. These emerge gradually over time and come to characterize whole populations. As such, they would appear to require a different kind of agency to uphold and maintain, if any such agency is possible at all. The artist Ernst Maria Fischer perceived that d’Ester’s ambition for Zeitungswissenschaft to become a guardian of epistemic vigilance was a fool’s errand. His engraving of the owl of the duck is emblematic of the gulf between Zeitungswissenschaft’s heroic interpretation of itself and the pedantic impression it made on others. The duck may be stupid and wrong as it coughs up canards, but the owl is aloof and arrogant looking down its nose at the duck.

In the end, d’Ester, who never spoke out publicly against the Nazi regime when it was in power, but instead held his peace while ascending the ranks of an academic career, failed to practice the vigilance he claimed to instill in others. He thus resembled less the outspoken owl of his favorite bookplate than the oblivious reader depicted in another of his bookplates. Engrossed in erudition, d’Ester was spirited away – not by the times, but by ‘The Times’ – by the Zeitungsgeist.

Ernst Maria Fischer: Bookplate for Karl d’Ester. Photo by author.

Works Cited

Bohrmann, Hans, and Arnulf Kutsch. “Karl d’Ester (1881-1960). Anmerkungen aus Anlaß seines 100. Geburtstages.” Publizistik. Vierteljahreshefte für Kommunikationsforschung, vol. 26, no. 1, 1981, pp. 575–603.

D’Ester, Karl. Der Traum eines Lebens. Ein Deutsches Institut für Internationale Presseforschung und ein Weltpressemuseum. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der internationalen Zeitungswissenschaft. Donau-Kurier, 1957.

Fischer, Ernst Maria, and Karl Kreitmair. Ernst Maria Fischer. Leben und Werk eines Frühvollendeten. Mit vielen Selbstzeugnissen und 77 Abbildungen. Edited by Ernst-Maria-Fischer-Kreis, Bruckmann, 1964.

Klutentreter, Wilhelm. “Karl d’Ester – Leben und Werk.” Karl d’Ester. Auswahl der publizistikwissenschaftlichen Schriften, Brockmeyer, 1984, pp. v–xxxv.

Michaelson, Eliot. “Lying, Testimony, and Epistemic Vigilance.” The Oxford Handbook of Lying, edited by Jörg Meibauer, Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 214–28.

Roegele, Otto B. “Die Zeitungswissenschaft im Streite der Fakultäten.” Publizistik. Vierteljahreshefte für Kommunikationsforschung, vol. 11, no. 3-4, 1966, p. 390-398.


Featured image: courtesy of pixabay.com


Cite this article as: Ron Sadan, The Owl and the Duck: On Failures of Vigilance, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 11/05/2022, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/?p=3185.

  1. D’Ester was removed from his post in 1946 on the suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer, but he managed to successfully appeal his dismissal and reclaim his chair in 1947. Details in Bohrmann and Kutsch (587). []
  2. Most of d’Ester’s collection was damaged during World War II. Part of what survived is now held in the library of the Munich Institut für Kommunikationswissenschaft und Medienforschung, the successor institute of the one he formerly directed. []
  3. [3] Translations from German sources are my own. []
  4. Disciplinary historians Bohrmann and Kutsch attacked ultimate “inconsequence of d’Ester’s position” (596). Even d’Ester’s acolyte, Wilhelm Klutentreter, defended his teacher against the claim that his studies were “‘merely’ collections of material” by insisting that d’Ester “didn’t want to offer more and probably couldn’t do so either” (Klutentreter xxii). []
  5. Fischer was the son of d’Ester’s friend, Aloys Fischer, an influential professor of pedagogy, and Paula Thalmann Fischer, the daughter of a well-respected Jewish family. In 1938, he was blacklisted by the Nazis because of his family heritage. In his memoirs, d’Ester claims to have commissioned numerous works from the artist, despite the blacklist, to support the Fischers after Aloys’ death in 1937. See d’Ester (149–51) and Kreitmair in: Fischer and Kreitmair (26). []

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