How to evaluate your information sources

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Your generation has a much more challenging job than mine did of evaluating information sources.

Please allow me to geez for a moment!! When I was a kid, we had four teevee stations and two newspapers. Textbook wars were limited and proofreaders and editors were plentiful. An avid reader could go years without seeing a typo in a book. Now I can’t remember the last book I read that didn’t have at least one goof, and that’s only the grammar and spelling errors.

When we researched papers in college, all we needed to do was visit a good library and people there would help us locate reputable sources or at least point us in the right direction.

darwinbell on flickr
darwinbell on flickr

I love that you can type, “what’s that horrible smelling orange fungus?” into a search engine and it will lead you to stinkhorns before you’ve even finished typing the question. Back in the olden days, we’d have to take a trip to the library and find a field guide or ask an old gardener. Some random questions might not be answered for years, if ever.

So, yeah, it’s great that there is so much information out there, so many channels and so many sources, but one disadvantage is that now you have to work harder to judge the accuracy of the sources that claim to be providing you with true facts. If you don’t check your sources, you will inevitably have a bozo episode of falling for bogus information. That could be embarrassing or worst-case, dangerous.

Grandpa, who was relentless about mentioning his Harvard PhD, taught me to dig down to original sources. (I have done it when researching very serious medical questions, and it’s tough going).

Original sources are important because it’s always possible that something is lost or distorted in translation. If you really want to know what Harry Houdini thought about seances, read what he wrote, not what a biographer or medium has to say about what he had to say.

How can you evaluate your sources? Ask questions, of course!!

  • Why is this source giving this information? Are they selling something? Are they trying to scare you? Is it entertainment only?
  • What’s the method? Print? Peer-reviewed? Podcast?
  • Is only one viewpoint being presented? Do they cite sources? Have evidence?
  • Who are they? Are they qualified? Recognized as an expert or respected institution? Some guy wearing antlers?

You will hear that you should never cite encyclopedias or wikis, but there’s nothing wrong with surveying them to see an outline of the subject while you’re rolling your ideas around.

Some publications are there to be an example to the others. Mighty institutions have scarred their reputations on bad journalism and faked interviews. Just because a website won a prestigious award, that doesn’t mean that they are infallible or ever were.

Always be skeptical, always ask more questions. If the subject is important to you, approach it like a fact checker.

Don’t just take my word for it, see Seven Steps to Better Fact-checking.


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