First things first: Thinking Critically about Information
As I sat down to write this week’s post, I realized I had planned to dive into the deep end of the pool—that is, talk about research on cultural subjects—without first dealing with the very important question of how to swim. Since the 1990s, we have been living in what information and computer science specialists have called “the information age,” as though more is always better when it comes to this thing we call information. As a professional researcher for many years, however, I have learned that our age can be better described as the age of “misinformation” or the age of “information overload.”
I consider the Internet the best example of a mixed blessing man has ever invented. On the one hand, there is a whole lot of really good information out there that people can access and use—often for free. On the other hand, there is even more misinformation, which the researcher has to sift through to get to the good stuff. Some of that misinformation is accidental and some is intentional, but all of it is useless when we’re looking for the truth.
On the daily news over the past week or so, there have been all sorts of talk about political bias in Google’s search algorithms, but this problem of bias in information can be, frankly, no less prevalent in print resources—even those that have been historically labeled scholarly. The fact is, misleading information has been around since long before the Internet was created. It is only that now, with nothing standing between the user and the information found out there on the World Wide Web, it is up to us, the users, to figure out the good from the bad, fact from fiction, useful from harmful. The number one rule in doing research online is to remember that literally anyone can put anything on the Internet and call it truth. There are no filters—no editors, no publishers, no critics—to help the user discern the truth in what he or she reads.
So what do we do?
The rules really haven’t changed when it comes to doing research. Whether using print or electronic sources, the one thing the user must do is think critically about information.
Criteria for Evaluating Web Resources
For the interest of this blog, I’m going to apply these criteria specifically to free Internet sources, since most of us are spending a lot more time researching online than in print these days, but these criteria can and should be applied to print resources as well. If you can learn to always filter your information use using these four evaluation criteria, you’ll have a pretty good shot at getting to good information.
There are four main criteria for evaluating information sources: Purpose, Authority, Accuracy, and Currency. Today, we’ll look at Purpose.
#1 – Purpose:
It is sometimes surprisingly difficult to figure out just what the purpose of a website is, but you can ask yourselves some basic questions to help guide you. Is the site designed to inform or educate in an unbiased manner? Does the site support a particular political position or point of view? Does the site attempt to sell a product or service? Is the site intended to entertain?
Answering yes to any of these questions does not necessarily mean you can’t or shouldn’t use the information found therein, but it does mean you should “get a second opinion” somewhere else, preferably from a neutral, or even opposing viewpoint, site.
A Website’s domain type can sometimes reveal the site’s purpose, although this is less true now than it used to be. These are the most common domain types:
.org nonprofit organization
.com commercial organization
.net network or association
.edu educational institution
.gov governmental agency (U.S.)
.mil branch of the military (U.S.)
As anyone who owns a domain can tell you, however, once you purchase a .com, you are offered the .org and the .net (for additional fees, of course), so there’s really nothing to differentiate these first three domain types today. The latter three, on the other hand, are certain, but you still have to be careful. I once had an undergraduate student cite a paper from an .edu site, thinking it was authoritative because it came from an educational institution. Unfortunately, when I checked it out, I learned it was from a junior high school—not a college or university—and the paper had actually been written by an eighth grade student—hardly an appropriate source for a college-level research paper!
If you want to practice applying this “purpose criteria” to a website—and perhaps have some fun along the way—see if you can find the purpose behind www.DHMO.org. It might surprise you!
Next week we’ll look at evaluating Web resources’ Authority, Accuracy, and Currency.