With Some Grains of Salt

Salt/NaCl by Rob (2008) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr ihttps://farm4.staticflickr.com/3029/3037643777_28a8424e69_s.jpg
Salt/NaCl by Rob (2008) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr

Since becoming enamored of blogging, I am especially fond of linking to other sites. Usually, this is for an explanatory purpose (definition or background) or to provide citation to another source (i.e. The Dress that broke the Internet). As I was re-reading many of my earlier posts, I noticed, “Wow, I really love linking to Wikipedia!” Followed shortly by the thought, “Whoa, when did Wikipedia become a legitimate source of information?”

When I first heard about Wikipedia in the early aughts, I joked that it was mostly good for rock band trivia and celebrity gossip. Pretty much anything you read on Wikipedia was to be taken with a heaping scoop of salt, because *anybody* could add stuff to Wikipedia: Who knows what pranksters and malcontents would put up for their own amusement? On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, right?

At some point, either Wikipedia or my perception of its quality started changing (most likely, both!)   Wikipedia has developed self-correcting mechanisms to track and evaluate changes to articles for reliability and to revert vandalism. Wikipedia has an incredibly dedicated cadre of volunteer contributors and editors, who keep up with the flow of continuous changes to articles. For example, The NYTimes ran a story on the high accuracy of Ebola information on Wikipedia, mostly due to the efforts of the physicians running WikiProject Medicine who review the articles for health misinformation.

Many teachers and reference librarians still recommend that you don’t use Wikipedia as a source in your academic research papers. Wikipedia agrees: “[C]itation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source…Do your research properly and wisely. Remember that any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending point.”

This all comes down to a larger question: How do you tell if the information you’re reading on the Internet (or anywhere, for that matter) is reliable?

  • Turns out there are a lot of criteria for approaching internet materials with a critical eye. I do many of these things unconsciously as I wend my way through teh intarwebs, but only after long years of experience. Things to consider include:
  • Authorship (is this person an authority?)
  • the kind of site (personal website, blog, online newspaper, scholarly journal)
  • is this information available elsewhere for comparison,
  • date published (is this current information?)
  • does this author have an agenda or bias in writing this piece?

For example, I am a fan of Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, a website dedicated to protecting an alleged arboreal cephalopod that is threatened by habitat loss. While the premise is rather silly (common sense says as a rule, marine animals like octopuses don’t live in trees), the site closely approximates the kind of site supporters of an endangered species might create to promote awareness of their cause. A naive cephalopod enthusiast might be drawn in by the appealingly designed website. Goodness knows there are plenty of weird creatures being described on the internet, some of which actually exist.

However, if the little voice in the back of my head says, “Is this thing real?” my next step is to check with the folks at Snopes.com, who maintain a large list of internet hoaxes, urban legends and misinformation. Per Snopes,the Pacific Tree Octopus is a joke that has been confounding internet users since 1998 (in Internet years, like forever!) It is also used to test 7th graders’ ability to evaluate websites for reliable information.

While the internet is full of misinformation and disinformation, the medium itself may contain the means of correction. Yoni Appelbaum in the Atlantic, profiles a history professor who has his students create plausible historical hoaxes online, only to be exposed by the users over at Reddit. I have a Facebook friend (a medical professional in training), that when he notices people reposting the latest article from Natural News on curing cancer with Mangos (or whatever), replies with a comment stating “Pseudoscience!” I can’t imagine he wins any actual friends this way (or maybe the people posting just do it to annoy him), but I have to admire him for fighting the good fight.

Useful Resources:
Michael Engle at Cornell University Libraries compiled this list of useful sites for evaluating information. To quote LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow, “Of course, you don’t have to take *my word* for it.”

Tangents for this Post:

On The University of Google:
Jenny McCarthy has gained notoriety for championing use of The University of Google as her source for some of the scientifically unsupported information she has advocated. Bob Garfield of NPR’s On the Media, sardonically replies: “Problem is, the University of Google sucks, because anyone can teach there, no matter how dishonest, how superstitious, how ignorant. On the University of Google, you can also learn about how the US government blew up the World Trade Center, how crystals magically heal, how Jews kill Gentile infants for their blood and how easy it is to get rich in real estate.”

On Context and Unwanted Connotations:
Even if a source has good information, I would be slightly hesitant to use it because of the taint that attaches based on the polemics or tone of other pieces the author has written. I found two pretty solid essays on judging internet resources. The first piece was written by a retired English professor and I thought were pretty solid guidelines for using the internet for research. The author has many articles on his site on various topics, including religious essays expressing disapproval of evolution. Even though the religious essays have nothing to do with the “Evaluating Internet Resources” article, is the fact that they’re written by the same author imply that I’m condoning one if I promote the other?

The second essay was part of a humorous talk on Skepticism by an atheist blogger. While he linked a healthy skepticism of stuff you read on the internet to his overall attitude of Skepticism in general, I thought he had also had some good points for dealing with internet information. Unlike the first piece, which was a straightforward student-directed document, this was definitely a piece of rhetoric meant to convince an audience of a particular point of view.

I even found a third piece, specifically concerned with evaluating scientific information on the web. It was well written and cited, but I decided not to include it in this post because the blog’s author got into name-calling fights with readers in the comments. Either graciously disagree, or maybe the comment doesn’t merit a response. Don’t feed the trolls, dude.


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