Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The sources of our discontents

Every weekend The Slacktiverse posts a "blogaround." Most, but not all, of the links are to posts published over the last week by members of the The Slacktiverse community [Section One]. A small number of links are to stories that one person in the community thinks others in the community may be interested in [Section Two]. There are usually a link or two to a petitions [Section Three].

While formatting the first section of the weekly post (links to posts published on elseboards) is reminiscent of copy editing working on the latter two sections is far more similar to serious academic research or old fashioned newspaper fact checking. Fact checking is a skill which is not well taught (if it is taught at all) at school and yet is a vitally important tool when one is assessing validity and weight of any information.

A short primer on fact checking
  1. Whenever possible use primary sources. Just because source ZZ says/writes that Person A said Y in interview N doesn't mean that they actually did so. In a surprisingly large number of instances Person A said no such thing. Or Person A did write/say that but not in interview N. It is possible that Person B was actually the one who said that. It is possible that Person A said one thing in interview N and later said the opposite in interview M. It is possible that Person A never said anything on that topic at all.

    Does this mean that source ZZ consciously mischaracterized (lied about) what Person B said/wrote? Not necessarily. The secondary source could themselves have been depending on another nonprimary source (that is, technically the secondary source was actually a tertiary source) or the secondary source may have misremembered or misunderstood the primary source. The reasons why it happens are less important than the fact that it does happen.

  2. Assess the credibility/expertise/informedness of the secondary source.
  3. Consider the possiblity that the secondary source may have reasons, conscious or unconscious, for being less than objective about the primary source. Is the secondary source a relative, friend, follower, leader, proponent or opponent of the primary source or the institution/person/beliefs the primary source was commenting on? Their judgement might be in question. And even if their judgment/objectivity is beyond question do they know enough about the subject/issue/event/person to make a good determination as to the accuracy/validity of the primary source? This is of particular importance when the material cited cannot be judged without some level of skill. For example, if one is not fluent in Homeric Greek it is difficult to access the relative qualities of different translations and if one knows little about statistics one cannot vouch for the quality of any statistical analyses. So ZZ may have simply not have had the training required understand and summarize the work they were referencing.

  4. Check to see whether further information casts doubt on the claims of the primary source If one reads/researches enough one soon finds sources that state, without the least amount of equivocation, that one will find dragons in this area of the Europe and sea monsters in that part of the ocean. You will find sources that claim to have proof that lead has been turned into gold, that a certain saint levitated and then flew around a cathedral and that some historical figures were hiding tails under their cloaks. Just because a primary source said the something was true doesn't mean that it was indeed the case. Often it takes little more than reading/listening to the primary source in order to discount it claims . This is sometimes the case even when the original work was done comparatively recently. For example, a particular political/psychological study was conducted within the last forty years. In the introductory material the authors emphasized that they had made special efforts to obtain a sample that was diverse enough to warrant generalization to the wider American population. On careful reading of the study it emerges that the samples were from two American college towns in the same general area of the country.

  5. Bad information doesn't disappear. Just because something is in the library or on the internet doesn't mean that it hasn't been refuted somewhere else. Books full of bad information don't get recalled and they don't have warning notices pasted to their front covers. Internet sites are not taken down when it turns out the material on the page has been proven wrong. Always look for independent verification.

  6. Always check to make sure that the "independent" proofs/references are actually independent Check all the references in the secondary sources. One sometimes finds that all the many references in your secondary sources lead to same, single, initial source. For example, one person may post an account of a bad experience with a particular store or institution on facebook. Someone reads about it on facebook and writes it up in their college newspaper. The local town newspaper picks up the story from the college newspapers. A larger regional newspaper picks up the story from the town newspaper. A website reports on the bad experience using the article in the regional newspaper as verification of the information in the original facebook posting. At no point has anyone made an effort to independently verify the claim in the facebook article.

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