Saturday, November 24, 2007

Consider the source

It's an information jungle out there. Between books, journals, newspapers, magazines, web sites, and the rest, there's just too much information for any one person to digest. We should read widely from a variety of sources. However, to be reasonably informed and make sense of that information, we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different media.

The thing to recognize is that anybody can write anything, and with the web, anybody can post anything. Blog providers like (the service that hosts this blog) are easy to use and lead to astonishingly attractive content. The services offer great publishing tools in the form of spell checkers, standard templates, easy formatting, and HTML features. It's just as easy to put up other types of web sites and to publish great looking pages. The process is truly democratizing and leads to a tremendous variety of content and points of view.

However, this strength--that anybody can now publish like a pro--is also a potential weakness that we need to keep in mind when reading material. Just because someone writes something doesn't mean that it is true, correct, or well-reasoned.

If the author is unfamiliar, there are also some reputational and review cues that you can look to. A first check is whether someone is writing or posting under their own name. Occasionally there are good reasons to use a pseudonym or to remain anonymous, but the reasons mostly involve authors who are taking genuine risks with their writing. More often, however, posting anonymously or under an unidentifiable handle is a way to avoid responsibility for what's being written.

The types of editorial and expert review that go into a source are other indicators that can help. Blogs, working papers, self-published reports typically don't have to go through the editorial gauntlet. This means that they can be "published" very quickly and inexpensively, but it also means that the reader needs to bring considerable caution to bear. Editing and peer-review don't lead to perfect or even necessarily sound analyses, but they do provide some level of screening. It also means that the editor and publisher are willing to lend some of their reputation to the author.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to carefully reading and considering what's written. Regardless of the source, critical reading and independent evaluation are necessary. An author who wants you to make that evaluation will provide sources and reveal his/her analyses.


Brenda Bowers said...

Teaching my students not to believe everything they read was my hardest lesson to teach. Whether elementary school or the university it appeared what was written somewhere as long as it was "written" then made it right.

Not surprisingly it was easier to add this element of doubt of the written word in my elementary students as they had not yet been indoctrinated. I taught them to first ask themselves if what they were reading made sense when stacked up against what they already knew to be true. I did this often by reading them pure and outrageous hype as if it were gospel and then sitting back and letting them decide what was right or wrong about the article. Even third graders were more able to discern false statements than my university students. I can only hope my lessons were carried with them throughout their lives.

As for the university students I was not surprised, and was indeed quite happy and proud, to find the American students less likely to gulp whole hog the statements they read than foreign students. Maybe there is hope. But then I have been gone from the teaching field for many years and am not impressed by what universities have turned out in the past 20 years.

I understand the problem of poorly educated university graduates however when I read articles like the recent one in the N&R by the what I called "over educated stupidities" like Wineburg the UNCG social workers education professor and his equally obtuse cohort, Elizabeth Lindsey. Talk about considering the source! BB

Dave Ribar said...


Thanks for the really thoughtful reply. In my previous university position, I had the opportunity to teach several senior thesis classes, where the students were responsible for doing their own reading and research and then answering research questions that they had posed. Many of the students struggled with coming up with reliable source materials.

Anonymous said...

Just go to Fox News they have a point and counter point on ever thing. That's why LIBERALS hate Fox. They want one sided news. Of course then you must decide what you believe to be true. Liberal media told you if you voted democrat, gas prices would go down. Since the LIBERALS took over they are up 40%. Yet I have not seen that in the EVIL MEDIA. Never will. Xpress marts loaded with college grads.