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.