All the World's a Stage, all the Net's a Marketplace
Everywhere you look on the web you'll find someone trying to sell you
something -- Ebay tips, the only hair restorer you'll need, the political
party who will take care of you, the best retirement community or (as in
this article) their own point of view. It's a huckster's world out
there, and we're all marks in one way or another.
Recently I was talking with a good friend of mine who's a research
librarian, and asking her about the impact the net has had on her own
profession and, as I guessed, she said it has pretty well eliminated
people's need to consult her or the library on just about everything they
had been doing. She said to me she was doing a lot of lecturing,
though, and some of the main topics were just how to do research in the
People think that by Googling "kidney ailments" they
immediately become as wise as their doctor, or at least are exposed to the
same facts. But without understanding the precepts of research many
folks are worse off than they would be if they had no internet at all.
The problem is the net is a two-edged sword -- for every
"true" fact out there there are about a dozen that aren't.
And separating the wheat from the chaff takes skill, skill which most
folks haven't been taught.
As a communications specialist I understand all too well the pitfalls
of incorrectly gathering and assessing information. And one of the
first things we were taught in fact-finding was to Consider the Source.
Agenda's Hidden and Otherwise
Just like everyone wants to sell you something, everyone who puts
information on the web has an agenda, even if they profess
otherwise. The best scientists in the world still have their own
prejudices, and experiments are designed to try and eliminate them, but
the fact remains that we all have a point of view.
When you are gathering facts one of the tests of how good the
information is is where it comes from. A pro-tobacco study is a lot
less likely to be reliable if it comes from a tobacco company, or even if
it is just sponsored by such a company. On the other hand,
information which shows that Global warming isn't occurring can probably
be trusted if it comes from a group known to support liberal causes.
So the first thing you absolutely want to know when considering whether
the information you have found is good or not is what group has published
it. Remember that even so-called "unbiased" organizations
can have hidden agendas, but it's best not to be too paranoid about the
situation. Consumer Reports is well known for it's fair and
impartial judgments of products and probably doesn't have an axe to grind
even if they exhibit some environmental bias.
This isn't to say that information that comes from blatantly biased
groups is worthless -- while they are unlikely to produce information
which does not support their viewpoint, they may still have valid facts
which need to be evaluated. But just remember that in those cases
there is very likely an equally valid opposite viewpoint that needs to be
discovered and considered, and it's part of your job as a researcher and
seeker of truth to do that. In other words, don't rely upon them as
your sole source.
Indeed, finding multiple sources of information is another important
part of the process. One study doesn't have nearly the weight of
three, particularly if they are conducted by three separate (and with
varying agendas) bodies. This is another way to protect against
getting a bad source.
But how do you discover the source? The web can be tricky, as
many organizations who are attempting to hide their agendas also disguise
their web sites. And even with the best of intentions some groups
don't admit to where their interests lie.
If they've published studies try and do a cross-reference -- see if you
can find the actual study and how it was conducted. If a site
doesn't have any contrary information even though you can find others on
the web which do, the odds are strong that site is biased and not to be
trusted. No issue is so black and white there aren't conflicting
points of view, and if you don't find them represented (or represented
fairly) then you might not want to trust that site either. And be
careful of finding "multiple" references which only refer back
to the same study -- simply quoting the same thing a thousand times
doesn't make it any more true.
This sounds like a lot of work, right? Yep, it's all that and
more, but the more you do the better you'll get at it, and the better you
get at it the easier it will be to spot those references which sound
"fishy" as well as those that ring true. It's your
responsibility because the world isn't simple -- you can either do the
work or trust others who have (and I have some land in Florida to sell you
if you believe in the latter).
If any of this interests you at all, you might want to visit my
friend's tutorial site for learning how to do web research. There is
no fee, and no password needed to complete the course. She works at
a community college in western Nevada, and I've known her for over 20
years and can attest to no hidden agenda here -- she simply wants folks to
be informed about using the web correctly. However, I have not taken
the course (as I could probably write it myself) so I can't tell you how
good it actually is. My hunch is that it couldn't possibly hurt and
will probably help a great deal.