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Biff Rose
12 Weeks
Consider the Source

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 first place.

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.










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