Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Source Evaluation and Critical Thinking

Source Evaluation and Critical Thinking.
There are lots of Web pages that tell you how to evaluate sources—especially Internet sources. I even have such a page. But there’s something that you’re not being told. Source evaluation is (1) a learned skill and (2) it’s learned heuristically, not algorithmically. Let me define for you. An algorithm is a step by step procedure that yields a set result. A cake recipe is a good example. Follow the recipe correctly, get a nice cake. Unfortunately, source evaluation is not algorithmic. And even more unfortunately, too many writers and teachers pretend that it is.
Source evaluation cannot be learned by reading an article that lists half a dozen factors (who is the publisher, who is the author, how recent is the article, etc.) to take into account. Now, such articles are very good because those are important items to think about. But there are many nuances, variations, exceptions, and subtleties to include also.
A heuristic is a trial-and-error method of learning, where you gradually learn over time what the best answers are. Your knowledge—your skill—that you apply to evaluating sources must be refined so that you can sniff out that fake source that looks so reliable. Not to mention the good source that looks amateur.
Speaking of which, many evaluation articles scoff at so-called vanity sites put up by individuals. Many are probably not reliable, but many others are labors of love by experienced, expert contributors who do indeed know what they are talking about. And official sites are not guaranteed to be reliable, either.
For example, suppose you are researching diet and you come across a Web site called the Investigative Institute for Human Health and Nutrition. There you find an article about the dangers of eating red meat. The article is by a couple of people with Doctor titles. Good source? Well, suppose further that you do a little digging and discover that the site is owned or sponsored by VeganMilitancy and that the doctors have honorary PhDs and not medical degrees. Bad source? Well, are there redeeming factors? Can you trust the statistics on the site?
Here is my advice for what to do:
·        Triangulate the source. Are there other sources that support these arguments, data, reasons, evidence?
·        Use the rest of the Internet to test the claims of the site. Do other sites disagree or even disprove the claims of the site under review? Note that disagreeing is not the same as disproving. I remember once hearing someone say of a controversial claim, "That's been answered." But what was the answer? Was it an "I don't agree" answer or a disproof?