I’m sure plenty of us have been in some thread on a social site (take your pick) and have seen the other commentators cite some reference or post a link that they think backs up the claim they are making. This can quickly result in “link spam” as the people in the discussion attempt to jockey for the vaunted position of most credible claim. What usually winds up happening is that they share a bunch of websites and YouTube videos that, quite frankly, aren’t anywhere in the same ballpark as credible.
Nothing is really learned because the way the internet is, anyone can find support for nearly any assertion. No matter how wild and unlikely that assertion is. Too many people have become slaves to their biases, fears, and viewpoint. They just pick the source that says what they want it to say. They really aren’t on a search for the facts, they’re on a search for affirmation of what they already believe.
The question is, how do we avoid this? How do we become honest researchers?
Let’s start with understanding why sources are important. Anyone can create a website. This is ridiculously simple these days. The fact that someone puts up a site claiming to be reporting on a real event or exposing something hidden isn’t, in and of itself, evidence. For me, a surefire way to have me not take an article seriously is if they don’t cite a legitimate reference for the claims they are making. Way too many times I see supposed references at the bottom of the article that only link to another story on the same website…or another website with no citations for their article.
Let’s get this clear right now. There is a difference between primary sources, secondary sources and tertiary sources.
In science these are what are accepted as primary sources:
- Report of scientific discoveries
- Results of experiments
- Results of clinical trials
- Social and political science research results
- Factual, not interpretive
Secondary sources involve generalization, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information. It’s not that that’s a terrible thing, but it also means that the author may be putting his own spin or take on the information. When articles cite a study without giving you a link to it, you can’t really be sure that the study is real. Or that it proves what they claim it does. You might need to start questioning the veracity of the assertion and whether or not that website is reliable. In my opinion, you should care enough about your own intellectual honesty and integrity to want to have the best available data to make your conclusions. Especially if you plan on sharing any information to others.
Let me end this by saying that none of us get it right every single time. We all can fall victim to shoddy reporting, misinformation or just bad research. What I think helps greatly is the understanding that every claim must stand on it’s own merits. Regardless of who is making the assertion. I don’t care if you distrust the government (many times with good reason). I don’t care what your overall movement or cause is. I don’t care if the claim being made fits into your worldview, political perspective or religious viewpoint. And you shouldn’t either. The person making the claim has the burden of proof. So make them prove it. Con men prey on the gullible and those emotionally attached to their ideas, agendas and biases. Don’t allow yourself to become an unreliable source.
References and things that might help: