Monday, July 5, 2010

Some things to keep in mind while using Internet sources

(X-posted at the Sustainability History Project)

Howard Rheingold provides some useful guidelines to evaluating Internet sources in his article Crap Detection 101.

Rheingold begins:
    The answer to almost any question is available within seconds, courtesy of the invention that has altered how we discover knowledge - the search engine. Materializing answers from the air turns out to be the easy part - the part a machine can do. The real difficulty kicks in when you click down into your search results. At that point, it's up to you to sort the accurate bits from the misinfo, disinfo, spam, scams, urban legends, and hoaxes. "Crap detection," as Hemingway called it half a century ago, is more important than ever before, now that the automation of crapcasting has generated its own word: "spamming."

To summarize Rheingold's points:

    ** "'Who is the author?' is the root question. If you don't find one, turn your skepticism meter to the top of the dial."
    ** "Does the author provide sources for factual claims, and what happens when you search on the names of the authors of those sources?"
    ** "You aren't paranoid if you suspect that some sites might even deliberately try to deceive you. Some sites insidiously cloak their real bias, for example. I use as an example . . . it's not owned by admirers of the late civil rights leader, but you wouldn't know that at first glance."
    ** "Although the Web undermines authority, the usefulness of authority as another clue to credibility hasn't entirely disappeared. I would add credibility points if a source is a verified professor at a known institution of higher learning, an authentic M.D. or Ph.D., but I wouldn't subtract points from uncredentialed people whose expertise seems authentic. . . don't trust just one source. Triangulate."
    ** "Think of tools like search engines, the productivity index, hoax debunking sites like, and others . . . as forensic instruments, like Sherlock Holmes' magnifying glass or the crime scene investigator's fingerprint kit. The tools are only useful as the means to sleuthing out a mystery."
    ** "Know how to use online filters [such as on Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter] . . . [journalist Marc Ambinder] recommends watching for disinformation, looking for patterns in the geographic location of sources (but warns against assuming that everything that resembles a pattern really is one), examining your assumptions and looking for sources that contradict them."


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