Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Trusting Information

In this “Information Age” which is bombarding us at an ever escalating clip with data faster than we can absorb it, teaching our students how to find truthful sources is a critical challenge. The bottom line is that people lie at worst or distort at best, for all sorts of reasons, and that many of these lies and distortions are purposefully unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

From Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, to outright Internet hoax sites, to media and political misinformation, the airwaves and cyberspace today are filled with a glutton’s feast of non-truths and half-truths that when repeated often enough become reality for our students.

One thing I stress in my classes is that good consumers of information will find multiple sources on a subject, and then they will check to see what other sources (“experts” if possible) are saying about those sources. This can get a little tricky, as sometimes those secondary sources are working in a deliberately set-up and manipulated echo chamber, such as that established by the Creationist press, whose authors have dubious credentials and cite each other to “prove” that Evolution is “just a theory.”

Although I equally stress that my students must use trusted academic databases such as Academic Search Premier to do most of the researching, there is an extraordinary number of wonderful websites “out there” (a term my students love and I hate!) and/or useful articles that are available on the web and not inside any library database. Because the Internet is here to stay, no matter what we think of it, and because our students have grown up with it as a matter of daily fact and not as a matter of infinite graphic and audio wonderment as it still is to those of use who started with Commodore computers and Compuserve’s text-only browser on 14.4kbps dial-up modems, it is imperative that we rigorously teach strategies to determine the veracity of web-delivered information.

This is a difficult task, and I do not have silver-bullet for it. However, a little trick I learned last week when Alan November spoke at the 30th anniversary birthday celebration of IPFW’s Department of Continuing Studies (see related blog entries below) can be very useful and can open students’ eyes. I used it just now to satisfy myself that my “dubious credentials” link above was a worthy one, and it goes like this: using Alta vista, type the word “link” (without quotes) followed immediately (without a space) by a colon, followed immediately by the full URL of the site in question. This command will give you all of the sites that are linked to the site you are questioning. By itself, this is not terribly useful, but if you add a “host” command, you can narrow your search to just “.edu” or “.gov” sites under the assumption that such sites might attest to the true usefulness or veracity of the site in question. You can even get more specific. For example, in the case of my “dubious credentials” link above, which takes you to an article on the web site, I did the following AltaVista search (without the quotes): “”. And lo and behold, the site is linked to an article by a Yale ornithologist, who gives The Talk.Origins website a rave review.

Now I know those who teach at Yale are nothing more than pointy-headed, knee-jerk liberals, but still, you can see the usefulness of this little search-engine trick. And even here in the isolationist Midwest, when I mention “Yale” to my students, they do take notice. So, who knows, maybe the truth can set us free!


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