Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What is Valid

A friend told me that if I could tell people how to tell if the information they are getting was accurate, she would share my post again and again.  Sadly, there is no simple solution to the problem.  No magic set of words to look for or site addresses or for that matter any guarantee that even reliable sites won't occasionally get it wrong.  Reliable sites will, however, admit their wrong and correct. The unreliable will most likely double down or attack the challenge to the information they spread.

There is no simple solution to becoming well-informed.  It takes actual work and time.  The well-informed check carefully what they are told.  The well-informed will go back occasionally to make sure that what they have learned is still relevant and accurate.  It is like a great athlete.  No amount of natural talent will get them to the pros if they never hone that talent.  They could be the Michael Jordan of their sport, but if they never actually practice, they will still be only slightly more effective than the guy coaching from his recliner.  A prodigy must be trained. A writer must write.  To make sure what you post is as good and true as you can make it - to become well-informed- you must look weigh, consider, judge, verify, and labor.  There is no magic.

There is a tremendous difference between academic research and what is typically posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. These sites frequently post almost anything that someone's bias might hold.  Believe in Big Foot? there's a Facebook page for that. Alien Bases on Mars? There's a Facebook page for that.  Some of these stories are largely harmless.  There are, however, a host of sites that proclaim themselves as health, expert political analysis, etc. that do nothing but spread lies, hate, and fear.  So here is my feeble attempt to help you know if the news stories you are posting are even close to accurate. Chances are pretty good that if you are posting links to your favorite political Facebook page, they aren't.

Let's get the easy stuff out of the way.  An academic paper using the internet as a source must meet much stricter standards to be considered valid. There are several good sites that list for what you should be looking. It includes simple stuff like the author, his expertise, the validity of links, footnotes and host of things.  If you're getting ready to do this kind of research try one of these great sites for what is considered documentable information.  This list on Georgetown University is a pretty good one.

Memes too are pretty easy because, for the most part, those that are not humorous are probably carefully selected propaganda.  What If they offer statistics, check them for accuracy.  Take, for example, the recent use of the three cops holding signs after Ferguson and the New York attacks.  What makes these viral memes interesting is that you can find different words on the signs depending on what was Photoshopped on them.  What is more, the signs didn't originally had anything to do with attacks on police.  They were part of an advertising campaign in Tennesse to be sure to "move over" in cone zones because all lives matter.

All polls are not equal. Information from major news organizations or places like Pew tends to be more carefully constructed whereas political organizations like MSNBC and FoxNews stilt their poll questions to get the answers they want.  I've been on the receiving end of several of these so-called polls.

The easiest ones to dismiss is basically all of Facebook.  If you're cutting and pasting some lovely little article or clip, then you are not being well-informed.  If the page you are following only links one source, it is propaganda.  Conservative Daily uses only  while Progressive America uses only  You've heard the saying "because science" well how about a new one, "bias much"? I have friends that post from these sites almost weekly if not daily.  I like these folks, but I would not consider them well-informed. There is not an article on IJReview or BlueNation that I would not vet carefully for accuracy.  Sadly, there are even a few friends whose feed on my Facebook page I've had to unfollow.  The vitriol they spewed and links they post were just too filled with hate and fear. I quit following them.  No, I didn't respond. First rule: Never argue with a crazy person.

So that brings us to the best way to check for accuracy. It will always involve work.  You will become faster.  Start here:

Reliability or Authority means the author or information is an actual expert.  An article should always have an identifiable author.  I know it is hard to believe, but movie stars and politicians are not reliable or authoritative sources. Lobbyists of political organizations or ads placed by super PACs are not reliable either.  Next time you hear the head of the NRA or that leader of one of the political parties giving a speech they have no real authority.  They are in fact using or misusing the same information you can look up.

Objectivity means the person writing or speaking uses factual language, avoids loaded words, and seems to be fair and balanced.  The article is not driven by personal bias.

Accuracy is the one that takes time.  There are a few tips though that the article is attempting to be accurate.  They include links to other relevant sources.  The article is detailed.  The sources are recent and also have sources.  The link should lead you to more information, not just the original article.  Too frequently, articles are just a re-posting of the exact same article.  The article's title indicates information.  It should not be sensational or what has become known as "click bait."

Finally comes Relevance or Currency.  No dates are offered.  Many of the links are broken.  There are no dates on the page. Information is stale or undated. All this means that chances are pretty good the article fails the reliability smell test.

The more of these ROAR items that an article meets the more accurate the article.  You can't just dismiss and article because it is biased, but you will approach its information more carefully.  After all, if we all didn't rant once in a while, the web would be a boring place.

My last recommendations: Don't get all your information from the same source. Change up your sources and your news. Organizations like MSNBC and FoxNews are going to influence you in ways you won't realize.