Healthy Skepticism towards Sources

One of the common arguments against using online sources is that since anyone can post on the web, you can’t trust online content. This is usually the first argument against Wikipedia, and I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred variations on it.

I completely agree with the idea that we should teach students (and teachers, and everyone) to view online sources with a healthy dose of skepticism. Jakob Nielsen called this “Information Credibility” in his list of Lifelong Computer Skills, which I wrote about last month. I think it should be Information Credibility though, with the emphasis on evaluating all sources, not just the online ones. The arguments against using online sources assume that all print sources are without flaw. In real life, print sources, even peer-reviewed journals and textbooks, aren’t perfect. It’s time to give up this fantasy that because something is printed that we should accept it without question. “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” Part of lifelong learning should be cultivating a healthy skepticism towards anything people read or hear, in any format.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Wes Fryer writes about his recent discovery of a probable misattribution of a famous quote. The quote starts “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…” and is usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. How many print sources attribute this quote incorrectly?
  • It’s been reported many times, but bears repeating here: Nature magazine found that entries in Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia had similar numbers of errors. Note that this means that Britannica had errors. It wasn’t perfect.
  • Science Daily recently published an article titled “Is Most Published Research Really False?”
  • Another classic is Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone,” which is summarized here. Science textbook authors are no more perfect than the rest of us, and without healthy skepticism, they too can simply repeat what they have read without further investigation.

I would love to see more emphasis on critical evaluation of sources. The good news is that the web makes it actually easier–think of all the blogs that fact check news stories and politicians. A good blogger can get an army of volunteers researching and fact checking. Primary sources can be more easily available online so we don’t have to simply take the word of secondary and tertiary sources. If misinformation is given, others can jump in to correct it. Yes, there is crap published online–but there is also a lot of great content. Let’s move past the simplistic idea that online=bad and print=good and start encouraging people to really think about the content they consume.

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