I got nudged by a friend to do a ramble about information evaluation. It might have gotten a little away from me.
- We all have biases and things we know more about than others.
- Some people are more up front about this than other people.
- Ditto goals. We all have them, some people are more up front about them.
- Be really suspicious of the people who claim they have the absolute truth and are telling you for your own good.
(They probably don’t and they probably aren’t. Especially if you don’t have a preexisting trusting relationship. Real world stuff has fewer absolutes, for one thing.)
Who is this person (or What is this source?)
Start with the basics. Who’s telling you this thing? What’s their background? If it’s a website without an individual author, what do you know about the site?
You may need to file this in “Need to do some more research” but knowing you need to do that is a great first step. First thing: check out the ‘about’ page, or a bio. Usually this will give you some hints on what they’re about and what they care about most.
If you’re not sure where to start with that, try searching the person’s name (plus maybe a term from the topics they write about, if you need to narrow it down) or search on the name of the site. Sometimes adding in words like ‘review’ or ‘about’ will help.
Even just knowing what kind of source this is can help. Personal website? Newspaper that’s actually well-known and reasonably respected (even if you don’t agree with them)? Pocket of internet culture you weren’t previously aware of? Political group hidden behind astroturfing techniques?
I sort things into “Probably reasonably competent”, “Dubious” and “Need more information”, personally.
Probably reasonably competent sources are those I’ve checked out before, and came up reasonably well sourced. I still need to check the specifics here, but they get some starting benefit of the doubt. Dubious sources are those that have come up short before. Everything else gets filed in ‘need more info’.
What are their goals?
Education? Information? Sell something? Share something gorgeous or fun or amusing? Are they trying to persuade you of something?
What do they get out of you believing them and taking them (or their information) seriously? Are they being up front and honest about that?
Here’s an example: sales sites are not the most fun thing ever, but there is something refreshingly honest about “Buy this thing from me and here’s why.” It’s clear what the people want, and usually pretty clear what’s involved in getting it.
On the other hand, a lot of sources in the political realm are trying to persuade you of things, but it’s not always clear what they’re trying to persuade you of. (Or whether they’re not trying to persuade you at all, but are instead signalling to their core base what they care about.)
This is often where you see a lot of vagaries and unsourced information that plays on emotions rather than treating you like the intelligent, thoughtful, considerate person I want to think you are.
Where did they get their information?
This is where we get to the meat of things. People who are saying trustworthy things should give you a way to check, or more information about how they know that.
When we’re talking to a friend, we put what they tell us in the context of all the other things we know about them. They’re reliable as anything with a ride when it’s important, lousy at getting stuff to the post office.
They have a lot of specific experience in dealing with Mercutian rabbits, and the last fifty things they told you about those rabbits turned out to be right, but they’re not nearly so reliable about Venusian wombats. And they’re normally great about Saturnian leopards, but there’s this one weird quirk, don’t trust their grooming recommendations.
When we’re reading a random website, we don’t have that. We can’t put some of what they’re saying in context without more information.
That’s why their sources matter. Do they tell us where they’re getting their info? If it’s unnamed experts and sources, be dubious. (Though there’s a link below with some more about how to evaluate this with more nuance.)
If they claim specific expertise, can you verify that or does it seem in line with what someone with that expertise would say? (If someone claims to be a lawyer or doctor or librarian and says stuff that is way outside what you’d expect, be dubious without more specifics. Maybe a lot more.)
When is this information from? Is this a topic where currency matters a lot? Some topics change fast, some don’t. Sometimes the info that debunks a current thing has been around for a while (so older info may still be helpful in sorting this out.)
What kind of source is this, and is the information presented in a way consistent with quality information in that kind of source? Reputable newspapers don’t generally go in for explicit personal insults or completely unverified sources. (Unless they’re quoting someone who used one.) Less reputable current events sources might.
Expect better of where you go to learn things. If they’re not giving you meaningful information, go to sources that that will. You can do better than speculation and gossip.
Other key tips
Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.
There just aren’t that many absolutes in the world. This is especially true when looking at expert statements: few experts will give 100% certainty. If they do, they will likely also be explaining why. Look for that explanation.
If a media source says something absolute, check into what the experts actually said, and what information they looked at to get there. Chances are pretty good the expert was not nearly so absolute about things.
Be dubious of things that are too good to be true, too weird, or too perfect.
Again, the world just isn’t like that very often. The more we realise that we live in a world that has a lot of shades of colour and nuance and different experiences in it, the sooner we’re going to get better at evaluating information effectively and using it well.
Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?
Sourcing is often not the top priority in these cases. Which is understandable, but just because someone’s having emotions all over the place doesn’t mean you have to use everything they tell you as the basis of your decisions.
Emotions don’t mean someone’s wrong, mind you.
It is, for example, pretty reasonable for someone to be emotional about a topic that has a major impact on their daily life, health, safety, family, or religion, if other people are treating it as a purely intellectual discussion. But a story that’s playing on your emotions to make you feel upset or riled up or righteously victorious, you should be suspicious of that.
If emotions are in play, and you’re not in the middle of the discussion, it’s usually better to pause and take a moment to look at what’s being said.
Who has real experience with this thing? Who doesn’t? How does what people are saying match up with other kinds of information you can find or your experience of people or situations? Who has what at stake? Is this a real person who has specific experiences, or is it a made up storm of emotion that’s trying to get you to react a certain way?
Some additional resources:
Here are a few additional links worth reading
- A guide to evaluating fake news from NPR’s All Tech Considered
- Library guide to evaluating fake news from Indiana University East (Has some great specific examples and walkthroughs)
- FiveThirtyEight’s guide to anonymous sources and what they mean (I found this very useful in figuring out how to weight some things I’ve read)
- LifeHacker talks to two experts about evaluating information. One of them is Phil Plait, who’s great at exposing bad science.
This is only a beginning – there are lots of nuanced issues involved in how we find and evaluate information I haven’t even touched on here (like who decides what gets researched that you can refer to later.)