Thursday, January 26, 2012

How To Read Online Articles Critically

(xkcd.com)

I like the internet.  A lot.  I think it's amazing how easy it is to access easy information, current events, and opinion pieces on just about any subject imaginable.  I have found that in the past few years, I really have learned as much through the internet as I have through my classes, though in less well focused areas. This access is incredibly good for humanity as a whole, but it does have a dark side.

I will admit that a lot of my internet time is spent browsing Facebook.  It isn't the most productive thing I could be doing, but it is good to catch up on what's happening, and it takes almost no mental effort... most of the time.  More and more often, I see people posting articles sensationalizing some new bit of research that's been done, and drawing some interesting conclusions from that research.

Because of the nature of social networking, these things often go viral, popping up over and over again in my feed.  Almost invariably when I follow the link, I find that the article has taken some serious liberties with the study it references, or else makes some crazy leaps of logic to make its point.

When we take these articles as serious examinations of their topic, it does serious damage to our abilities to come to the truth of the matter.  We can't take something as true just because it supports what we already believe.  When we do, we shut off our brain to any new information we may receive.

I would like to offer some tools to bring to articles such as these.  With all the information that is out there, it is helpful to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and get down to the heart of the matter, whatever the subject may be.

1.  Check the sources!
     This one is huge.  If the article references a research paper, try to find the paper online and READ IT (or at least the abstract).  If the article is legit, the link should be close at hand.  For any quotes in the piece, try to determine where they come from, and what the context is.  Unfortunately, quotes often get falsified, falsely attributed, or abused by being taken out of context.  If you can't find the source of a quote, don't trust it!  Make sure research has been done ethically, and by a reputable group (a university, the CDC, a polling agency like Gallup).  Wikipedia can be helpful, but don't trust it as a valid source, go deeper than that.  Be suspicious of sites where all of the links just take you to other parts of the same website, try to get outside information.  Often times we find that the actual study comes to the opposite conclusions to what the article tries to twist it into saying, or wasn't designed to address the topic at hand.

2.  Look at the hosting site
     Does the author/ webmaster have an agenda?  Many articles on "health" websites are promoting a certain lifestyle, or even certain products.  Political sites are usually pretty one sided.  Be wary of a site that only publishes articles that upholds its point of view rather than a balanced look at it's area of interest.  Large sites like the NY post are typically better, but check out what section it's published in.

3.  Who is the author
   What are his / her credentials?  Is the person qualified to be writing on the subject?  Are they an expert in their field?  If it's a science article, has the author been published in academia (scientific or medical journals, oxford press, etc.)?  If it's a journalist, is their work shown in respected papers / websites / magazines?

4.  Eliminate the Emotional Language
     Try to get rid of the rhetorical words, anecdotal evidence, and appeals to emotion.  Break down the article into statements of fact and arguments.  Then, try to follow the trail of the arguments, paying close attention to whether or not they are valid.  If you doubt the facts, see if they are backed up by a link to a good source.  Many of these articles just contain story after story interspersed with unsupported opinions.    Articles that come across as devastating to their opposition are often nothing more than a bunch of important sounding fluff.

5.  Read the Comments Section
     This can be a minefield, but it can also be a good easy place to find intelligent dissent.  Try to avoid the flame wars and look for people who are arguing a good case for or against what is being said.  Sometimes you can find links to other articles on the same subject, or legitimate critiques you may not have thought of.  You can add comments as well, asking for sources or clarification if there is something you think is unsubstantiated.

6.  Get a Second Opinion
     Never take a single article as a good overview of a subject.  Do some research if it is something you care about.  Don't be afraid to look at the best arguments on both sides of an issue.  Find peer reviewed articles on the subject, or scholarly overviews of the issue.  Don't assume that links to the opposition in the article are representative of the best arguments.  Look for well researched pieces, or even critical responses to the very article you are reading.

7.  Snopes it!
     When people post "shared" stories or pictures on Facebook, chances are Snopes has looked into it.  It's a site dedicated to researching urban legends, rumors, and internet memes.  There are other sites as well that look into the origins of quotes.  Here is a good one for medical claims (Hint: look at the credentials of the contributors). Debunking sites can be viewed as negative and cruel, but they provide a good service when you are trying to get real information.

8.  Develop Good Thinking Skills
     Learn about logical fallacies.  There's a lot of them, and people make them ALL THE TIME!  Learn about cognitive biases (Read this article!).  Practice rationality and logical reasoning.  Then, go back to step 4 and apply all you've learned.

9.  Learn the Scientific method and How It Is Used
This will help you to understand how research is actually done, and how to read a scientific study.  Furthermore, it will help you to differentiate between real research and pseudo-scholarship.  You can always ask "Is this idea testable?"  "How can we test to see if you are right?" "What observations led you to this belief, and how else could those observations be explained?"  Finally, in some cases, if you know the method, you can do experiments!  Devise a way to see for yourself if what you are reading is true.

10.  Examine Your Motives
     If you are reading an article to prove it wrong, you will be able to prove it wrong.  If you are reading it to support what you already believe, then you will be sure to look past its deficiencies.  If you want to do real research, be willing to change your mind if the evidence warrants it and try to seek out the best information you can.  Erin and I like to joke that if you are moved to tears instead of bored to tears, chances are you aren't doing real research.

There's a lot of bad information out there.  Anybody can self-publish on the internet and get a decent following.  Fortunately, there is also a lot of good information as well.  If you have the right tools you can actually learn some things.  Look for peer reviewed websites, or educational resources.  I-Tunes has college lectures you can download for free.  When you come across information that may not be trustworthy, resources such as these can be a big help.

If you do see something going around that's propagating bad information, it's a good idea to let the poster know.  You can send a private message or post a comment, so that other people don't get drawn in to believing falsehoods. It sometimes seems harsh, but you are doing a service.  Just try to be polite and tactful.

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