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.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life movie review


Into the Abyss was not an easy documentary to watch.  The new movie by Werner Herzog is a meditation on death, told through the story of a senseless act of murder by two teenagers, followed by the execution of one of them (the other is serving life).  It's the sort of documentary that in less adept hands would end up being shown late night on the National Geographic channel, but as it stands it's a beautiful and gut wrenching look at the darker side of our society.

Herzog makes it clear early in the film what he feels about the subject he is documenting during an interview he has with Michael Perry, the man who was executed eight days later.  Though I don't have the quote, he basically says "I don't have to like you, but I respect your humanity, and I don't think the state has the right to execute you."  Perry appears to be guilty, with no extenuating circumstances to excuse him.  What he did was deplorable, and the tragedy of the situation is clearly shown.  Even so, does he deserve to die?  It is a tragedy to see three people killed so some young men could take a joy ride in a stolen car, but is it justice if a fourth dies for the same reason?

Life is precious, death is senseless.  The movie opens with an interview of the Chaplain who provides comfort to the people being executed.  "Why does God allow capital punishment?" asks Herzog.  Within two minutes, the pastor is in tears (as was at least half of the audience, myself included).  The sister and daughter of the victims appears as a modern day Job, her family cruelly taken from her for no reason.  Ten years down the road and she is finally beginning to live again.


There are interviews with many people involved in the case, and it's very sad to see the culture out of which this act was generated.  There's an interview with a friend of the two culprits who tells of getting stabbed at a party by a guy just because he didn't like him.  He learned to read in his 20's... in prison.  The brother of one of the three victims was arrested for parole violation at his brother's funeral.  The incarcerated father of one of the perpetrators provides an incredibly touching interview, reflecting on the mistakes he made that led him to share a pair of handcuffs with his son on a prison bus.  

The movie was impeccably edited, and beautifully filmed.  Even the police footage transcends its original purpose.  Herzog isn't afraid to let the camera linger after somebody is done talking, and in turn allow us a moment's reflection to let the gravity of the subject sink in.  The movie is brutally human, never letting us forget that everybody involved is a human being, with dignity, family, and plans for the future.  It doesn't flinch away from asking the hard questions, and at times I felt uncomfortable for the people being interviewed. Nobody likes to reflect on the worst moments of their lives.

Overall it was incredibly well done, though not necessarily a movie one watches to "enjoy."  It's important, but not simple entertainment.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Annointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age"

I don't typically read new books when they come out, but recently due to my awesome wife I have had the pleasure of reading a few brand new books I have been wanthing to read.  One of these is The Annointed, and I thought it was excellent.

The book covers the various area's of pseudo-scholarship that have been especially prevalent in Evangelical culture for the past 75 years or so.  Here's the chapter list:

1.  The Answer Man
2.  The Amateur Christian Historian
3.  The Family of God
4.  Trust Me, The End Is Near
5.  A Carnival of Christians
6.  Made in America

The first four chapters follow a very similar format through four different subjects.  Each one takes a "controversial" issue within evangelicalism and gives the main points of it.  Then they go over the history of the issue, and highlight one or two of the major spokesmen for the conservative viewpoint.  Finally, they provide a counterpoint of a legitimate Christian scholar in each section.  The authors pull no punches when it comes to criticizing the conservative viewpoints.  It's cordial, but they make it clear in each case that what they are doing is NOT real scholarship.

Chapter 1 covers the creation / evolution controversy, with a specific focus on Ken Ham.  Chapter 2 covers the "America is a Christian Nation" works of people like David Barton.  Chapter 3 is on psychology, including child raising and homosexuality.  It focuses on James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  Chapter 4 is about Pre-Millenial Dispensationalism (End of the world theology) from Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye.

I learned quite a bit about the history of these pseudo-academic ventures, and about the rise of the religious right in general, through these chapters.  The authors do a great job at writing to a general audience who might not be up on all the details of the debates, while still being in depth enough to make it worth the read for people relatively well versed in the controversies.  For instance, I knew much more about the evolution controversy than I did about Focus on the Family, but both chapters were able to hold my interest.

Chapter 5 is more general, covering the evangelical subculture that nurtures belief in these "experts" that don't actually know what they are talking about.  It talks about the concept of a parallel culture, and looks at the Christian university system.  I thought this chapter was incredibly insightful, providing a good overview of what being a conservative evangelical means in practical terms, filling in the gaps between the specific issues that were covered earlier.

Chapter 6 talks about some of the heavy hitters of the religious right: Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, and Oral Roberts.  It talks about how they have influenced the direction of massive amounts of people, as well as taking a look at how such people get elevated to the positions they have.  This is where we get a better idea of the psychological and socialogical aspects of the evangelical subculture.  They suggest that anti-elitism is a strong American value, and that when left unchecked it can lead to the type of anti-intellectualism that fuels these leaders.

The book as a whole was very interesting, fast reading, and very relevant.  It wasn't written just to try to convince christians to have a better attitude towards scholarship, but to a wide audience who is interested in the topic, regardless of whether or not they have a personal stake in it.  The information was very current, and I left with a better understanding of the dynamics surrounding Christianity and educational politics.