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Verifying your facts

magnifying glassI recently found myself on a journal website – looked all good, but it was published by a nutrition organisation. In the UK ‘nutritionist’ isn’t a terribly well regarded title (certainly no protection) so I wondered how I could check whether the organisation was in fact a credible one, or if this was industry quacks publishing an “academic” journal.
Quick google for the name of the organisation + quacks, and hullo Quack Watch http://www.quackwatch.com/04ConsumerEducation/nutritionist.html

So, then I wondered, what other sites are there that are useful for this kind of task? I’m not interested here in general critical reading skills, or digital literacy (E.g. the digital disruption materials), and evidence evaluation (See e.g. http://www.badscience.net/2014/07/teaching-science-with-bad-science-resources-for-teachers/ ) but rather, where can people look to check their facts.

Check against other sources, and keep searching

Obviously a crucial method is just looking at the source of the material – checking who wrote it, provenance, who the publisher is, sources cited, etc. – and making a credibility judgement on the material – is it well argued for, is it plausible, does it give verifiable claims. Of course then, checking against other websites is a good idea too.

Dan Russell has written some great posts about much of this too, including this great post on dealing with source discrepancies http://searchresearch1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/parrotfish-and-sand-production-part-2.html Also, this question http://searchresearch1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/id-like-to-continue-our-conversation.html and answer http://searchresearch1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/answer-when-do-you-search-for-more.html on finding incredible things, and ‘when do you search for more information’. (The ones the week before on the origins of Earl Grey Tea were also good). (also see http://searchresearch1.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/we-must-go-deeper-why-search-is-always.html, and http://searchresearch1.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/why-knowing-search-isnt-same-as-having.html )

Check who wrote it, check what other people are saying

A related strategy is to check who wrote the material, and how their perspective (and position) compares to that of other writers.

I often check the talk pages and history of wikipedia articles (as well as the reference list)

Go to debunking sites

Snopes is a great site to check urban legends against.

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Main_Page  – which covers various psuedoscience

(although note both of these get things wrong too!)

Analysis of the facts

Responses to news articles (alongside various fantastic blogs) we have:

The fantastic NHS Behind the Headlines http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsArticles.aspx

Science Media Centre http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/

More general sites like

Fact Check http://www.factcheck.org/

Channel4 fact check http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/

There are also things like blogs, although you might question their angle, e.g.:

In my field (well…sort of…I used to be interested in neuroscience) there are also great blogs:

 Look for the facts

Then there are things like the national audit office http://www.nao.org.uk/ and very specific organisations like the UK Statistics Authority which hold specific groups (in this example, MPs) to account http://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/

Check the language being used

Another obvious thing to look for is the way material is written – which is often very dubious

Indeed, The Quackometer analyses language used in a site to give indications of ‘quacky’ types of things they say http://www.quackometer.net/blog/about

Conclusion

Of course, sometimes you come across a site that looks like what you want…but how can you be sure. I think this is a good myth busting site http://www.skepdic.com/about.html but is http://www.conservapedia.com/Main_Page a good place to look for hard hitting critique? (See e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2007/mar/01/wikipedia.news if you’re in any doubt on that question 😉 ). I guess what that indicates is that you should check multiple sources, think about how “facts” are (a) ‘made’, (b) evidenced, and (c) sourced, and how that aligns with your prior knowledge (not, of course, infallible).

I’d welcome any other good resources – as ever, this is a developing post (drafted and pushed out partially-unfinished!)


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