I teach a research methods class and lately we’ve been struggling with finding and identifying quality sources. Last week I asked the class “how do You evaluate the credibility of an online source, what is the first thing you look for?” I wasn't trying to get the "right" answer, I wanted to know what they really think about.
The response, “if it seems to make sense and sound right.”
That answer is so true and so wrong. I posed this question in class after finding that a student had inadvertently used web advertisement as a source for a paper we are working on. I'm not poking fun, or trying to make the student sound stupid-- judge for yourself, here is the link, it probably doesn't contain any misleading or wrong information. It totally makes sense and sounds right. But the content is generated by marketers, and that matters. The quality of information matters. Otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about...
It’s hard to tell what's genuine anymore, but even more frustrating to know that so many of my friends and fellow Americans are consuming a steady diet of junk information without the ability to know that it’s killing us.
The standard for credibility has become simple—If I agree with it and it fits my world view it is credible. Don’t believe me? Try this. Imagine you'd opened this post to read the following headline and story:
EXERCISE HAS A NEGATIVE EFFECT ON LEARNING
High tech brain scans (see figure 1) clearly show the effect of exercise on the brain. The brain on the right, pre-exercise, is efficiently processing information and expending much less energy than the brain on the right. This brain is prepped for learning and ready to engage. If you see the brain on the right, energy is already being depleted in most regions leaving little room for additional cognitive activity. The increase in activity is consistent with a brain that is using excessive amounts of energy to process the most basic cognitive tasks. Whenever we get children up and actively moving about, we overtax their brains (especially note the energy used in the left hemisphere language processing centers), and expecting them to engage with their reading lesson becomes instead an exercise of inefficiency.
What’s the takeaway from this? GET THOSE KIDS IN THEIR SEAT—recess is killing them.
Do you believe this? Why not?
Probably because you didn’t agree with the premise and wrote it off from the start.
- Did it concern you that the source of this information is just some high school Psychology teacher who writes stuff?
- Was it questionable that I didn’t provide any references to actual research that suggests these conclusions? (on that note, does the fact that I just used the term suggest instead of prove mean anything?)
- Is there any good reason to take at face value the words that you read on a blog?
- Is it possible that I’m just using an image to create an illusion of credibility?
All of those answers should be yes, but if I wrote a post about how exercise increases synaptic potential in the learning pathways of the brain and activates the reward centers of the limbic system making students more eager and capable of learning, you just might have thought I was smarter than I really am. You might even believe that all of those claims are right.
(By the way, the fine folks at Neurobollocks have done afine job debunking this image and I partially stole the idea for the paragraph above from them)
Why is this a Big Deal?
It doesn’t matter that much if exercise helps kids learn or not. It’s just good for them and no one has to be sold on the negative aspects of sitting still for a prolonged period of time.
Why use a brain scan that you don’t understand? You didn’t learn anything from it, it is just being used as a blunt tool to make a point.
People interested in wielding power, boosting their public persona, or sometimes just bullying people who don’t agree with them peddle in passing along graphs, data, and charts they don’t understand the meaning behind. They tweet pithy quotes that offer no substantial advances in dialogue and understanding. On the contrary, they shut down reasonable conversations and create dichotomous situations that pit one side against the other and serve as fodder for demeaning those who don’t agree.
It doesn’t surprise me that politics and government are beginning to function this way. We’ve been doing it in education since we discovered blogging and social media.
We live in a new era and parsing the distinctions between fact and fiction are more important than ever. In this new world, "opinions and attitudes" seek information and research to build credibility and authority. "Facts and curiosity" seek information and research to build knowledge and advance our understanding. As educators, we should be taking the lead on this one.