The most important part of any search for information is to understand what you have and what you may find. With Google, Wikipedia, and thousands of other possible tools (free and commercial), you will find information on a topic.
The challenge comes in understanding what you have. How appropriate, valid, and useful is a piece of information? Should you use it? Is it legitimate? Does it actually help answer your question–or support the answer that you have chosen? Taking a critical look at the information you have gathered is the most important step of any search for information.
Many people tend to accept without question information that comes from individuals or organizations considered (by them) to be beyond reproach–for example, a religious leader, a Presidential candidate, a high government official, an advocacy Web site, a certain radio or television personality, and so on. Despite the cynicism that is supposed to grip our society, the inclination to accept information uncritically today is alive and well.
When the information is important to you, it is essential that you take an honest, skeptical look at the information you gather. Do not assume that the information must be true or objective just because you read or see it in a certain place, or hear it from a certain person.
Many of us routinely do some evaluation of the information we take in, but few of us make the effort to evaluate information to the extent truly needed–when that information is important to us.
The following is a list of questions that will help you determine how appropriate, valid, and useful a piece of information may be.
- Who is the author or reporter
- What expertise does the author/reporter have that lends authority to the information coming from her?
- Who is the author or reporter affiliated with?
- What motives (commercial, political, etc.) might that organization or the author/reporter have in presenting information in that particular way?
- Who published the information?
- What motives might that publisher have in presenting information in that particular way?
- What review process, if any, does the publisher go through before accepting and then printing, reporting, or displaying a piece of information?
Date of Publication:
- When was the information published or last revised?
- Is the publication or revision date appropriate for the topic (and, for what you want to do with that topic)?
- Depending on the topic, how current the information is may be very important. Is a publication or revision date easily found?
- What audience is the information aimed at (scholars in a particular field, academics in general, the “average” person on the street, undergraduates, children, etc.)?
- Where did the information come from?
- Is it original research, an academic review of research done by others, a less technical overview of a topic, is it strictly someone’s opinion, an analysis of current or past events, a mixture of these things, etc.?
- If the publication promotes a distinct point of view (political, academic, etc.), is that point of view admitted and explained?
- Does the publication contain a bibliography (from which the information was partly or wholly derived)?
- If the results of research or a survey/opinion poll are presented, how much information is given about how those results were obtained?
- Are the methods used to obtain those results valid?
- Have those research or survey/poll results been replicated by others?
Does the article, book, government document, news program, Web site, etc. provide answers to the relevant questions above? If not … why not?
Please keep in mind that there is a very natural tendency for people and organizations to present information in a way that best serves their own self-interests.
To operate intelligently in our society and to make up your own mind about important issues means that it is essential to critically evaluate the important information you gather and use.
Be skeptical about the information you find. You don’t need to be cynical, but a little skepticism is healthy … and smart.