Teaching students to evaluate sources–Part 2

I promised I’d return to the topic of evaluating sources. You can read Part 1 here. Way back in 1985, in his delightful collection Metamagical Themas Douglas R. Hofstadter looked at the difference between the National Enquirer and the Skeptical Inquirer. Hofstadter asks the simple but perplexing question: How can we decide which sources to trust? And he explores it by contrasting the sensational but clearly untrustworthy Enquirer with the staid but considerably more trustworthy Inquirer. But the question remains. How do we even get this far with the distinction?

When I was younger, I used to believe that once something had been discovered, verified, and published, it was then part of Knowledge: definitive, accepted, and irrevocable. Only in unusual cases, so I thought, would opposing claims then continue to be published. To my surprise, however, I found that the truth has to fight constantly for its life! That an idea has been discovered and printed in a “reputable journal” does not ensure that it will become well known and accepted. In fact, usually it will have to be rephrased and reprinted many different times, often by many different people, before it has any chance of taking hold. This is upsetting to an idealist like me, someone more disposed to believe in the notion of a monolithic and absolute truth than in the notion of a pluralistic and relative truth (a notion championed by a certain school of anthropologists and sociologists, who un-self-consciously insist “all systems of belief are equally valid”, seemingly without realizing that this dogma of relativism not only is just as narrow-minded as any other dogma, but moreover is unbelievably wishy-washy!). The idea that the truth has to fight for its life is a sad discovery. The idea that the truth will not out, unless it is given a lot of help, is pretty upsetting. (Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas)

And this is part of what I was getting at in Part 1. Truth (or reliable information, or reputable argumentation, etc.) is not self-evident and it does not force itself to the top of the google search. Students do not have any predispositions toward the truth and must be taught how to evaluate sources for trustworthiness. But I see very little educational literature that deals with this crucial issue. Hofstadter noted that quick judgments are often possible solely on the basis of journalistic style. Tabloids read rather like comic books, with exclamation marks galore. More serious texts tend to use careful and measured prose. It isn’t a fast rule, but it helps to make quick crude judgments. Or, it perhaps did back in 1985.

Today, the internet has allowed for the growth of good looking, but utterly untrustworthy sites. Things that look legitimate may or may not be. We are currently experiencing exponential growth in the number of online journals that appear to be the same as higher-quality peer-reviewed journals, but are in fact either completely fraudulent, or are nicely-dressed vanity publications. One can now write a paper, submit it to a journal, pay a fee (big red flag here) and see your paper appear in a prestigious-looking “scholarly publication”. Unless the reader is prepared to do some digging, it is very difficult to distinguish the real McCoy from the junk journals. (As an aside, these junk journals appear to exist for two reasons. Sadly, many graduate students and beginning scholars are so desperate for publishing credit that they are willing to pay to pad their resumes. Second, some purveyors of junk research discover that this is the only way to get published, and it provides a forum for cranks, racists, science deniers and the like. And no, I’m not going to post any links.)

Given the size of the problem, my suggestion is probably going to be a little disappointing. There is no simple way to distinguish sense from nonsense. And there is no simple way to distinguish high- from low-quality publications, especially online. The teacher needs to intervene For younger students, do the preselection for them. Give them a limited number of sites and only allow information to be taken from them. And don’t forget books and magazine in the school library. At these grades, the goal of the assignment is not to learn how to assess sources; it’s to apply information to learn something new, or to learn to extract information from text, or to learn to summarize and report on learned information. There is no advantage to the student to be given the enormous breadth of the internet. In fact, the avalanche of available sources is probably a barrier to learning. Progressively, as students get older, guide them in making distinctions. Consider giving them a preselected range, but ensure that the provided information is contradictory. This will force some discussion in class. How are they to decide? Asking teachers, parents and other trusted adults is a good place to start. But ultimately, the discussion has to go to the point that you can’t believe everything you read. Students need to learn that adults with training and expertise (yes, I mean you) have a role to play in the evaluation of sources. At a later stage, students can begin to gain more independence in source selection. Have them begin their inquiry by searching for sources, and submitting the proposed sources to you for pre-approval. You can then accept or reject the choices, and make recommendations for sources to add, if necessary.

Gaius Julius Caesar, looking a little stoned.

Getting into the teen years, you can directly teach students about expertise, about sources of bias, about looking for financial conflicts of interest and so on. Further, they are ready to learn about reasonable academic disagreement. Historians may all agree that Julius Caesar was stabbed on the Senate steps in 44 BC, but they may have legitimate disagreements about the motivations and ultimate plans of the conspirators. This is a distinction that students need to learn to make. It is a good idea to have students provide a list of proposed sources and give a justification for each proposal before they get deeply into their projects. Such an annotated list will provide the teacher with significant information to provide feedback to students regarding their understanding of source selection. I hope you’re not disappointed that I cannot provide clear, foolproof plans for evaluating sources. I’m afraid that no one can. The best approach one has is to be an expert. But students are not yet experts, and their teachers are unlikely to be experts in all relevant areas. All we can do is alert students to the dangers in the road, and help them to navigate them with increasing sophistication over time.

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