As critical thinkers, one of our jobs is to evaluate the quality of the information our sources are giving us. We also need to evaluate the quality of the sources themselves. Throughout most of our education, we are taught by means of authority (our teachers) and given reasons to accept that authority. In the adult world of work and business, however, the extent to which we trust a source is likely to be of much more concern.
Failing to evaluate our sources means that we simply accept on blind faith that the info the source provides is good info. When our money or our well-being is at stake, we usually don’t move forward on blind faith. We want some assurances. There are a few key assurances or qualities we want to see before we rely on someone else’s claim to knowledge: origination, reliability, impartiality, timeliness and accessibility.
‘Origination’ prompts us to ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” Good information doesn’t appear out of nowhere. We want a person, an oranization, a club, a special interest group, an institution that is clearly identifiable, is qualified, and has no hidden agenda or hidden point of view. Certainly a point of view may be presented, but it must be presented openly and without disguise. The purpose for presenting the information should be unambiguous. You should be able to locate contact information. The absence of this info is a red flag.
‘Reliability’ calls on us to evaluate to the best of our ability the credibility of the information being presented. Do we recognize the publishing entity (individual author or an institution) as having a reputation for accuracy? Is there a list of the names and qualifications of the people making the claims? Is the publisher known for reputable work? Is the internet domain one that is appropriate? These domains are likely to contain different kinds and qualities of info: .com, .edu, .org, .gov, .net*
.com –for commercial use, you’ll find someone who sells something–but they may still be presenting good information
.edu –one would think this would be the most trustworthy in terms of presenting factual info, just make sure you aren’t looking at Mrs. McGillicuddy’s fifth grade class report
.org –generally reserved for non-profit organizations, but don’t assume a non-profit is impartial–many push a particular point of view
.gov –some may want to argue but this domain is the most trustworthy for checking factual information
.net –originally intended for the computers that keep the internet up and running, today it houses lots of domain name providers
*original intent and today’s usage can be different things–the category boundaries for these domains have shifted and softened, but they can still serve as a general guide
When we want to know the subject matter is being presented fairly, we are checking for ‘impartiality.’ Is the info presented in the form of a come-on for a sales pitch? Do you have to pay fees, download special software, click on special buttons, or provide personal info to access the material? Does the information match other things you may know about the subject? What’s the quality of the supporting detail–is it clear, is there enough, too little? Can you determine a purpose for the presentation of the material? Are any opinions or assumptions presented?
To check ‘timeliness,’ look for dates. Date of composition, date of publication, date of posting to the net. Can you tell if anything is out-dated?
And, finally, ‘accessibility.’ The information ideally should be free and unrestricted, although there are some legitimate sites that charge a fee for access.
These are the ‘red flag items’ we check before putting away our initial skepticism about new information or sources. Keeping these questions in mind will help to identify relevant sources of information.