From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 23, 1998*Yeah, but can I trust it?

About a month ago I was called on to make a presentation about the educational uses of the internet to a group of educators in the north. This was a hands-on presentation and we conducted a couple of searches in order to see how catalogues and search engines work, we copied text and pictures and pasted them into word-processed documents, and in general, in the two hours at my disposal we got a feel for how this tool can be integrated into an educational setting.

I was feeling quite pleased about how things had gone until at the very end one woman vented a complaint. All this is well and good, she explained, but you haven't shown us how we know we can trust the information we find via the internet, and that's what we need to know. What followed was a classic example (to my mind) of how our expectations toward the internet totally cloud our critical faculties.

By the way, I'd prepared a few pages of thoughts on that subject which were printed out and distributed to the participants in our session. That Hebrew document can be found here.
When we go to a library to find information on a particular topic we generally know how to distinguish the fiction section from the non-fiction, and we don't search in fiction for footnotable information on a topic about which we have to prepare a paper. By the same token, if we're researching how the internal combustion engine works (now that's a topic that should remain on every school's list of topics for papers for a long time to come) and we find a humorous article on the subject in the humor section of the library, or perhaps a socialist-realist ode to the internal combustion engine in the arts section, we wouldn't be inclined to use these as sources in our paper. Why? Well, probably without giving it too much thought we'd know that these sources, even though they relate somehow to the topic, aren't really relevant.

We seem to acquire this sort of knowledge without devoting very much effort. It's the sort of thing you learn despite school, rather than because of it. It's the sort of knowledge that gets categorized as common sense. That doesn't mean that knowledge of this sort necessarily comes naturally, but it often feels that way. Somewhere along the line we learn that information found in an encyclopaedia is kosher, even if the encyclopaedia is outdated and inaccurate. On the other hand, if you found the information in a comic book, don't try and quote it in your paper, irregardless of whether it's accurate or not. We tend to trust sources that are only text with lots of footnotes, and approach flashy sources with a hearty dose of distrust. There's no reason for these preconceptions other than a good deal of conditioning that we've gone through over the years.

That academic sources are considered trustworthy is another truim that we acquire somewhere along the line. My brother has long been fascinated by the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. As fascinating as these theories are, they are also well outside of the mainstream of academic thought. Thus, you don't quote Velikovsky in a paper for an astronomy class and expect to get away with it. Does this mean that these theories are inaccurate and just plain incorrect? Possibly, but not necessarily. What it means is that they're not on the shelf from which it's permissible to quote. I have a feeling that my brother, after a long while, has internalized this fact. Though he may still harbor a positive attitude toward Velikovsky, he seems to have learned that publicly expressing sympathy for his theories isn't in style.

But what's all this leading to? The woman who lodged a complaint wanted recipes. She wanted me to give her the the equivalent of years of experience of using libraries and encyclopaedias in a couple of pointers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, other than, perhaps, the fact that it assumes that the common sense we have to use in respect to the internet is somehow different than the common sense we use when evaluating materials from more traditional sources. But maybe just the opposite is actually the case. Perhaps our recipes don't encapsulate our experience and our common sense. Maybe we use the recipes we've acquired in order to avoid using common sense.

After all, we rather blindly trust the library and the encyclopaedia. We're more than happy to accept what we find in those sources as accurate and trustworthy. Instead of painstakingly evaluating the information we find, we make assumptions about its worth based on the nature of the source. Wouldn't it be nice if we could do the same with information found on the web? To a certain extent, we can. The equivalent of finding information via a library catalog becomes finding a web site in a web catalog. Do we trust the catalog? Well, is it on a university server? Does it have credentials? The Navat of Snunit lists numerous resources on a wide range of topics. Can we trust those resources? Well, we trust Snunit, and thus tend to trust the Navat, even though we really don't know who the people were who collected the sources. To some extent this is using common sense, while at the same time it's a way of avoiding using our own critical faculties by putting our trust in someone else.

Someone I know has devoted countless hours to building a web site devoted to planes used in the Israeli Air Force. By traditional standards he in no way can be considered an authority, but he's been fascinated by the topic for a number of years and has read about all there is to read on the topic. Can his web site be considered an accurate and trustworthy source? Academically, probably not, and the woman who lodged the complaint at the beginning of this column would probably find numerous reasons not to trust the information on the site. But the Air Force Museum apparently thinks he knows the topic, and he may be negotiating a job there. It may only be a "personal" site, the fruit of what might be called an obsession, but all the same, it contains accurate and trustworthy information.

Ultimately, what's perhaps most interesting about the internet is the fact that it minimizes the external signs that we've become accustomed to for evaluating the value of information. It's almost as though the web is telling us that we're on our own. In this light it's worth examining how a site devoted to history resources relates to this issue. Horus Gets in Gear is on an academic server, but it doesn't see its purpose as making "accurate and trustworthy" sources available. Instead, it revels in the diversity of the sources available. The people responsible for the site declare:

and they try to describe the process of learning history through examining the contents of that attic. The description makes for fascinating reading.

So in the end we're on our own.There are quite a few web sites (almost always on academic servers) that give pointers on how to evaluate the information one finds on the web. Often these sites make very interesting and informative reading. And after you've read them you find yourself repeating to yourself over and over: common sense and experience, common sense and experience. Using the web as a source of information in an educational context can be a challenge. It can also be a threatening experience. Until now we've been accustomed to letting others determine the worth of our sources for us. When we use the web we have to learn to do that by ourselves.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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