Monday, May 5, 2008

Know your sources

When I am researching a blog topic (or any other science topic, for that matter) on the Internet, I tend to gravitate toward sites with addresses that end in .edu or .gov. Why? I assume that, on average, these sites will be more credible sources of information than ones that end with .com.

Now, I'm not saying that every school or government site has useful or timely scientific information. Nor am I saying that you should ignore all .com science sites (because then you'd never come and visit me!). But you need to know where your information comes from.

Let's say, for example, that you want to learn more about the adverse health impacts of tobacco smoke. And let's pretend that your search engine pulls up an impressive looking site with lots of drop-down menus and flashy graphics touting the health benefits of smoking. Maybe the site even has an impressive sounding name, like the Center for Happy Healthy Smokers. Should you believe what you are reading?

Somewhere on the site, you should be able to find the organization that is funding the research. And that's valuable information for you to have.

Let's say, again hypothetically, that the Center for Happy Healthy Smokers is fully funded by a tobacco company. Are their conclusions suspect? Maybe, maybe not. But you should use caution. At best, you know that the Center will be tempted to bias their findings in favor of tobacco use. At worst, they might suppress research or conclusions that don't fit their intended message that tobacco is healthy.

But dot-coms aren't the only websites with agendas. Every website has a bias, a slant, a direction that it is trying to point you. Recognizing this will help you to make informed choices about whether to trust what you read.

At Mama Joules, I want you to enjoy science. And, without intending to, I'm going to point you toward biology and environmental science and ecology, because that's what I know best. That's my bias. I think environmental science is awesome; physics, not so much. I do try to overcome my biases, but I still have them.

And so does everyone else.


CricketB said...

I teach my kids about sources, and where to check any questionable fact.

Government sites also have agendas. They want to keep doing things the way they have been. "Yes, we are protecting you (but not in a way that makes us liable)." "Our way is best (just ignore the study that says otherwise)." "The new way is better (ignore the good results that the old way got)."

jublke said...

Good point, cricketb. And it reveals another of my biases. I worked for state government for eight years under federal contract. So, when the government says that they're here to help, I assume that they actually mean it. ;)