Is that true? Are you sure?

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on November 13, 2017

200 years ago John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Today in the Internet age we are wrestling not only with what constitutes truth but whether there are multiple realities in a connected world depending on culture and background. This is compounded by having a never seen before source of information, the web, and no history of strategies for being able to verify its accuracy.

Why is this important? To offer a sweeping generalisation if you are at primary school you might hand in a poor piece of homework, if you are in your teens you might end up with a risky diet and if you are of working age you might buy a non-existent timeshare. The actual list of dangers of not being web savvy probably runs to pages.

How easy it was with old technology, books. Well, yes and no. The confidence of accuracy with which we might have approached the school library might have been misplaced. Certainly, the contents of a book might have been mediated by its journey through the editing process but once printed there it stood, unchanged, as time, ideas and new discoveries overtook it.

However, there are facets of the old technology that are disappearing and these impact on a reader’s critical analysis of evidence. In the library you would find a considerable but, compared to online, still limited selection from which to choose. Decisions would be made, texts scanned. Online one seldom gets past the first page of search results. Stop to think about how something gets to the top of a search and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s ranked by suitability but it’s not. This is where we enter the dark arts of search engine optimisation (SEO) a subject so mysterious and difficult that it’s probably why there were seven different teachers of defence against the dark arts plus one fraud in Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts.

As an almost automatic authenticity check a quick scam of a book’s cover would tell you the author, the publisher and the date of publication but how many people can say the same of a website? To find further work of the same kind a book would publish a bibliography but with a website we have hyperlinks. Can you tell if they’re just links to other authors who perhaps have in a sort of incestuous way been sources for the site you’re looking at or have used that site as a source for themselves? The information can just circulate round a group of sites, the volume making the content appear more prevalent than it actually is. You might even be looking at links to the same author’s other work and this will not be clear.

Where to start? The first stop must always be common sense particularly if the reader is taken by surprise by the content. It’s also helpful to begin a search with a site you trust. There might be errors but at least you can be sure that they are honest ones.

Knowing how to search is also an underdeveloped skill. That might come as a surprise given the number of daily hits on search engines like Google but choosing key words is something that needs training. Imagine you know how to limit your search to sites from a particular country. Different countries on different sides of the same event will not refer to it in the same way. If you want to see the point of view of country X then you’d better search their sites using their own terms.

It’s also possible to search on just one site or just academic sites.

Next stop might be to check, if not the author’s identity, then the domain name registrant. Follow up but checking links in to the site. If they’re all from questionable political groups or sites suggesting sources for researching about ‘fake news’ then alarm bells will ring. Then have a look to see if the website’s assertions have been called out on sites like snopes.com.

All this takes time but an acceptance that it’s necessary at least means that blind acceptance of published content is decreasing.

The punchline, however, is how many schools teach their pupils these skills?


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