EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Critiquing Information Sources

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As I'm sure you know, there is no shortage of information sources available to us, especially those of us with an Internet connection. We live in a unique moment in human history - never before has it been so easy for so many to access so much information so quickly. But having so much available can make it difficult to determine whether or not information sources can be trusted. Engaging in critical thinking requires (among other things) knowing credible sources of information. This is an imperfect science, but there are many ways to evaluate sources. Harvard University provides a good, straightforward guide to doing this.

To Read Now

  • "Harvard Guide to Using Sources." Read through the "Questions to Ask About All Sources" and "Evaluating Web Sources." You are welcome to read the rest of the website - there is a lot of good, relevant information there.

I will ask you to analyze the reliability of information sources throughout the semester, so please take the time to read this thoroughly. Here are some general and additional tips:

  • Always consider the author's credentials. This is not the only thing to look at, but it is an important element. All else being equal, someone who has spent their life analyzing a subject or has advanced training is more likely to be reliable than someone with thin credentials.
  • Be careful when using a source that is expressly opinion-based, e.g., in the Opinion pages of the newspaper (hard copy or online). An opinion is not necessarily wrong - there are certainly such things as "well-informed" opinions - but you should not use this as an academic reference. Opinions from people you trust are a great way to learn things, but you should not use them as unvarnished truth. Always seek to corroborate the information provided.
  • As indicated by the Harvard articles, I strongly suggest corroborating factual information presented in the article elsewhere (in general, not just for opinions).
  • As indicated in Lesson 1, peer-reviewed journals are generally the most reliable information sources. When not peer-reviewed, consider where the factual information came from. Often, non-peer reviewed articles use data from peer-reviewed sources.
  • Related to the previous point, always consider where the author got their information from (check their sources!). 
  • Currency is important for some sources (especially for things like technology), but for others, it is less important (e.g., historical events, foundational theories). Use your best judgment.
  • If you don't know already, do some research about the author of the article and the owner of the website. Use Google to your advantage!  You can search "<author or organization's name> bias" or "is <name> biased," etc. I strongly suggest searching for other articles/websites published by the author/organization. Oftentimes, you can click on the author's name on the website and it will link you to other articles written by them. Scan through them and see if a consistent bias (or at least worldview) is presented. It will often become obvious if someone holds a certain political/social viewpoint. The same goes for the site owner - look through articles published on the website, and try to figure out if a one-sided viewpoint is presented. All that said, keep in mind that just because someone holds a certain worldview does not mean that the information is unusable (complicated, I know!). There are many reliable information sources (people and organizations) that hold a certain worldview. You should consider the other aspects of the information, particularly the objectivity. Also, keep a look out for consistently extreme viewpoints.
  • Do NOT take a website's self-description as proof of its objectivity. I wish it were that easy!  Even the most biased of sources want you to believe that it is unbiased.
  • Just because a website is a ".org" and not a ".com" does not mean it is unbiased. In fact, the type of organization is pretty meaningless. There are a lot of biased non-profits out there.

Overall, understanding the reliability of sources gets easier with time. The keys are a) to keep reading and paying attention to other information sources, b) to constantly investigate the reliability of sources, and most importantly c) learn as much as you can! The more you do this, the more you will develop a "bias detector," so to speak.

This can be complicated, so here are a few scenarios that might help you as you evaluate sources throughout the course. This is not comprehensive, but provides some common scenarios you may encounter.:

Information source details Evaluation
The information is pulled directly from a peer-reviewed journal.

It's a good idea to google the journal to see if it's reputable or not, and you should google the author(s) as well. This is the best source of information you can use.

The information is from a known reputable source (e.g. NPR). Note that the source is reliable (make sure you know this for a fact), but look to verify the information elsewhere to be certain.
An article provides a summary of peer-reviewed research, but you are not familiar with the source and/or author.
  • Research the author's credentials. Are they an expert in the field? Are they a veteran reporter?
  • Read through the article to see if there is any emotional/sensational/opinionated/partisan/etc. language. Does the author dispassionately summarize the information, or do they insert unsubstantiated opinion in there? Do they clearly display a bias (e.g. insult a political party)? 
  • Look through other articles on the website. Do most/all of the articles exhibit a bias, e.g. do they clearly lean one political direction?
  • Verify the information by searching other reputable sources. Even better, find the original peer-reviewed article and read through it.
An article seems reliable, but you are not familiar with the source and/or author.

Follow all of the steps listed in the box above. 

The website is a non-profit (.org). As stated above, this is basically meaningless! There are many objective non-profits, but many biased ones. Perform the research indicated above.
The information comes from an esteemed academic institution (e.g. Harvard, Stanford).
  • Research the author. Are they a professor? What is their expertise? If they are an expert in the field, then it is probably reliable, but you should seek to verify the information.
  • Is it from a student website/project/paper? Check their sources, and verify the information elsewhere. You would not use a student project as an academic reference, but that does not mean the information is not reliable.
You click on the "about" link on the organization's website, and they state that: "<name of organization> provides research-based, unbiased information about energy issues..."
  • NEVER take an organization's word for it! A biased information source will almost always try to convince you that they are unbiased. Research the articles, author, language used, verify the information, etc. 
  • The "about us" description can offer some tips on bias, though! For example, if you see words such as "economic liberty" or "free-market principles," it's likely a right-leaning site. If you see words like "progressive principles" then it's likely a left-leaning site. If they represent an industry (e.g. oil, wind, automobile, etc.), they will often state that in their description.
The information seems reliable, but is on a site that has a known bias (e.g. Fox News or MSNBC) or is from an advocacy organization or company that might seek to promote their own interest.
  • The informatioin may actually be reliable! Just because a source has a bias does not mean that all information is biased.
  • Your best bet here is to verify the information using another source that is more reputable. If that is the case, it is usually best to use the more reliable source. It is fine to use known biased sources as initial sources, but you should always verify the information elsewhere.
The information is from a government website.
  • Generally speaking, you department- and agency-level information can be considered reliable (e.g. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Census Bureau, Department of Labor). You should seek to verify information elsewhere, though, as federal information has become increasingly politicized with the Trump Administration.
  • Information from the White House itself and Congress should not be seen as reliable. It is very likely to be politically biased. Confirm the information elsewhere.
  • Federal data and statistics are generally considered extremely reliable.
The information is on Wikipedia. NEVER cite Wikipedia! It is absolutely fine to use it as an initial source, but ALWAYS use another, reputable source to verify the information. Wikipedia does a good job of citing their sources, so click on the citation/footnote link to find the original source, and proceed from there.