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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Intellectual Tribalism
Volume 40, Number 6 - November/December 2016

In this age of digital information, the scariest aspect is how easy it is to build an information system for each individual that can lead to a cocoon experience where one only hears about the world from sources that share one’s world views. Dangerous? Possibly. As Senator Daniel Moynihan put it long ago, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” If you never look for facts outside your opinion sources, then what?

Expertise means little in a crowdsourcing environment. Professional standards of information seeking such as those of journalists at national newspapers could dissolve if those national newspapers go out of business or redesign their services to digitally accommodate new markets or even just new technologies. Amazon reports that major news sources are redesigning their news offerings to suit the popular Amazon Echo talking device.

So what can information professionals do to help offset this self-perpetuating narrowing of vision? Well, any information literacy training should include ways to find those pesky facts. The first step is crucial: reflexively doubting any facts that hop through hoops to back controversial opinions. The facts could be true, but one still has to ask who owns the hoops and taught them to hop so visibly.

The next step in expanding one’s vision is of equal importance: always clothing oneself in a bit of skepticism when it comes to one’s own current view of things. You may be right as rain, but you could also be all wet. Only the umbrellas of corroborated facts can protect you.

Exercises that focus on defending positions opposite from the views held by individuals could be one way to build that critical judgment. Debating societies often have people switch sides arbitrarily. It helps one spot vulnerabilities in one’s strongly held positions in preparation for defending those positions, but it can also help people build their objective judgments.

Finding and respecting authoritative sources is another route to follow. A dot-gov may be more reliable than a dot-com or a dot-org. Or, maybe not. But if not, one should have one’s factual ducks in a row in order to prove that the should-be-authoritative source has failed.

Looking for holes in data series can be an effective approach. I recall when the National Rifle Association once lobbied the federal gun monitoring agencies to stop collecting data on automatic weapons. The data left was no longer current and that suited the NRA’s goals. Data quality is always a concern if you’re going to rely on facts to inform your opinions. Broken time series are an issue as much as errors in collection.

Yet another option is to question the methods used by people in the crowds you may rely upon. Ask them what they did to verify their position. If the answers aren’t strong, then you need to step in and conduct the objective research your friends neglected.

“People say” means little if the tribe of people considered is too small or just plain uninformed. You need to take into account the kind of crowd you are dealing with. Is it one with people who are likely to know the truth or one with people who are just repeating what their friends and colleagues have told them? Clear thinking can be lonely, but it can also be accurate. And it’s the accuracy people need to seek most assertively.

And, of course, there’s also just distinguishing opinion from facts. Even if one starts with an opinion source—for example, an article discussing a topic by a journalist or blogger—if that article cites facts, be sure to verify those facts independently. A quick trip to the original source for the facts will tell you whether the facts were accurately cited, and a look-around may tell you what policies and procedures created those facts. This should produce enough information to build productive doubts and new insights. Further searching using the source of those facts as a search term may find how other people have used the flow of facts to support other or related opinions.

Kicking tires takes time and effort but it beats finding yourself on an isolated byway in a heavy storm with a flat. And if facts are the tires under your mental vehicle, keep kicking.

The late Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.


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