Tag Archive for digital literacy

Information Quality

It doesn’t matter the topic, there will always be a glut of information at our fingertips. Right now, the topic is the novel coronavirus, its spread, its mortality rate, and the measures put in place to limit transmission. As usual, there is good information and plenty of bad information. People share this information without even a basic examination of its merit. I have noticed there are a few different categories that bad information typically falls into.

  • Bad information may look like good information
  • Hearsay
  • Good information shared in ways that limit its credibility
  • Old information that may not be the best in an evolving situation
  • Garbage information that has no merit at any time

When I use the term “bad information,” I am referring to two broad subcategories. The first subgroup includes the use of clearly marked opinion or commentary pieces as support for an argument. That other people exist with the same opinion as you is not proof that your opinion is correct or valid. Opinions do not equal facts. Facts can support opinions, but it should never be vice versa. The second subgroup is information that may be formatted to appear reputable, but it should not be used as substantiation for a debate. This includes content from media outlets that are known for sensationalism (New York Post, Fox News, anything relying on clickbait) or others with strong biases that drift away from fact reporting and more into the realm of commentary. The Media Bias Chart does a great job of showing a continuum of sources and where they fall in terms of bias and amount of fact reporting.

If your goal is to share factual information (and it should be), it is incumbent upon you to share it in the best way possible. Do not rely on hearsay or secondary/tertiary sources if a great primary source exists. A recent example in the image shows where Suellyn has “a doctor in the family” who has been “given information” from a “laboratory.” Her post seems very informative. After all, the person that told her this (a doctor – doctors are smart) heard it secondhand from a person at a laboratory (ooooh – scientists work in those). Then correlation was confused with causation by insinuating that a commonality between patients is proof of a causal effect. There were even some initial media reports that highlighted this potential connection thanks to a tweet from a French health official. That’s good, right? Suellyn was just trying to warn us all. Except Suellyn isn’t a doctor. She didn’t even name the doctor in her family, so there’s no way to verify the claim and no reputation at stake if it turns out to be wrong (and evidence strongly suggests that it was wrong). None of this stopped her post from being shared over 159,000 times. People may have made the choice to set aside accepted use of a common drug or alter a care plan put in place by a medical professional based on this information. Sure, people are each responsible for evaluating the information they rely on, but I would argue that it is therefore even more important for people to be responsible for the quality of the information they share with others. You’re not helping others do their best work at a weakened and vulnerable time of their life when you supply them with terrible tools. Thanks, Suellyn and every person who shared this well-intentioned falsehood. Thanks 159,000 times.

Good information can be shared in bad ways. If you can share a primary source or a quality secondary source, please do so directly when you can. Avoid sharing a screenshot of information. Information can be updated on a webpage or social media post, but your screenshot presents a freeze frame locked in time that will never be of higher quality than the moment it was captured. Heck, even above I shared a screenshot of Suellyn’s terrible post, but I included a link to the original post in the text. I somehow doubt the quality of her post will increase over time.

In a rapidly evolving situation, old news may not still be the best news. Around election time, it is very common for election returns to be shared (and wild assumptions based on them) with only a small percentage of precincts reporting results. More recently, numbers relating to confirmed COVID-19 cases or deaths from it have been changing multiple times daily. This can lead to confusion or it could seem like poor quality reporting if you see different numbers in various places. It’s helpful to remember that the media outlets scurrying to produce content for you to look at are also having a tough time sorting it out. The first reports of events like these are often not entirely accurate. (linked commentary article from 2013). In times like the present, focus on sharing information that helps people plan and make good decisions. Knowing how many confirmed cases or deaths is not nearly as helpful as knowing about business/school closures or best practices for social distancing.

Last but not least is the garbage information that is omnipresent in our world. This information isn’t just missing the mark in terms of accuracy or a little outdated. It is wild conjecture with usually zero substantiation. I’ve also noticed that this information tends to be authored and shared by people who don’t like to be asked for substantiation. I’ll leave a full-size screenshot to this post below so that you can read a fantastic example of garbage information.

Notice the utter absence of sources. When a person shares this, they are endorsing the information, whether they realize it or not. If I were leafletting controversial information on a city sidewalk, it would be absolutely reasonable for people to assume that I was endorsing the information. People would be right for believing that my purpose was to persuade them and not just to stimulate a discussion or let them do the research to verify it. Moreover, if people that I know get this information from me, any credibility on the topic at hand that they perceive me as having, and indeed my credibility in all other matters, is immediately on the line. Unfortunately, many people do not see this as the case. However, if you are a vessel through which bad information passes, it is not unreasonable in my opinion to see that as being part of the problem rather than the solution.

The Quest for the Unbiased Source

Merriam-Webster defines bias as “a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” We should look for media outlets that don’t do this then, right? I would argue that the presence of bias should not immediately render a media outlet as unacceptable. We, as readers, should be able to recognize bias when we see it and analyze how it may be affecting how we interpret the facts of a story. We must train our eyes to see the hallmarks of questionable journalism and avoid sources that lean too heavily on bad practices.

Enter AdFontesMedia, publisher of the Media Bias Chart, which has published version 5.0 of its interactive chart as of this writing. Their research seeks to organize media outlets in a coordinate plane based on two factors, political bias and overall source reliability. The political bias measure follows a traditional left/right continuum, and source reliability seeks to quantify the difference between straight fact reporting and the various levels of analysis and commentary that can stem from it.

Read more

Beware of Dubious Science

YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHICH SUPERFOOD WILL [[insert claim here]]!

When it comes to medical science and health, be extra careful about the sources you share from, who is attaching their name to the articles, and what research they are linking to. There is a dangerous habit of media outlets of all sizes taking the results of a very preliminary study and making wildly exaggerated claims about how the possible benefits.

10 things to watch out for when interpreting research

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did a great breakdown of how wild headlines can get when cherry-picking from research back in 2016. This focuses mostly on major mainstream media outlets not to mention the barrage of small, pseudo-anonymous “health” websites sharing dubious information with little substantiation.

It’s not enough to have sources to support your claims; they must be good sources. Good science is that which is overwhelmingly supported by scientists throughout the field of study. Good science is not a single study, conclusion, or data point that happens to support a preconceived idea.

The greater challenge is to be truly open-minded to changing or modifying our practices or beliefs when presented with new, substantiated information. Appeals to antiquity or tradition are NOT good reasons for continuing to practice or believe something, particularly in the fields of science, especially when those long-held practices were formed in the absence of newer, more relevant information.

Is Your Source CRAAP?

Is your source CRAAP? The CRAAP test was designed by librarians at CSU Chico to examine a source of information. It looks at the areas of Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose as a means of separating the good from the bad.

Sharing a picture with words on it on Facebook because you agree with it fails this test. That is most often when one fails to examine accuracy and purpose. Sure, perhaps you’re very upset that Pepsi didn’t include the words “under God” in┬áthe Pledge on its packaging, but that doesn’t change the reality that it never happened. Who created that deliberately misleading image with incorrect information? Why?

Just as it is important that credible news have an author’s name attached to show that a reputation is linked to the accuracy of the information within, we all also have reputations being formed by the types of information we attach our name to when we share it. Make sure you attach your name to information that won’t damage your credibility.