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Weblog Entry

Do Your Research?

October 02, 2003

So here’s a question: how accountable to fact must you be when posting information for public consumption?

When I write here, I consider myself to be exploring an issue, not sounding the final word on the subject. I have no control over your interpretation of the same. Some may view my voice as authoritative, and as misguided as it may be I can’t stop that. I make mistakes with my facts, mostly due to lack of knowledge or proper research. I know what I know and I write about it. Sometimes I check my facts, other times what I know or think is wrong though I assume otherwise. That’s what gets published.

If I were adhering to an established journalistic standard, this would be abhorrent. But I’m not.

Consider my recent two entries about colour-blindness for example. The first was obviously (to me anyway) poorly researched and hinged around conversations and memory as opposed to solid fact-finding. The second was more in depth and valid, and even confidently presented researched material as fact.

But then, what is fact-finding? What is inherently more legitimate about deadening the muscles in your hind end while flipping through dead trees, than conversing with the same sort of person who would have written the text in the first place?

Especially when it comes to web-related topics, what constitutes valid research? Everyone knows you can’t trust the information on the web. But when the majority of what you do takes place there, and isn’t transported to other mediums, then you clearly have to start taking the information available more seriously. Or at least finetune your BS detector.

Of course the danger with that is the self-supporting network it creates. B publishes thought Q, C quotes B, D takes C’s quote as fact, and F, G, and H all develop theses around Q, citing B, C, and D as proof.

If B didn’t do his homework, that’s a large chain of untruth to unravel when Q pans out as a falsehood. But who’s on the hook? B was musing publicly. He never expected his thoughts to be taken as fact, let alone be quoted as authoritative.

So the question is who determines the nature of a weblog? If the author intends on publishing nothing more than exploratory musings, is the readership responsible for treating the subject matter as temporal and non-factual? If the readers notice reliably consistent factual information from the author despite what he or she claims, can they reasonably expect future publishing by the author to maintain the trend?

Of course the answer is obvious. It depends on the source. Just as a report by CNN is considered more authoritative the Weekly World News, an entry by an individual who has established credibility and legitmacy can be relied on further than one who has not. Then again, that’s not to say that CNN never makes mistakes or panders to advertisers either.

The final onus must be exclusively on the reader. Do you believe everything you read? Do you believe everything you see on TV? Neither should you believe everything on the web. The only truth is your own experience, and everything else is just second hand.

It’s the way it always has been, and a new medium doesn’t change that.


Reader Comments

Dris says:
October 02, 10h

That is an excellent point.

Further, the web isn’t the only place information can be inaccurate, or where ideas can be mistakenly taken as fact, though the easy, independent nature of web publishing makes it more abundant.

For example, look at just about any scientific journal. One scientist publishes an experiment with an associated theory, and suddenly we all think we have duplicates of ourselves in parallel universes trillions upon trillions of light-years away.

Not to spark any geeky debate on the existence of parallel universes, duplicate selves, or time itself. Just an example.

Dave S. says:
October 02, 10h

Instances like that were precisely what I had in mind as I wrote. You’re only as good as your editor/fact checker, and mistakes are always made. Plus editorials are a given in every newspaper – what is explicitly an opinion piece can and will be referred to as fact by those who either miss the ‘opinion’ nature of the piece, or desperately need to prove a point.

Calling the web or weblogs factually suspect means doing the same to a trade publication or a news report. The mediums are irrelevant, it’s the authorship process that counts. Yes, perhaps there is a far shallower level of quality control on the web. But saying that traditional media is always more accurate because of this is either a naive leap of faith or logically incorrect.

Niket says:
October 03, 01h

Dris, articles published in technical journals go through a stringent review process that aims at removing conjectures, unsupported statements or contradictions. Its incorrect to compare that with a blog.

I totally agree with Gabe: you may tend to believe what a blogger has said, but you should not treat it as a gospel. Heck, even scientific theories are refuted when more information is available (although that is because the postulates and assumptions made in the theory are invalidated or deemed weak).

Its natural for anyone to put more faith in what Dave says than what Niket says because through a series of past work, Dave has proved himself to be a reliable source. The same reason why you are more likely to believe what BBC says than say a tabloid.

The onus on checking facts rests as much with the author as it does with the reader. Eventually, blogs carry opinions and interpretations of the author, hence the reader needs to make himself aware of other facts and counter-opinions before accepting the written word.

October 03, 02h

I’m never too worried about the factual accuracy of information on weblogs, simply because the great strength of the weblog medium is that if someone makes a mistake the corrections come thick and fast. Half the time if I make a simple spelling mistake someone will have pointed it out in a comment before I’ve even had a chance to check over the entry myself! Combine that with TrackBack, referrals and so forth and you can be reasonably comfortable that any factual errors on a relatively high traffic weblog will only be there until the weblog author is corrected and fixes them.

Eric says:
October 03, 02h

Yeah its basically all about reputation. For example, Dave has a good reputation in my eyes, so I’m willing to give some more weight to what he says about design and web stuff. If he were to complain that there were too many wild dogs roaming about his town, I’m not going to let his reputation for design carry over to that. If wild dogs were of interest to me, I would look around for a more credible source.

Political blogs (and their cousins the religious blogs) are dangerous though because they authors always have an agenda and aren’t always honest about it, and the readers are the most likely to overreact to a lie, hyperbole, or misinterpretation.

Pete says:
October 03, 04h

Agreed.

Cross-referencing is the responsibility of the reader: never cite just one source for information because, after all, you can’t expect to walk if you only have one leg…

Dris says:
October 03, 05h

Niket: True, but I’m not saying that scientific journals contain inaccurate information or a lack of an adequate editing process. However, when one reads what is obviously a theory, they tend to take it as factual, even if the journal calls it a theory.

For example, Time magazine (not a technical journal, but a respected magazine regardless) often publishes information about new scientific theories, especially those concerning the universe. While Time states that they are theories, it’s not unlikely for a person to read it, see that it was published by Time, and thusly take the new theory as factual. They could then go about spreading the theory without even noting that research was still in progress, and there begins people all over the world thinking without doubt that they have a duplicate of themselves far and away.

Gabe says:
October 03, 06h

One of the reasons I think it’s not such a big deal is that the web is not what I consider to be a strong factual source of information. Weblogs in particular are usually very obvious about the personal nature of their content. When I read something in a weblog, I may internalize the information (if it sounds plausible) and use it later, but I wouldn’t cite it with any more authority than what I hear in a casual conversation.

Your article, for example, may not be well-researched, but it’s not presented as such. I find the information useful, but not gospel. I would not be surprised to later learn more subtleties that perhaps contradicted some of your facts. That would neither bother me nor cause me to point the finger at you, I would just assimilate the information the same as always: using judgement.

Eric says:
October 03, 07h

Well here’s the thing, if you aren’t a journalist, why would you want an ISSN? ISSN says that it is for periodicals, which, to me, fall under journalism. If you are a journalist, then I think you should try to adhere to the tenets of the profession, regardless of how many print or other media publications do.

As far as trusting information I see on the web, I think it can be trusted by a skilled and skeptical reader. I gave up watching the news on TV a long time ago because it is generally very little information presented in a tedious manner with an aggregious slant. With the internet if I want to read about an event, I’ll see the headlines on the major CNN-type sites, then if the information is of any importance to me, I can also look up other primary sources, such as a local paper or a press release. In my experience, putting all these things together yields a fairly accurate and effective view.

Dave S. says:
October 03, 07h

Eric - ISSNs are not exclusively the domain of journalists. From the ISSN Canada web site (http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/6/13/s13-201-e.html ):

‘A “serial” is a publication, in any medium, issued in successive parts and intended to be continued indefinitely. This definition includes periodicals, newspapers, annuals (reports, yearbooks, directories, etc.), journals, memoirs, proceedings, transactions of societies, monographic series, and unnumbered series.’

I think most everyone has got my point though. While the reader is the one responsible for their own interpretation, I don’t think that should limit someone from being as factual as possible. ie, excusing yourself from fact-checking by placing all verification responsibility on the reader is bad practice, and makes you look uninformed.

Anthony says:
October 03, 08h

This reminds me of the same argument I give when non-computer people indicate how “risky” it is to meet someone online.

I always say it’s no different than meeting someone walking down the street. (In fact, I feel it is safer because it is easy to be decieved by someone’s appearence, but a lot harder to be deceived by the thoughts that actually come out of their brain to you via email, forum, chat.) It all comes down to using your best judgement.

I seem to recall than when writing your first high school research paper, the first thing they teach you is to consider the reliability of your sources.

In general, as a reader of blogs, I appreciate links where I can “fact check” though I usually think of it as “learning more.” Also, piggybacking on Simon’s comment above, blogs with comments are more reliable because they allow me to see the community’s response to a post. (Though comments can be deleted obviously)

Rectractions are useful tools as well.

p.s. I think we all know by now you are pretty reliable. If you’re really unsure, start the post with “I could be full of $h!7, but …” ;-)

Evan says:
October 03, 08h

I think the “self-correcting” nature of weblogs is vastly overrated. This is particularly true with political weblogs, but it affects many technology-focused weblogs as well. The situation is a lot like what Dave described above. Person A makes a statement. Person B refutes that statement with a couple of out-of-context quotes. Person C counters by misinterpreting information from a new study. Person D responds by citing an older, long-ago-refuted study. Person E tears down that study with a flat-out lie…

And so it round and round it goes, everyone proudly “fact-checking the other guy’s ass”, because nobody in the conversation is dilligent enough and honest enough to manage anything other than a parody of real research. A “skilled and skeptical reader” would need to spend an enormous amount of time fact-checking the fact-checkers just get at an inkling of the truth. (Of course, newspapers suffer from this problem too.) Anyway, the upshot is that there are a tiny, tiny fraction of sites that are worth reading. The rest is bullshit.

Keith says:
October 03, 09h

I think one of the more appealing things about the Web (Blogs in particular) is that with many things published on the Web it’s like an invitation to have a conversation.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I talk to people all the time who have no clue about what they are speaking. When in conversation I have no problem correcting someone, or sharing an opposite point of view, and I’ve got no problem being corrected or argued with.

I feel the same way when it comes to the Web. If I posted something that someone didn’t agree with, or knew more about (this happens quite often) then they can send me and email, comment, or what-have-you. It’s all good.

I’ve purposely posted things I wasn’t sure about, knowing full well that the ensuing discussion would increase my knowledge as well as the knowledge of my readers.

I think it really comes down to the kind of site and the audience. This wouldn’t work, as you say, for CNN, but it works just fine on a personal Web log.

I think with Web publishing, most of the time anyway, it’s the readers responsibility to check their source before taking anything they read to heart. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

Dris says:
October 03, 09h

I have a little more faith in the community than that. Errors have been made in the past and quickly realized due to the interconnected system that is the blogsphere.

I agree with Gabe. And, just as unlikely it would be that I accept information from Joe’s site about rabbit farming, one can discern BS from fact with some self-checking of their own.

Blogging can sometimes fall to the same demise as many forums: debates filled with lies, out-of-context quotations, and skewed facts that propagate a particular debator’s view. But then, any casual debate can be the same thing.

It is always important to check your facts, but towards those who are closed-minded enough to use falsehood to propagate their views, that’s just a fact of life. It will happen, and it’s not limited to blogs or any media.

Dave S. says:
October 03, 10h

More interesting points raised.

Evan - I think even those who discuss technological issues get sufficiently wrapped up in proving their viewpoints that they forget to check the source. A lot of wasted effort takes place in discussions about web standards, for instance, where a quick jump to the W3 would have sufficed. I’m guilty of this too however. I may be slightly more optimistic than you about the end result though…

Keith - you or I may be amenable to fixing mistakes or retracting information when being called on factual error. But what about those who don’t handle criticism so well? There are all sorts of personality types out there, and some can be childishly immature when it comes to admitting they’re wrong.

Of course, that raises further questions about those who would delete comments they find disagreeable, but I have a feeling the community would stop putting up with someone who would stoop to that level.

16
Keith says:
October 03, 11h

Dave, you have a good point there, and one I hadn’t thought of, which brings me back to my feeling that part of the responsibility, for better or worse, has to fall on the reader to check with their source.

As far as deleting comments, that opens a whole other can of worms. I feel that if you allow comments, you need to take them on, regardless. The only comments I’ve ever deleted are spam or very inappropriate comments.

I hate to think that there are folks out there who would delete a comment for any other reason. If you don’t like what people have to say, don’t allow comments, it pretty simple.

Guy says:
October 03, 12h

You should try reading some of the UK tabloids if you want poorly researched articles: www.thesun.co.uk, www.mirror.co.uk, www.megastar.co.uk. They’ve been less than ‘factual’ for years.

josh says:
October 05, 01h

The problem with scientific enquiry, fact finding, and “facts” in general, are that everyone has forgotten the method that we are supposed to use to determine what is true and what is false, and presume facts are an adequate substitute for what is true.

This unfortunately, is false.

For example, the scientific (empirical) method rests on a logical fallacy. Behold, the hypothetical syllogism:

P > Q
P
——-
Q

Or in plain language:

1) If Josh wants some ice cream (P), then Josh has to get off his butt and go to the fridge (Q).
2) Josh wants some ice cream (P).
3) Therefore, Josh has to get off his butt and go to the fridge (Q).

This is merely a logical argument. The force of the truth does not come from observing Josh and determining what he has to do to get ice cream, merely by the definition of the sentence “If x then y”. The funny thing is that logic can and does map onto reality.

People have seemed to forgotten this however. Now take an empirical scientific method:

P > Q
Q
——-
P

Or in plain language:

1) Hypothesis: If Josh wants some ice cream (P), then Josh has to get off his butt and go to the fridge (Q).
2) Josh got off his butt and went to the fridge (Q). (observed 9 times out of 10)
3) Therefore, Josh must have wanted some ice cream. (P)

This is a fallacy, but a fallacy that all “facts” that we come by via observation are based off of. I could have went to the fridge for any number of other reasons than ice cream. The problem is you can observe my fat butt going to the fridge 10 million times to get ice cream, and 10 million +1 could be to get a soda. You just don’t know for sure. But everyone takes facts as necessary truths.

Don’t even get me started on journalism…

josh

Niket says:
October 06, 09h

Josh,

P => Q does not mean Q => P
It however means (not Q) => (not P)

The second part of your reply is therefore incorrect.

Also not accounted in your P => Q is the factor that someone else can get the icecream for Josh (so that he need not get off his butt to eat icecream). Thus, the correct statement will be:
P => Q, P (- X (read this as P implies Q for all P in domain X)

Clearly someone else coming into the house take P outside the domain X; hence (not Q) does not imply (not P) … i.e. Josh can eat icecream without moving his butt off the couch if there is someone else in the room.

The theory of observation and empiricism makes it even more interesting. If Josh goes to the fridge 100 times to get icecream and once to get soda, the EXPECTED outcome of him going to the fridge is to get icecream with a probability 0.99. The REALIZATION of this event could be getting icecream or soda; but that is different from the EXPECTATION of getting icecream or soda.

The problem with the third part of your statement occurs because people often confuse between expected results and realized results.

(Refer to Probability Models by Sheldon Ross for more mathematical results)