Chapter 4: Evaluating information
Vast amounts of new information are being created every minute and it can be overwhelming to make sense of it all. How do you know you’ve found the best information for your needs? You evaluate it! In this chapter, we’ll discuss how you can more effectively evaluate and fact-check all kinds of information, from news stories to academic articles.
Evaluating information is something you do every day, whether you know it or not. You evaluate information when you determine what to write down in your notes, debate issues with friends, and use reviews to decide which book to read — all this before you even start gathering information for a research project. Below are some reasons why you should make thoughtful evaluation a part of your research process.
Sniff out bullshit
One reason to evaluate information is to sniff out bullshit. As Bergstrom & West (2017) state,
“Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.” 
There are many reasons why a piece of information might be inaccurate. Any time information is shared, there is a possibility for it to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is not always done to mislead. Sometimes, we just get things wrong the first time around.
It could be that our understanding of an issue has changed over time, so the sources we use need to reflect that. For example, the way we categorize planets has changed, so we now classify Pluto as a dwarf planet. In other cases, information is no longer accurate because advances in research and technology have changed what is possible. For example, as technology for batteries has improved, the production of electric cars has increased beyond what was even possible thirty years ago.
Information may also be inaccurate because of how it is presented, like when someone tries to represent every side of an issue equally, but ends up lending undue importance to a perspective that is not well-supported by research. For example, a journalist may write a story about the positive environmental impact of using native plants in home landscaping projects, and cite various studies to back up that claim. However, if the author dedicates equal space in the article to commentary from people who prefer the appearance of grass lawns, this could give the impression that both views hold equal weight, despite one of the views not being supported by research.
Another way information may be more easily misinterpreted is if its importance has been overstated. Sometimes academic authors exaggerate the importance of an experiment by misrepresenting the results to get their work published and recognized widely. In other cases, media outlets might oversimplify a paper’s results. This is not always malicious or deliberate. It could be an attempt to draw more clicks with an exciting or dramatic headline, or it could just be a reporter who is not an expert on that topic misunderstanding the research. Because news articles tend to be shorter and written for a general audience, their summaries of research studies will always be simplified. So if you want to use information from a summary like this in a college project, you should track down the original source to get the level of detail and context you need.
This Twitter account highlights articles with deceptive titles. It tweets out examples of headlines where research done on mice is being misrepresented as directly applicable to humans:
IN MICE https://t.co/wFC3hXVBAJ
— justsaysinmice (@justsaysinmice) May 29, 2020
Avoiding misinformation is a good reason for evaluating your sources, but it isn’t the only one. You’ll also want to avoid sharing that misinformation, particularly when it comes to your college projects.
Your time is valuable, so make sure you’re spending that time on sources you will actually be able to use. After all, even the best, most truthful, information won’t be useful if it’s not relevant for your research project.
Below are questions to consider when evaluating whether a source is relevant:
- Does it meet the requirements for your assignment?
- Does it address your research question directly?
- Does it add something new to your project beyond what your other sources already state?
Often, your professor will provide specific requirements for your project. For example, you may need to use a total of five sources from peer-reviewed journals published in the last ten years, or you may be told to only use a specific database. These requirements may differ depending on your major and/or the course you’re taking, so don’t assume that the requirements for a paper or project in one class will be the same in another. Knowing these requirements can help you plan your research and avoid wasting time reviewing something that you wouldn’t be able to use anyway because it doesn’t match your instructor’s guidelines.
As we discussed in Chapter 1, your research question should be clear, focused, manageable, and defensible. Similarly, your sources should focus on and support your research question. It’s not enough just to find several peer-reviewed articles and use them in your paper. They should also be closely related to your topic. Let’s say you’re writing a paper about “winter sports participation among athletes in the Southern hemisphere” and you find an article titled “The History of Snowboarding.” Just because related words appear somewhere in the text or title of this article doesn’t mean that it supports your research question. You will need to evaluate the article to make sure it addresses your specific research question before assuming that it will meet your needs.
Digging deep enough
The sources you use should add something new to your project. Having a variety of sources and authors helps support your argument. By evaluating your sources as you gather them, you can save time and avoid having to redo your search. It can be frustrating when you need to start over in the middle of a project because your sources don’t back up your argument with enough depth.
These approaches also apply to evaluating the information you use in your everyday life. In the next section, we’ll dig deeper into some steps to help you evaluate all kinds of information, from research articles to social media posts.
- Bergstrom, C. & West, J. (2017). Calling bullshit. Retrieved from https://www.callingbullshit.org/ ↵
- justsaysinmice. (2020, May 29). IN MICE. Tweet. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/justsaysinmice/status/1266376602583134215 ↵