Internet Quality, Objectivity and Truth
[ Issue 28 ]

Internet Quality, Ojectivity and Truth intrigue Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to Internet Quality, Ojectivity and Truth

Internet Quality, Objectivity and Truth

In the Web Line column for Issue 28 Tony Rogers investigates a number of sites that discuss the perennial problems of Internet Quality, Objectivity and Truth.

Surely the Net is there to assist students,
not hinder them?

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Web Line — Tony Rogers


Last issue (No. 27, September 2001), I quoted the great Arts & Letters Daily, who speak of “vast mountains of low-grade ore” on the Internet, and who are committed to panning for “precious nuggets of content”.

Let’s face it: 90% of the stuff on the Internet is crap. Let me testify right away, however, that the other 10% is pure gold, and it is in such precious places that the Internet redeems itself. Trouble is, for some people it’s difficult to be sure whether the information they turn up is dross or treasure.

This fool’s gold problem has come up before in this column. In Issue 15 (September 1999), for example, I wrote of the dangers of thoughtlessly accepting the superabundance of electronic medical advice at our disposal. You’ll recall also that in Issue 26 (July 2001) Fizzgig apologised for factual errors in the From the Back Verandah column of Issue 7 (May 1998), some of which derived from uncritical acceptance of Internet info.

But there are difficulties in other areas as well.

Take, for instance, the cases of rumour and urban myth. Showbiz gossip, I sincerely hope, can usually be seen for what it is, tittle-tattle of insignificant consequence, though I dare say there are many who carry Fox Mulder’s motto close to their hearts: they want to believe. But what about those anecdotal odds and ends that become solidified into myth?

History abounds in conspicuous examples, of course, almost all fuelled by greed or wishful thinking. We only have to recall, say, these obvious instances of overselling, if not fraud: Tulipmania, the South-Sea Bubble investment scandal, as well as the cases of Ern Malley (Australian poet fabricated in the 1940s), Piltdown Man, crop circles, cold fusion and UFOs.

Not to mention a revived interest since 11 September 2001 in Nostradamus. Indeed, in our own day, the Internet has hardly been backward in offering rumour and myth, but in this case therapies are readily to hand using that selfsame technology. A good place to start, if you ever suspect you’re being hoaxed by something you read or download, is the About Network’s Current Internet Hoaxes, Urban Legends, Rumors and Other Digital Lies.

Looking further afield now, I want to move on to the hassles afforded by the Internet for the millions of school kids — and their teachers — who remain dependent on it.

Hassles? Surely the Net is there to assist students, not hinder them?

Let me explain.

In years gone by, the books on reading lists had been previously vetted carefully by education committees, and, since it was a rare student who ventured further than the prescribed selection of texts, the sources that pupils consulted could be relied on. These days, however, schoolchildren are exposed to the Internet from their kindergarten year onwards, and it is becoming increasingly hard for their teachers (especially in secondary school) to direct them solely to valid material, when error and bias are but a mouse click away.

So it seems to me that already overloaded teachers now have the added burden of teaching their students discernment in information seeking at a much earlier age than previously. Once upon a time this outlook might have been required of honours history classes, but now if not learnt in the first years of secondary school all sorts of difficulties await the student at every hyperlink that offers itself.

Whichever way you look at it, the germane questions for reliability testing have always been these:

Where is the quality?

Where is the objectivity?

Where is the “truth”?

Fortunately, as regards quality, objectivity and “truth”, the Net itself provides some excellent guidance, with most of the best suggestions on the subject of information validation being offered by those unsung heroes and heroines of the research world — librarians.

But lest we ever fall into the trap of regarding the Net as just a big computerised library, I first want to refer to the essay collection Cyberlines: Languages and Cultures of the Internet (Donna Gibbs and Kerri-Lee Krause, eds.). In a review that Harlish Goop referred me to, in the June 2000 issue (Vol. 8, No. 1) of Australian Style, one essayist (Juliet McLean) is quoted as writing that, while the Net may seem to be “a giant library with almost infinite resources”, it is no library at all, merely a collection of “unevaluated trash”. Another contributor (Ross Todd) distinguishes between the World Wide Web and libraries this way: the former is “full of misinformation, malinformation, messed up information, and useless information . . . the contrast with the controlled evaluated contents of a library could not be greater — and yet for glamour the Web wins hands down”.

The most useful sites on the subject of Internet information reliability I have so far tracked down include the following.

For the novice Net researcher, a good introduction is provided by Angela Elkordy. Her well set out Web site entitled Web Searching and Sifting clearly explains the evaluation process in the form of a series of questions to ask oneself.

The Techman’s Techpage: Evaluating Information on the Internet of D. Scott Brandt, a technology training librarian, seeks to adapt traditional information evaluation techniques to the Net environment. His motto is: “To Search Is Not Necessarily To Evaluate”.

Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools is written by reference librarian Michael Engle. He covers search context, evaluation criteria and Web site rankings, and appends a helpful “Webliography”.

Luciano Floridi (a research fellow in philosophy), in his Brave.Net.World: The Internet as a Disinformation Superhighway?, takes a more academic, theoretical approach, one that is readable and of use, however. For him, “the fundamental questions remain human and social”, not technical.

Robert Harris, a Professor of English, runs Evaluating Internet Research Sources, which is both academic and practical. Evaluating Information Found on the Internet by Elizabeth E. Kirk is another good piece, with a strong message on bias. Her closing paragraph includes this warning: “If you find information that is ‘too good to be true’, it probably is.”

Part of the Information Quality WWW Virtual Library, Evaluation of Information Sources is maintained by Alastair Smith. This is a comprehensive list of links for librarians and others who are “selecting sites to include in an information resource guide, or informing users as to the qualities they should use in evaluating Internet information.”

The Evaluate sub-site at the University of California, Berkeley provides some hands-on exercises for students to test their ability to assess Web pages for authenticity and integrity. Actual sites are listed for scrutiny, together with recommended questions and techniques.

Another U.S. University — Stanford — has a “Persuasive Technology Lab”, where a major goal is to understand what leads people to believe what they find on the Web. To this end they are conducting ongoing quantitative research on several aspects of Web credibility. Some of their fascinating research they publish on their site, Stanford Web Credibility Research.

Finally, I should mention a site dedicated to the fundamental skills of “reading and writing ideas as well as words”— Critical Reading, put together by Dan Kurland. It is his mission to show students “how to recognize what a text says, what a text does, and what a text means, by analysing choices of content, language and structure”. His pages, in other words, set out to show what to look for and how to think about what you find.

All these commentators may conveniently be summarised as follows:

Verify the authority and trustworthiness of the author (organisational affiliation, position in an organization, availability of contact information)

Assess the temperateness of the opinions offered (balance, objectivity)

Try to find other sources that support the author’s viewpoint (i.e. apart from those that merely quote it)

Make sure that any source quoted can be corroborated

Check the stability of the information presented (currency and accuracy)

Take particular care when accepting views expressed in unsupervised discussion rooms.

Good stuff, as I think you’ll agree. All Dr. Bikwil can add for those sifting the significant from the worthless on the Internet is the advice, “I prescribe a gentle dose of scepticism, to be taken once per Internet session.”

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