Are you sure?

In surfing the sea of information, try Greg McNamee’s 10 Ways to Test Facts. From Britannica Blog:

In a time of educational crisis, when reading and analysis are fading skills, teaching students how to recognize the condition of the waters seems an ever more difficult task. Yet . . . with a little coaching we all have in us the makings of champion freestyle surfers on that great ocean of data . . .

His first strategy:

1. Trust not the first answer the search engine turns up. In the spirit of the tyranny of the majority, it will usually be wrong or, if not outright wrong, not the answer you really need. A while back, Inside Higher Ed reported that, even though most teachers take it as a matter of faith, rhetorically if nothing else, that finding and filtering information are important skills, too few students know even to go beyond the first couple of hits that come back from a Google search. Less than 1 percent move to page 2 and beyond of the search results. Be one of that exalted few.

He also recommends posting three words by the computer: “Are you sure?”

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  1. This is bad advice that sneaks silently toward the ridiculous.

    Greg McNamee has created a mutated bastard child of “question authority.” Reading comprehension and analysis are important skills – there’s no question about that. But what is the value in discarding a source because it’s on the front page of Google? Search engine placement is nearly irrelevant – it depends on many factors that have little to do with authority.

    I have to take issue with his suggestion to go beyond page 1 of Google results just for the sake of it. Most of the time I find well-referenced answers to my questions within the first 5 results. I simply don’t need a second page. Then again, I might be yet another one of the American “sheeple” who believes everything he reads and is entirely unable to identify truth.

    If anything, he should suggest that a reader spend more time on the pages they visit. The average time spent on a given page is 18-20 seconds. I suppose sharp minds like McNamee can question in Zinn-like fashion everything about a topic and its author in under 20 seconds, but for we who are mere mortals, it may take longer. Spending more time on a source is infinitely more valuable than making sure you go through 20 sources.

    I’m embarrassed for McNamee and Britannica.

  2. One thing I tell my students is that some organizations pay for placement on search engines, and therfore they should try looking at later pages.

    It is important that kids learn to ask themselves, “Does that make sense?” when they encounter any answer to a query.

  3. Kirk Parker says:

    I just wish McNamee weren’t so sure of his left-wing politics that stupid and easily-refuted talking points didn’t leak into his post.

  4. Gregory McNamee says:

    Mr./Ms. Parker, I’d be very glad to hear about those “stupid and easily-refuted talking points.” Please feel free to bring your argument to the Britannica blog, if you care to substantiate it.

    Mr. Tabor, I wonder if you can understand how shallow your objection is. Please be embarrassed on your own account.

  5. Mr. McNamee,

    Some of us thought the points in your article weren’t sound. I hope you understand that we can only detail our arguments to a certain degree in the comments section [or because we don’t have time to do much more than object].

    As for your categorization of my objection as “shallow,” I find that my explanation of why time spent on analysis matters more than a volume of sources provides more depth than mistrusting a page for the sake of it. I found it odd that you mention the “sea of information,” then outline how information consumers should assume everything is a man-eating shark until proven otherwise, and then push balanced skepticism in point #7.

    I’d rather not hijack a thread on Joanne’s site, so I have sent you a brief message via the contact form on your website. I appreciate that you have come back to make accountable those people who have commented on your article. I wish more in the blogosphere were so comfortable meeting their criticism head-on. It makes for a much more interesting debate.