Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why checking sources is so important

All kinds of articles (be they journalistic or semi-academic) make all kinds of claims which may be skewed or highly dubious, especially when these claims are related to statistics (eg. about crime rates of certain types, opinion polls, etc.) Such an article can attain the appearance of credibility by citing exact sources for these claims. The more independent sources the article cites, the more credible it appears to be.

However, this may be deceptive. It's easy to cite sources, but people seldom go through the arduous task of actually checking those sources. And checking them does not involve simply checking that each of those sources actually exists and makes the claim. You have to check how that particular source got that information, and if it's itself also citing another source, and so on. You have to actually check the entire chain of sources this way to find the origin of the claim.

Because, you see, spurious and incorrect claims can gain a lot of false credibility this way. First there is one single publication that makes such a claim. Then three other publications cite it. Then other publications start citing those three, and so on and so forth. Suddenly we have myriads of articles citing myriads of other articles for that particular claim, which gives the false impression that the claim has actually been independently verified by different authors... when in fact there is only one single source for all of them. That's why you have to always follow the chain of citations to its original source.

When you do this, you sometimes find out that something that's widely accepted has never actually been independently verified and tested, but instead all of the citations ultimately refer to one single source. This is extremely unreliable. It's also highly misleading. You may have an article with two dozen citations, giving a false impression of credibility, when in fact there is only one single source for all of them.

This is especially deceptive when it's done (deliberately or inadvertently) to promote a political or ideological agenda or idea.

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