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Evaluating Sources and Resources


Drawing on the characteristics of critical thinking presented in the following definition:

the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information, gathered or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, and/or communication as a guide to belief or action. ... [ Taken from Scriven & Paul, 1992]
is helpful to those wishing to understand the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of the process.

Critical thinking is first and foremost an "intellectually disciplined process". It does not include haphazard or casual exploration, though it may benefit from the occasional serendipitous discovery. It relies on using thought informed by intelligence and the expectation of restraint and careful consideration in judging value and worth. The term process implies the thoughtful application of a series of operations or actions designed to accomplish a well-defined task or achieve a specific objective.

Such a process is active, with the expectation data and information will be pursued, with purpose, and without undo or unthinking haste. The acquisition of knowledge will be governed by Diderot's three principles: observation of nature (collecting facts); reflection (combining facts and analyzing the merit); and experimentation (attempting to verify the accuracy of the combination).

The process of critical thinking must be undertaken skillfully to be successful. Among the skills needed are an ability: to originate ideas (concepts) from data and information; to apply original and known ideas to data and information; to analyze the results; and to combine diverse ideas and results in such a way that they create a reasonable, coherent whole, supported by evidence.

Critical thinking is an important process but it, too, is a process which must be evaluated critically. Thus, it should be used as a "guide to belief or action" rather than as a concrete determinant or rule.

The student, academic, or scholarly researcher may well understand that the presence of a book on a library shelf does not promise that the information contained within is "true". Equally, they may know that the presence of an item in a peer reviewed journal does not guarantee that the item was peer reviewed prior to publication. They may question the contents of a peer reviewed article, because they understand that peer review makes no pretense to guaranteeing the validity of the opinions expressed by the author. They understand that "factual" may be a relative term, that logical fallacies may exist in the best-laid arguments, that "cause" can sometimes be confused with "effect", and there are lots agendas, even in seemingly balanced materials.

However, when pursuing less traditional forms of data and information or less well-known and understood material, the selfsame student, academic or researcher may have difficulty identifying the cues needed to assign appropriate weight and value.

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Applied Critical Thinking: Don't Check Your Brain at the Door

Applied critical thinking means engaging your brain. Use the critical thinking techniques of the classroom. Challenge the reliability of what is presented. The computer is simply a machine and the data it contains is entered by human beings. People lie. People defraud. People dissemble. People make mistakes. Test by using something you know. For instance, on a web site which contains purportedly factual information about countries, check the facts for Canada before thinking about accepting the information and data presented about Thailand.

Knowing how to create a web site and post it does not make someone an expert in ecotourism, electronic commerce, chemotherapy, investments, real estate, or anything else.

Calling something "academic" does not make it academic (or scholarly). Calling something peer reviewed does not mean it was peer reviewed.

The retrieval of results from an "academic" database does not assure the user of currency, quality or "fitness" for the user's purpose.

The presence of a site address on an internet searcher, on a handout, or as a link on an institutional site, does not constitute a recommendation nor a guarantee of accuracy and currency of content.

People posting on blogs or discussion groups are under no obligation to present complete evidence or all sides of an issue.

Google® will likely not retrieve the "best" results first. In fact, Google® may not retrieve the "best" results at all. Neither will Yahoo!® They are search engines governed by algorithms.

Free materials or "open access" materials are not "good" simply because they are available. Citing a large amount of such materials to the exclusion of other types of information will almost inevitably bias your results.

ACT and Internet Based Information

When you evaluate an internet site, or information posted on the internet, you need to consider its purpose before deciding its worth: is it there to educate, inform, persuade, entertain, advertise or market? Does it have an agenda, either clearly expressed or hidden?

Remember to put yourself in global mode when you look at any site. Would someone from another country, region, culture, understand the set-up of the page? What is the geographic location or jurisdiction of the page (of particular importance with legal information), the purpose of the page? Is the content appropriate to the potential audience, is it useful for your purpose? How reliant is the page on images and scripting -- this is an important factor in information accessibility, especially for those outside North America. Does the site include all needed citation elements (author, title, date, place of publication/publisher)?

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Informational / Research Resource Pages

"Everyone has the internet now" -- well, no, but an awful lot of people in the United States, Canada, and other countries turn to the internet for their news, their recreation and for information about issues of concern in their lives. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that:
59% of U.S. adults say they have looked online for information about a range of health topics in the past year. 35% of U.S. adults say they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have.
In 2015, an analysis by the American Trends Panel at Pew reported "37% of online adults" said health and medicine were "among the topics they [found] most interesting." and in 2015 / 2016, that many users of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit were using those sites to get news and information.

Online access to vast amounts of information may empower the consumer but it also places the burden of judging the accuracy and the value directly on the individual.

Kids' pages on the internet may be a good place for high school, college and university students to begin practicing and honing their own critical thinking skills.

The internet is frequently cited as an excellent place for children to do research for school projects and learn more about the world. Usually the speaker or writer follows this remark with one about parents and schools being careful not to allow children free access to the net in case the child should inadvertently come across pornography. Many government departments and agencies around the world have latched on to the notion of providing "good" and "appropriate" sites for children and many parents and teachers assume that such pages are wise choices for their child's informational and recreational needs. In the United States in 1997, the "notion" became official with a memo from then President Bill Clinton to US federal government departments and agencies. In the memo, he urged them "to enrich the Internet as a tool for teaching and learning, and produce and make available a new or expanded version of your service within 6 months." In doing so, they were to "focus on the identification and development of high quality educational resources."

Visit some of these sites and think about the whole concept of a "good" website for children. Does "good" and "appropriate" actually mean something more than merely "non-pornographic"? Or can we define "good" in any meaningful way for a 5 year old or an 8 year old or a 12 year old using the internet?

First, consider why a government department or agency (or similar institution) chooses to develop the material presented to kids. Does the department have an agenda?

Second, consider that many web sites suggest that children using a site should "look at a website's Privacy Policy to see how the site uses the information you give them." Would a child -- defined as someone under the age of 13 -- understand the privacy policies -- or much of the other information -- See the Energy Kids Privacy Policy for example. Is the site collecting information about the child and / or the child's use of the computer and the internet. If so, how is that information being used? Can you tell? All pages are not equal ...

Many students go to the web seeking research resources and/or information on various subjects related to assignments. Sites used for these types of purposes need to be carefully evaluated and placed into the context of other materials and resources. Advance your critical thinking skills using the examples below:

Sites such as Energy Kids, have games, educational activities, and teacher resources, including suggested lesson plans. In this case, the lesson plans are pretty extensive and mostly come from the National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project. NASA offers material for Students and for Educators while NOAA carries significant amounts of educational material and teacher resources. Other "kids'" sites may not provide the same amounts of data or quality of information, and might cause a critical thinker to, well, think critically about their objectives and motivations.

Consider the Kids' Zone at the Central Intelligence Agency. What is the purpose of a CIA page for children? There is information on Getting a Job at the CIA, as part of the 6th-12th Grade pages. In the Teacher Resources portion of Parents & Teachers there is Lesson Plan C: Myths About CIA vs. Reality, which suggests connecting to the Careers at the CIA as part of the "Lesson". This Lesson also says clicking 'We'd Like to Dispel a Few Myths About the Central Intelligence Agency' within Materials provides print-out of that brochure. Well, it does sort of -- it connects you to a page entitled: CIA Personality Quiz Text.

Some government departments and agencies have re-vamped earlier efforts or created new sites with a greater emphasis on education, and older children.

Youth and Education, US Department of State

Changes in politics sometimes resulted in changes in presentation of material to children. Compare:

the Clinton White House Kids' Page


White House Kids Home Page, during the presidency of George Bush

Many sites, for kids or just generally, seem to provide good information. Possibly they carry a well-known name or brand, provide data as well as information, and appear factual. However, the presence of these characteristics may not make them academic or appropriate for academic research. When viewing any page, ask yourself about possible or potential bias. Is all pertinent evidence presented? Is it presented in a neutral fashion? What motivates the presence of the evidence given? Does an unknown, or unstated, motivation negate the evidence? Can you tell how old the information is, or when it was last up-dated?

Browse a country and see what types of material this database contains -- you might want to begin with a country you know something about, for instance, Canada. Can you tell how old or new the information is in this database? Who selects the material? Are they experts in the field? Does the page tell us? Why do these pages exist? What influences the opinions expressed in the material? How would I know or how could I determine that? Is the data from more than one country comparable? Does the information presented only answer "who, what, when, where, and how many" questions -- or, does it also help answer how and why?

Applying Lessons Learned

What kinds of things do you need to find out about an internet web site to decide if it is valuable (or not) to you when you are doing research?

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This page created and maintained by Linda Hansen.
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Created: 2006/07/05 Last updated: 2017/10/17
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