When I was teaching high school English, I'd often have students share the wildest information with me. Did you know that if you drink a soda and eat pop rocks you will explode? You can't get pregnant on your period. Spiders can lay eggs in your brain. Sometimes, it was easy to tell that they were misinformed - other times, not so much. So, every time a student would come to share the latest tidbit of information with me, I always countered with the same question, "That's fascinating! What's your source?"
In a world where we are constantly inundated with information, it can be hard to tell what's real, what's true, and what we should believe. Even as adults, it's a struggle to wade through it all. Most of us are intelligent, rational human beings and we think, I know what's true and what's fake. For example, if I told you that standing on your head and drinking a coke after intercourse will prevent pregnancy, most of you would laugh at me. But what if that same information was presented in a full color infographic that had a John Hopkins University logo on it? Might make you do a double take.
So, how do you decide what information is true, kind of true, and flat out false? Here are 5 things you should do when you encounter a surprising new piece of information:
1. Ask yourself, what is the source? Where did this information come from?
This sounds simple enough, but sometimes you have to do a little digging. In this day and age it's really easy to create and share graphics on social media. Just because your cool infographic says it comes from John Hopkins University doesn't mean that it did. If the official organization made the post that's one thing, but if it's a shared piece of information without the original source material or article, you definitely want to do some further investigation.
2. Ask yourself, what is my source's authority?
Once you've established the source, find out the author or sites credentials. A reputable research university has more authority than a tabloid news article designed to sell papers. I'm a blogger, so you could go to my about page to find out more information about me. You can also check to see if I site sources in my articles, and go check out the sources that I site. The importance of a source's authority will vary depending on whether you are reading for entertainment or for specific, credible information.
3. Ask yourself, what is my source's bias?
Once you've established the source, decide if they have any biases. The way information is presented can be colored by religious or political leanings, regional ideologies, personal feelings, or even corporate interests. Bias is not an immediate disqualifier, just be aware that the information you are getting might have a slant.
4. Ask yourself, how recent is my source's information?
Information changes at the speed of a mouse click in today's super digital environment. Researchers, scientists, politicians, and pretty much anyone publishing content are in a constant battle to provide the most up to date information. Always check the publication date when deciding if your information is relevant. Sometimes, especially if you are reading for entertainment, this might not be as important. But, if you are trying to determine the latest numbers on the stock market, information from two days ago is already out of date.
5. When in doubt, check multiple sources.
Sometimes it can be hard to determine what you should believe or how you should feel even after you have fully vetted a source. At the end of the day, this is a free country and you get to form your own opinions. Check out multiple sources on the topic and come to your own conclusions about what you believe based on the information you have gathered.
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