Knowing what quality looks like

By Marcus Wilson 11/02/2012

I’ve been to a couple of really good seminars this week – one by Waikato’s own Noeline Wright, from the Faculty of Education, and another from John Gilbert, a Science Educator at King’s College London. Although the focus of the two talks was different, they both touched on a similar theme, namely that one of the best things you can do for your students is to teach them how to ascertain the quality of any information they might access.

Very few of us become scientists, even amongst those who do science in the last couple of years at school, but all of us will have to make decisions based on information that’s available, and many of these decisions will have some kind of science base to them (e.g. do I try this new medication?, will replacing my car save me fuel costs?, what benefit will insulating my roof actually give me?…)

There is a huge, exponentially growing lot of information that is readily accessible to most people. Some is of real quality, other stuff is just trash. How do I know which website to trust and which to have a good laugh at?  Experience that Noeline and John have had suggests that secondary school students, and even first year university students, don’t have the skills to distinguish the two. We’re talking skills like identifying who is writing the information (e.g. are they trying to sell you something?), what agendas are being pushed?, what evidence is  presented for the claims? what other information is out there? Given these skills will be way more useful to everyone than, for example, being able to solve Schrodinger’s equation in a quadratic potential – and that’s true for physics students as well as the general population – why don’t we actually teach it?

You should be frightened by this: people such as these first year students will form our government in 30 years time. Imagine a cabinet of ministers whose primary port of call for information is Wikipedia. (The thought does occur that certain members of the current cabinet probably get their briefings from Wikipediea, but I shan’t follow that line of thinking any further…)

Noeline showed some amusing but in some cases shocking examples of websites that the students don’t  ‘see though’ and can accept as gospel truth without any real thought. This is an amusing ‘spoof’ example, but there are plenty out there that are seriously pushing some dodgy agenda (e.g. holocaust deniers) and some that are just out to get your money.

0 Responses to “Knowing what quality looks like”

  • I’ve consistently (for graduates anyway) awarded part of the final grade towards their research effort, and basically forbidden the use of web-sources like wikipedia. It’s not that wikipedia is necessarily a bad source, but students need to be using proper academic sources. Ideally that’s journal articles that have gone through a peer-review process.

    The issue as you point out, is the inability of many students to distinguish good sources from bad. There’s always been the odd student whose grabbed some material written by a non-expert (with an agenda) and ended up dumping nothing more than “polemics” into their research. That’s kind of my motivation for insisting on the use of library resources rather than web-searches.

  • Brendan, we do the same with first-year bio students – wikipedia & its clones are big no-no’s & students must use peer-reviewed articles to support their arguments. We also spend time in tuts talking about why other sources may or may not be reliable, & how to tell. This has not stopped students citing (last year) Answersingenesis & Conservapedia, so obviously we need to do some more work on this aspect of their learning.

  • Eek- bio students were referencing AIG? One would have hoped the claims at that website would have sent up some red-flags to anyone who had some background in biology!

  • Yes, but as Noeline pointed out a student won’t even pay attention to what the URL is, and further exploring the website to see what else is on it never gets considered. So they may not actually have read any of the claims on the website.

  • You’re right, Marcus, as I found when I followed up with them. There was a bit of ‘information’ at AIG that fitted their (pre)conceptions around the question I’d asked them, & so they used it, & That was That as far as the student was concerned. (They seemed genuinely taken aback when I pulled them up on it.)

  • As an example of how I’ve considered the quality of something, I can draw on the great ‘disposable versus washable’ nappy debate. (This one will be very relevant from the middle of June, all things going well.) I’ve been pointed to several websites selling washable nappies by well-meaning-but-possibly-not-completely-informed individuals, Disposable nappies are so environmentally unfriendly, aren’t they? Think of all that landfill! So say the websites guilt-tripping you into using washables (and, in particular, THEIR washables). I did a bit of my own research on this one, based on the scientific literature. Admittedly, most people don’t have ready access to the search engines and the articles that the University Library provides, but the clue to look elsewhere is that the information is on a website selling you something. While the websites in question weren’t telling outright porkies, they were conveniently neglecting out a big chunk of the story – which is how much water you go through washing nappies, and how much energy you go through heating the water and using a dryer. The conclusions, from a properly balanced look at things, are that if you can mostly cold-wash and line dry your nappies then you can feel smug about looking after the environment. If you throw them into a dryer on a regular basis then you’re kidding yourself that you are being environmentally friendly. But the websites selling you them don’t tell you that…

  • I used disposables with both ours when they were newborns, but it was nothing to do with environmental issues: they were both delivered by caesarian (emergency in the first case, pragmatic in the second) & using disposables made my rather sore post-operative life ever so much easier!

  • @Marcus/@Alison

    I suppose one of the other problems with using web-searches for stuff relating to evolution, is that the first 2 pages of the search are likely to be drawn from creationist sources (as sadly, these are far more popular sites than bona fide science sites). I guess such sites attempt to ‘mimic’ actual scientific sites and could fool the unwary…

  • You’re right, Brendan – often it does depend a lot on what your search strings are. Having said that, if you just put in something general like ‘evolution’ then you get this: – with a women’s clothing shop second on the list (after wikipedia). I am delighted to see that ‘my’ website (I can say ‘my’ cos I’m the only one of the original authors still doing anything with it) is #4!!