Evaluating Sources and Arguments

Credibility and Bias

 

Contents
 

I: Detecting Bias

          How to Detect Bias in Individual Sources and Authors

          Detecting Bias in the Presentation of Argument
         
Logical Fallacies

 

II: The Perils of Internet Research

          Primary and Secondary Sources

          What about Wikipedia?
         
Blogs, Personal and Agenda Websites

 

III: The Perils of Expert Support and General Newspaper Reading

 

IV: Finding the Truth
 

V: Three Articles to Analyze

 

The most important purpose of researching is to learn, to shape your ideas against the idea of others, and to support your own ideas with solid data, and the best research is that which is relevant, credible, varied, and of high quality. We'll touch on all these aspects in this lecture.

 

 

I: Detecting Bias (Determining the quality of sources)

 

There are some fairly simple criteria to use when judging whether a source is credible (quality) or not. A credible source is one that delivers factual information (that which can be verified) without much bias (a personal leaning toward a specific agenda). Bias is the first thing to look for in a source.

 

Read the following, and bookmark it: Rhetorica.net

 

Many sources are biased in that most people who write have personal feelings about the world, and thus about many issues. Most writers write about issues precisely because they are passionate about those issues, but sometimes, passion for an issue can kill objectivity and fairness. Rush Limbaugh is a good example of a biased source. Not to rip on Rush, but in reading his work or listening to his program, it is clear on what side of most issues he will fall. And there you go. His material would act as support for most issues that favor a conservative approach. However, the opposing view is rarely given much serious attention. To be fair, there is bias also from the other side of the ideological fence: ultra-liberal democrats such as Michael Moore and Bill Maher.

 

Bias is a one-sided, usually emotion-driven, approach to an issue, that lacks respectful regard to opposing views. This is the antithesis of critical thinking. Any time personal feelings overtake critical thought – the ability to analyze information in a logical, unemotional manner – there is a possibility of bias.

 

 

How to Detect Bias in Individual Sources and Authors

 

Biographical Info.

 

1. The first way to detect bias is to know a bit about the history of the person delivering the information. Is their job title available? Who do they work for? What do they do for a living? What other articles have they written, and for what publications?

 

Example: If an article is written by David Duke on how America should treat its minority populations in the wake of terrorism, one might be cautioned if they learn that Duke was once a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. There might be some bias here.

 

If in the article you intend to use for source support in your essay you cannot find a little biographical note about the writer, or if the source is on a TV show, or wherever, hop onto the web and type in the person’s name into a general web search and start clicking on results where the person’s name appears. This may not lead you directly to a summary of the person’s career and life, but it often will lead to other articles or commentary about the person, and from that other material, you can gather some evidence on what that person’s beliefs are.

Presenting Various Viewpoints (source variety)

If no biographical information is readily available, read the whole article and ask yourself whether the source presents a variety of viewpoints on the subject? Is the person addressing opposing views (for instance, yours), or is it a one-sided argument? If it’s a one sides argument, it’s biased. If it at least addresses different perspectives on the issue, there may be some credibility.

 

Still, a problem with detecting bias in a writer through biographical information arises when no biographical information can be found. If this is the case, the first question you might ask yourself is, “If this is the only article this person has ever written, is this person a credible source?” Immediately check the publisher of the work.

 

 

How to Detect Bias in Publishers (on the web).

 

A publisher is the agency that prints the material writers submit, and therefore a publisher isn’t just an agency that prints books or magazines. You can consider web sites and news agencies as publishers, too.

 

If you run across some information from a web site but there is no information about the author, and no information on that page about the web site you are currently in, look upwards at the URL address, which is the address of the website.

 

There, you may find an address such as the following:

 

http://londonsburning.org/art_la_times_01_20_79.html

 

 

If you click on this link, the page you will view directly and that you’d need to cite is indicated by the last group of letters after the backslash: “art la times 01 20 79.html.” When you look directly at the page, you’ll see it’s an article written about a “Clash” concert, and at the bottom of the page, you’ll see that it was written in the “LA Times Newspaper.”

 

This isn’t the direct source, however, that you need to cite. The direct source is the publisher you have gone through to get the information; in this case, the web site you have entered.

 

Now, you’ll note that information about the web page is not listed with the article, and this will be true of much of the information you’ll find on the web. Here’s what you need to do to verify the publisher, or web site:

 

Move the cursor up into the URL address blank and delete all of the address except for the first section of text after the “http:// and before the next backslash. In this case, you’d remove everything except for http://londonsburning.org

 

If you then hit return, it will take you to the home page, where you will see that the web site is a fan-created website for the band “The Clash,” the fifth greatest band in the history of rock and roll after AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Rush, and the Partridge Family.

 

Now you can test whether the article you were reading is biased or not. In this case, it’s a favorable article about an old “Clash” concert, and it’s not surprise that the review would be favorable since it’s been reprinted on a fan tribute site to the band.

 

 

Title of the Work (article, book, website, whatever)

Does the title or subtitle indicate the text's bias? Watch for loaded words. Example. Al Franken of 1970s “Saturday Night Live” fame wrote a book called Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. The title itself is a fairly good tip off that Al Franken may be a Democrat. However, titles may not be so blatant. Example of an article:

“US Foreign Policy: The Same Old Stuff”

It’s evident just from the tone that this article will be heading in a certain direction. So what should you look for? Objectivity. Example:

        "US Foreign Policy: Effective or Not?”

In this case, the title is neutral, and shows that the essay will probably explore both sides of the issue if US foreign policy. This kind of title, where the subject is listed first, then a colon followed by the focus of the essay, is fairly common. 

Considering Audience

Was the source written to a general readership? Specialists? Critics? How does this affect your understanding of the argument? Some articles are written for certain members of society, and not the general public. Ask yourself how much interpretation you have to do on your own in order to understand the content. If it’s full of inflated language and sounds really smart, you’d be wise not to use it because usually, pretentious writing isn’t meant to be clear, and your writing will suffer from it.

Date of Publication

If you’re writing about a current issue, the source ought to be current as well. An exception is in the case of background information on an issue, learning about the history of things. Having a basis of knowledge will help you to see current information in a clearer, more balanced manner.

Analyzing the URL

Sometimes, addresses can tell you a good deal about a source. See the Internet Detective on this matter.

 

Detecting Bias in the Presentation of Argument

If none of the above criteria have tipped you off to bias, you need to break down the whole article, and here’s how you do that. First, read it, and then:

1. Determine the writer’s main point (thesis).

2. Identify the premises (reasons) the author provides to support his/her main point. Are they connected to the main point? Do they sound plausible?

3. Examine the evidence the author uses to support his/her premises. It is factual information? Is it relevant to the issue? If not, it’s not good.

4. Is the author's evidence from reliable sources? Does the author attribute and cite sources? Even the experts need to play by the same rules we do. 

 

Logical Fallacies

Also, when you are evaluating any argument, be sure to notice any logical fallacies that the author might be using, whether consciously or not. Here is a mini lecture I give in class on some of the more common logical fallacies to keep an eye on:

Logical Fallacies Powerpoint Presentation

Logical Fallacies Quick-Reference Sheet

For a more comprehensive look at logical fallacies, see:

Fallacyfiles.org and Propaganda Critic

The Princeton Review Podcast series, "Logic in Everyday Life."

 

 

II: The Perils of Internet Research

Video: Internet Research: What's Credible?

 

Primary and Secondary Sources

The Internet can be a good research resource if used well. If not used well, it becomes a repository of sloppy information. In my experience browsing the web for information, I find that most web sites are full of links to other web sites, which means they are most likely secondary sources. A blog is an example of an secondary source if it's nothing more than links to other primary (or more secondary) sources. A primary source is the exact place in which the original information is created and stored.

An example of a primary sources would include research studies -- the actual reports by the researchers, and not interpretations of the reports by other people. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel Report on Climate Change would be a primary source. However, a writer writing "about" the report and making interpretations from it would be a secondary source. Example: Scientists: IPCC Report Should Serve as 'Wake-Up Call'

Another example of a secondary source would be a writer referring to First Amendment issues. Example: Why First Amendment Still Matters to Students. A primary source would be the First Amendment itself.

You must bookmark this site: Internet Detective: Wise up to the Web.

Primary sources are more credible than secondary sources. Don't incorporate secondary sources into your essays; they are sources that get information second-hand, and sometimes third-hand, and often filter or manipulate the primary information without calling attention to it. At any cost, find the primary source of any information you plan to use in your essay, especially if you locate what seems like good information on Wikipedia.

Here's a good example of a secondary source: www.findarticles.com. This website is not a source that can be cited because all it is a search engine that links to primary sources. Other secondary sources would be popular web sites such as:

RottenTomatoes (links to movie reviews)
Alternative Press Review
Wikipedia
Most blogs.

Let's talk about Wikipedia and blogs for a little bit.
 

What About Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is the biggest indirect source of them all. You may use it, but it won't count toward the source number requirements in the essay specifications. Here's the reason why it's suspect:

"Author of false Wikipedia biography apologizes ; Nashville man sends letter to journalist, says entries were intended as 'a joke." (Proquest article)

Wikipedia can be a good place to browse for general information, but consider it more a search engine than a source. Generally, its entries provide links to more direct, credible sources, so I would use Wikipedia only as a beginning research point to lead you to more direct, credible information, hopefully. After most entries, at the bottom of the page, there is often a list of links to direct sources. As for the text of the entries themselves, be skeptical, since you don't know who wrote the words. Instead, follow the sources the entries cite, if any, to a more direct source of information.

Basically, anyone can post to Wikipedia, which is fun and freeing, but also scary because, well, anyone can post to Wikipedia, including my neighbor Bob, who is a good guy and keeps his yard nice, but I wouldn't trust Bob to tell me how the "Bay of Pigs" went.

Here's another reason not to trust the "Democracy of Knowledge: "Wikiality" (video).

Blogs: Personal and Agenda Web Sites

Here's a source from a blog:

Marinello, Sal. "Americans are lazy, fat AND stupid!." Online posting. 26 April 2005. Blogcritics.org. 29 Sep 2005. <http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/04/26/133732.php>

Is this a credible source? We have clear bibliographic information on the author. He seems well-connected to the issue he writes of. However, is his tone a concern? Ho many personal attacks does he unleash? Also, how much data does he use to support his claims? Is this a case where an article was written more for entertainment purposes rather than information purposes? In most cases, blogs are agenda-sites. They are created by individuals to advance their own ideas, which is legal and god and acceptable, but the chance for bias is astronomical.

Some Agenda Web Sites

The following publications clearly indicate their own ideological bias:

Conservative Pub's Liberal and Progressive Pub's

Others, however, don't speak aloud their ideological agenda, so it's your job to uncover it through careful, critical reading and research.

Here's a "reputable" publication. Any bias?

Mayell, Hillary. "As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says." National Geographic 12 Jan 2004. 11 Oct 2005 <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0111_040112_consumerism.html>

Notice the amount of numbers and statistics used in the essay to support its main point. From where are these numbers gathered? Does the author tell us? Is this article based on scholarly research or is it an opinion-piece created with the purpose of forwarding an agenda rather than critically examining an issue?

 

III: The Perils of "Expert Support" and General Newspaper Reading

When evaluating newspaper articles for bias and credibility, there's often trouble. Here's an example; read this:

Opposing views on Prop. 200: Anti-Immigration Initiative Debated

You'll note that the structure of the article is like a lot of newspaper articles on issues: the issue is overviewed, and then both sides are overviewed. In this case, the overview of both sides of the debate are presented by two experts who take opposing views on the issue. This sounds fine and good: both sides state their reasons for their stance on the issue, but neither provides any kind of tangible source support that we could actually verify; thus, even though they're "experts," we're still left with unsupported opinion only, from both sides. Thus, the article is not likely to change any minds because only opinion is offered, and all we as readers have to go on to make a judgment is our own bias or preference: "Well, I'll agree with this expert because this expert agrees with me."

But that's not sound support.

Without evidence to support the opinion, even if it's expert opinion, it's still unsupported opinion; thus, be careful of quoting experts sources whom do nothing more than repeat your own stance in different words. Instead, find the experts who argue the details, who offer data, case examples, anecdotes, etc., who argue the way we are expected to, by providing a variety of forms of support from credible, objective sources who cut through bias. And then state their data and reasoning rather than just their overall opinion or conclusion.

When reacting to "expert sources," analyze their reasoning, find the flaws and the strengths, and write about those flaws and strengths. Point them out to the reader. Take hold of the arguments, analyze them, evaluate them, and interpret them for the reader. That's your job.

Never let the "experts" alone to do the work of the argument. If you let them alone to do the work, they end up doing the thinking for you, or else they simply repeat your own opinion, or your repeat theirs.

 

IV: Finding the Truth

Determining which sources are quality goes back to part one of this lecture, making the questions of source evaluation and analysis habitual.

For the speed round, you can be assured the sources you find through the research databases such as MnLink and Proquest  tap into books, magazines, and newspapers that are deemed credible by the academic community, though you still need to question each article for bias and credibility.

My final bit of advice regarding the whole business of research: Never take it for granted that any source you read is telling the truth. As questions.  Be persnickety. Analyze and examine all sources with careful, cynical scrutiny.

If you're ever in doubt about the credibility of a source -- which you should often be -- or if you receive an email that tells you something that you might think too good to be true, scan some of these sources, which claim to scrutinize public truth (but be weary of these, too):

Center for Media and Public Affairs Center for Public Integrity Fairness and Accuracy in Media Reporting FreedomForum Logical Fallacies Media Channel News Watch Propaganda Critic (Logical Fallacies) Rhetorica.net Skeptical Inquirer Snopes Skeptic's Dictionary UrbanLegends.About.com

 

V: Three Articles to Analyze for Bias

[All require Proquest password info]

"Newsroom noose leads to firing, fierce campus debate," November 15, 2007, Star-Tribune

"Noose outcry is a new entry in the campus hall of shame," November 19, 2007, Star-Tribune

"Noose Hanging at MCTC," November 20, 2007, Star-Tribune