Evaluating Information

woman next to pile of books

In The Other Side of the Story, we talked about Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) and the fact that while there are terrific advantages to using them, there are also disadvantages. My point in bringing the issue to you wasn’t to slam environmentalists, or even to disrespect CFLs. I have quite a few of them installed in my own home.

Rather, I wanted a good example of something that happens to all of us in this high-speed, high-communication world. We see a story on the news, or in a blog, or hear from a friend and we take it at face value without stopping to do a little investigation. We often miss the other side of the story. Below are a few principals and tricks anyone can use to verify the validity and reliability of any story they encounter.

With the amazing growth of the Internet, stories that used to pass by word of mouth over months and years now travel the globe in minutes. Ever heard the one about the guy who was laying brick and got yanked up to the top of some scaffolding by a barrel of bricks when he got caught in the rope, then the barrel broke and he fell back down only to let go of the rope and have the barrel fall down and land on him? It’s one of the funnier ones going around.

Yeah. That story dates back to at least the 1950’s.

So, without further ado I bring you some principals to use when evaluating information.

There’s usually some truth in the story. I was chatting with my sister once when she told me that she’d stopped using bleach when laundering whites because bleach causes clothing to yellow. Apparently someone had shared that information with her when she mentioned that her socks were indeed getting yellow over time. Quite frankly I was very surprised when she mentioned it to me. A quick Google search of the terms “bleach” and “yellow” yielded me the answer. Bleach does yellow clothing if it’s overused. When I told her what I’d found, she said she was using a half-cup of liquid bleach for each load. I use a tablespoon of powdered bleach. Big difference. By taking 2 minutes and checking the results online, I was able to save myself from a dreadful future of yellowed socks.

Don’t believe everything you hear (or read). If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve gotten at least one of those really neat e-mails warning of some virus or catastrophe or other. I’ve seen probably a couple hundred of them over the years, and less than 5 have turned out to be true. After getting snuckered by one in the early days, I learned that there are sites dedicated to debunking the messages. My personal favorite is Snopes, although TruthorFiction is good, as well as the resources available at the About.com urban legend page.

Please, for the love of Pete, go to one of those sites to check the truth of an e-mail you receive before just forwarding it to everyone in your address book.

And we all know that Pete needs a lot of love.

When I want to check a story, I go to Snopes and type a key word or two into the search box at the top of the page. The answer usually shows up in the search results list.

In a more serious example, last summer my mother-in-law called to tell me about a great canning method that a cousin was using. It wasn’t something I’d ever heard of, so I headed to the search engines to investigate. Result after result showed that the method was actually quite dangerous for many reasons. Thankfully, my mother-in-law did the same research after our conversation and neither one of us put ourselves or our families in harm’s way.

Remember: EVERYONE has an agenda. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Everyone. Has. An. Agenda.

Even me.

Now, I’m not saying there’s always an evil conspiracy afoot. Many times, the agenda is to protect the reader’s/listener’s best interest. My taking the time to put all this together for you is an example of that.

There’s more to it than just the agenda at face value though. You need to look at the person giving you information carefully and evaluate a very important question. WHY are they taking that particular position? Factors like worldview, career path, family size, religion, history of personal tragedy, education, nationality, and gender all affect any one individual’s take on a situation. Now, it’s not always possible to find out that much information about the person. Taking a few minutes just to consider the situation can help you discern whether or not you can believe someone. If it’s a politician, you can be sure that you’re not getting the whole story. Just a little bonus wisdom for ya.

Find multiple valid sources. This is another biggie. Anyone with access to a computer can type up a story and post it online. Just because it’s in print doesn’t make it true. Even what you hear on television or read in magazines isn’t necessarily true. If a piece of information is indeed true, you’ll be able to find it in more than one credible place. The thing that got me started on the CFL story was an article in a news magazine I subscribe to. Before I typed up the list of disadvantages to CFLs, I researched the facts and found sources to back up the claims. I’ll publish those links for you shortly. For now, I want to stay on point.

I usually type some key words into Google, then look closely at the results. Is there a Wikipedia entry on the topic? Wikipedia is a huge online encyclopedia. Entries are more or less trustworthy; they are written and submitted by individuals so I do treat them with some caution. Because articles can be disputed by other experts they’re at least worthy of consideration as evidence. If changes have been made you can access the history of that entry and see for yourself.

In addition to Wikipedia entries, I look for government or educational sites backing up the information. These sites will have a .gov or .edu in their name. I also look for commercial sites with that same information. Both reputations and advertising dollars are at stake on commercial sites, which increases the motivation to be truthful. Unless, of course, the site is selling something in relation to the information. Then I give them less weight in my consideration.

Look for the logic. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given an argument that doesn’t add up. People say things and even contradict themselves, and don’t seem to notice. When Rob commented on my last post, he said that the mercury found in flourescent lights is not toxic while at the same time agreeing that the bulbs shouldn’t be disposed of casually. Well, which is it? Is the mercury toxic or not? If it’s not safe in the landfill, then it’s not safe loose in my house.

My guess is that Rob will say that it’s the combined total of hundreds or thousands of bulbs in a landfill that would cause concern. Agreed.

However, the toxicity of mercury is a pretty hotly contested topic. Some dentists advocate removing mercury fillings to stop the effects of mercury (a heavy metal) on the body; indeed, I know someone with Multiple Sclerosis who had that done and saw his health improve. Another friend of mine who is a certified naturopath told me that even a drop of mercury can cause a great deal of damage to the human body. I don’t recall the exact statistic she gave me, but hey…here’s your first chance to look something up.

There are also huge debates ongoing as to the effects on children of the mercury found in immunizations. Studies have been released supporting the notion that the very shots given to children to keep them healthy have actually caused countless cases of autism for example. Other studies disagree. I believe we’ll have a definitive answer in the next decade or two as mercury is being reduced and removed from both the shots and the light bulbs. In the meantime, I prefer to err on the side of caution.

Yes, it’s true that all fluorescent bulbs have contained mercury for decades. On the face of it though, that fact doesn’t make them any safer.

Holy moly this has gotten long. I promised to publish the references on the CFLs. Since it’s almost 3am local time and I need to get back up and be coherent in several hours, what I’ll do is put that in a separate post tomorrow. And I really will get it done tomorrow. πŸ™‚ Life here at Earnest Parenting was nutso-busy last week but I think things are settling down a bit and I’ll be able to be posting information more often.

So yay for you…you get more of me!!!

Earnest Parenting: tips for parents who want to be safe with CFLs.

The editor-in-chief of Earnest Parenting, Amy is the mother of two sets of twin boys. Yes, they drive her crazy, but they also make her laugh occasionally. Amy enjoys writing, quilting, reading, and working on her burgeoning cyber empire.

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  • Sommer January 21, 2008, 9:16 am

    Interesting post and wow you’re up late. I agree that information is sometimes misunderstood or confused. We have to really think about what we read. You write about bleach and my advise is to not use it at all. There’s a ton of data, reports and research about toxic chemicals and are children that we should all be made aware of. Check out my blog to learn more.

    Reply
  • Michelle (The Beartwinsmom) January 21, 2008, 9:25 am

    Don’t forget the link to mercury and autism. Some people say it’s baloney; I don’t.

    Reply
  • Amy January 21, 2008, 12:24 pm

    @Sommer: Yes, I’ve heard a few things about the dangers of chlorine in particular. I have a the friend who’s a Naturopathist, as well as several other friends who’ve gone completely organic or made other pretty drastic changes in life so I have learned a great deal from them.

    Because there’s SO much out there, and because that much change overwhelms me to the point of inaction I’ve chosen the path of making changes one at a time. It’s not perfect or ideal, but it’s my best. πŸ™‚ Both Hubby and I prefer to make gradual lifestyle changes than try to “crash diet” with things. It just works better for us. We were just mentioning last week the dramatic difference in our diet now as compared to 12 years ago when we wed. I think I’ve seen your blog before. Perhaps through GNMParents?

    @Michelle: Yup, it’s the autism link that I’ve been watching for a while. Used to be the theory was dismissed out of hand, now it’s downright FASCINATING how the mercury is coming out of immunizations anyway. What a coincidence, eh? I bet (and I know you already know this) that mercury as a cause will be the conventional wisdom at some point in the future. Assuming, of course, that companies can make that admission without being liable for lawsuits. Then of course, they’ll fight it longer.

    @Everyone: Wow, I’m so sorry about the bizarre color scheme of the text in this post. Lol. That actually wasn’t the 3am stuff. I just discovered yesterday that I had an advanced toolbar and could change the color of my font, which I’ve been dying to do for some time. I forgot that my default color wasn’t black on the site. It doesn’t show up that way in the draft mode. I’ll be fixing it today. If I can. Gotta do lunch and then keep a promise about references for CFLs.

    Reply
  • Amy January 21, 2008, 1:11 pm

    Woot! Got the colors fixed and with only 5 questions sent to Hubby…uhhhhh, I mean technical support.

    Reply
  • On Living By Learning January 23, 2008, 7:28 am

    On a recent road trip, my kids and I listened to The Animal Farm audiobook. Long ago, Orwell wrote a fairy tale that points out why it’s important to question authority.

    Thank you for a post that suggests practical ways to pose those questions.

    Reply
  • Amy January 23, 2008, 9:54 am

    Oh my goodness, I STILL remember exactly where I was sitting when I read that book! It so rocked my world. What did your kids think of it?

    Reply
  • Karen (Karooch from Scraps of Mind) January 23, 2008, 6:58 pm

    Another great Stumbleworthy post Amy.

    And wasn’t the term ‘mad as a hatter’ coined because of the use of mercury in making mens’ hatbands in the 19th Century?

    Reply
  • Amy January 23, 2008, 8:39 pm

    Karen! A new piece of trivia for me. πŸ™‚ Thanks!! I hadn’t heard that one before so I looked it up. Wikipedia says the phrase is associated with the mercury used in hat-making, but it was in use prior to the time that hat-making was an established industry so the origins are not clear. Thanks for mentioning it. πŸ™‚ I like learning new things.

    Reply
  • AirJordans November 23, 2008, 1:21 pm

    This reminds me of once in my early days of joining groups on msn I had received an email telling that the liquid used to clean floors in Swiffers had killed a large number of dogs. Turned out to be written by a man who lost his pet dog and the vet said it was one possibility. Anyways, I sent the info to my family and friends (animal lovers all) and then made the dumb move of posting it in one of my new groups of online friends.

    Well I was hooted and ridiculed and told that that had been proven wrong hahaha. I was angry for days. But being anonymous can be a wonderful thing. I learned to verify verify and verify as you suggested here.

    Reply
  • Amy November 23, 2008, 6:08 pm

    Awwwww, sorry you had to learn this lesson the hard way. I think we all have, though. The one good thing about it is I’ve become so cynical that I question EVERYTHING anyone tells me, which has served me well. πŸ™‚

    Reply