Last week, in Ditching the Dissonance II, we discussed rabid, info-seeking wolves and thoughtful, information-foraging caribou, considered how confirmation bias can influence our information seeking habits, and how bad information causes breakdowns in communication. Today, we will look at information seeking strategies that will help you get in touch with your inner evidence-based-information-seeking caribou.
As you read last week’s blog, did you consider which category of information seeker you fall into: wolf or caribou? Do you do diligent research and consider even the information that doesn’t support your hypothesis? Or do you seek only the evidence that confirms your views…and are you so in denial that you are a poor researcher that you decided to just disregard all the information in the blog that supported this conclusion?
“I really want to be an evidence-based-information-seeking caribou!” I hear you say, “But how???”
If you found yourself in the latter category and weren’t in denial about it, you may have been greatly disappointed with this state of affairs, but never fear—caribou status is within your reach.
The first step is to think about how you typically seek out information. Determine where your weak spots are. Are you a lazy researcher who takes frequent shortcuts to avoid sifting through large amounts of information? Are you afraid to find information that will force you to reevaluate your opinions? Have you ever stepped foot inside a library? Have you ever found yourself utilizing Boolean operators in a bibliographic database search? Now, you may be thinking at this point: Who are you and why are you asking me complicated questions that I don’t want to answer??? But you need to answer these questions before you can achieve caribou status. Consider where you are as a researcher and where you can improve your skill set if you want to be a better information seeker.
The second step is to determine your information needs. This may mean admitting to yourself that there is a gap in knowledge or understanding of an idea, concept, or phenomenon that you are looking to fill (I.e., admit that you don’t know everything). This will likely require examining your own motives. Determine what you need to know, and why, and look for the best answer. In other words, don’t Google what you are convinced is the only possible answer to the question or seek out only the information that confirms your stance on an issue. This leads to confirmation bias. The information Google will give to you will likely confirm your opinion (no matter how far-fetched), but it may be grossly inaccurate. Recall those instructions that your English teacher gave you when you had to write an expository essay in high school: start with a good question and work toward an answer based on reliable sources.
The third step: choose your sources wisely. The information need will determine the sources you use. Though they are easy to access, Google, Wikipedia, and the like are not the best sources for many types of information. However, I will be the first to admit that I use them. When I wake up at 2 in the morning desperately trying to remember who directed the movie Paris, Texas (it was Wim Wenders!!!), Google provides a quick resolution to this dilemma. Google and Wikipedia can, at times, be a good starting place for finding resources (those “References” sections can be useful). But if I want to understand the conceptual underpinnings of string theory I’m not going to rely on a Wikipedia article or the random blog posts churned up by a Google search—I’m going to look for information compiled by experts in the field.
For some subjects, you need an expert. Not everyone on the Internet is an expert but anyone on the Internet can claim to be an expert. Depending on your information needs, you may need to seek out information in peer-reviewed journals. Don’t be afraid to wade into scholarly waters if your information need necessitates it. If you feel that your information need is basic enough that you can trust Google to answer it, you should still apply certain criteria to your search results. Check the credentials of the content creator, review their other work (if available), the date of the material, and look for retractions.
One of the most important but often overlooked steps in the information seeking process is evaluating the results and, if you’ve been following the previous steps, it should make your job easier. To evaluate your results for validity and relevance, ask the following questions: Do they help you answer (or at least work toward an answer) to your question? Do they meet your information needs? Are they the best results you could get under the circumstances? Is the information they provide useful, reliable, up-to-date, and unbiased? If you don’t feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, it may be time to move on to the secret 5th step: repeat the process if you aren’t satisfied with your results.
How you choose to interpret the information you find on an information foraging expedition and how you use what you find is up to you but, at the very least, always try to be open to new information you find along the way, not just the stuff that confirms a previously held opinion. While this is helpful advice for any information seeker, it is vital for anyone in a position of authority in the public or private sector, or any position where the information you disseminate will have a far reach, because of the amount of influence you wield. Any bad information you provide will travel far. Learn to recognize confirmation bias and avoid it before it leads you to spread bad information. Continually hone your information seeking skills and improve your information seeking strategy. Learn the ways of the diligent, evidence-based-information-seeking caribou!
And for my fellow Pixies fans, this…