I was recently asked what students today should be learning. One of my responses was that given that they have access to an unprecedented amount of information from an unprecedented number of sources, they should learn how to do research with noisy data. The idea is to give students the benefits of access (no arbitrary “Don’t trust anything you read on Wikipedia!” rules) by giving them the skills to read those citations and evaluate credibility.
This is not a new skill. Even in a well-curated library, one should check cited sources, and understand that just because someone wrote it in a book, that doesn’t mean that it’s true. Mistakes happen, misunderstanding happen, memories aren’t always accurate, and people lie. However, there’s a barrier to entry when it comes to getting something published in a book in a library. On the Internet, there’s not much of a barrier to getting something published. I’m doing it right now from my couch, writing whatever I want with confidence, without any verifiable credentials, and without an editor. And for whatever reason, you’re still reading.
Of course, the ease of publishing information online is awesome. We can get information from sources around the world who might never bother to get a book published. We can hear directly from primary sources as they publish blog posts and tweets.
Ok, now that I’ve stated what is probably obvious to most people who are reading this, here’s a story from yesterday. A friend shared this photograph with the caption “A Single Drop of Seawater, Magnified 25 Times”:
— beah burger-lenehan (@beahbl) May 1, 2014
along with a link to this page.
I raised an eyebrow. Not being a biologist, I could have believed that all of those creatures lived in a single drop of water. But, I have seen many drops of water in my life, and I was pretty sure that I could fit more than 25 of them in the space of that image. I got curious. At first, I thought that maybe just the number was off. Maybe it was a single drop of water magnified 250 times. Let me retrace my steps and show you what I found.
The first cited source, Colossal, doesn’t look bad. The author credits and links to the photographer, there’s a link to something that he spotted in the image (whatever a diatom is), and he helpfully credits his source with a “via” link to another page on a site called Lost At E Minor. Off to LAEM I went. That page also uses the “25 times” number, but describes the image as a “splash” and “bucket” of seawater. Not a drop. Interesting. So just how much water is it? The “via” link on Lost At E Minor goes directly to the website of the photographer, David Liittschwager. I was pretty close to my eventual answer at that point, but I got off track a bit visiting a bunch of other sites where the photo had been shared. After searching for [David Liittschwager seawater], however, I quickly found that the image had appeared in National Geographic, a reputable source. The first page that I landed on mentioned a “dipperful of seawater,” but I wasn’t sure if that was referring to the exact image on the page, as it was part of a series of photos. When I got to the second picture in the series, the image in question, I again saw the quantity described as a “splash,” and a helpful note that the crab larva is “the size of a rice grain.” I was pretty much set at that point. A small rice grain can fit in a large drop of water, but the crab only takes up a small portion of the picture. This is bigger than a drop. Upon revising David’s site, I found a link to “Marine Microfauna,” but the page was hosted on .Mac, which has been shut down. Archive.org’s WayBack Machine came to the rescue and I was able to navigate to this page which captions the photos with “contents of one dip of a hand net.” So so there you are. All of the creatures in the photograph fit in one hand net. Is it at 25x magnification? I don’t know. The crab is supposed to be the size of a grain of rice. I’m relatively new to rice, but that looks about right to me.
Should you research every single statement you see in a tweet? I don’t think so. It doesn’t really matter if that’s a picture of a drop of water or a bucketful; the point is there’s a lot of life in the sea. But if you ever get really curious about something, dig deeper.
I mentioned evaluating credibility at the beginning of this post, and I’m ending it with a quick one-minute tip from Dan Russell on one feature you can use to evaluate credibility online.