Evaluating Web Sites: Toward a Rugged Freedom of Inquiry

The internet has given rise to a kind of rugged freedom of speech that makes it suspect in the eyes of many government agencies or political powers that see themselves acting in loco parentis to a largely uneducated general body of readers. The world-wide web, to the best of my knowledge, is still taboo in Saudi Arabia and other theocratic societies. Not too many years ago, I was fighting shoulder to shoulder with a Neo-NAZI for his right to speak his piece on a German forum of CompuServe. I thought that squelching radicalism by suppressing its freedom of speech was one sure way of making it more successful. Any ideas that are allowed to do combat in a public arena will either show weakness or strength, either of which will assist an audience in distinguishing truth from falsehood. Squelching ideas by law makes them all the more interesting because of their clandestine and forbidden flavor. The assumption in excluding a neo-NAZI from a list or a discussion forum is that the label already has discredited the person sufficiently that none would want to perceive his or her contributions, that all he or she expresses is ipso facto wrong. Such a criterion is too strong, I think. Nonetheless, this approach is precisely what seems to characterize many attempts at evaluating internet sources, "no-no territory," as some teachers have called it.

Ann Scholz's criteria (Scholz, Ann. Evaluating World-Wide Web Information. Purdue University Libraries, 1996. http://thorplus.lib.purdue.edu/research/classes/gs175/3gs175/evaluation.html clearly concentrate only on origin of the web source. For example, she writes: "Does he or she [the author] list his or her occupation, years of experience, position, or education? If so, list below: With this information or lack of it, do you feel this person is qualified to write on the given topic?" We are not told at which level experience suffices or what education is necessary before the information has a certain validity. Besides, if certain educational levels have credence, then others do not. Students are amongst the lowest educational strata. Would it not seem implicit that nothing a student could say, really matters? Ann Scholz continues to ask for institutional background, institutional filtering of information, and so on. No matter how convincing this approach may seem at first glance, it is nonetheless an elaborate ad hominem argument. We should teach students, I think, to pay close attention to text, not to the author of a text. "It will probably rain today," may, under some circumstances, be just as true if it is coming from a sewage specialist as when it comes from a meteorologist. Even the filtering through an institution is suspect, since, after all, we have seen in this century many an institution that filtered out the uncomfortable for the sake of a sometimes even immoral orthodoxy. Neither individuals nor institutions can be relied on to release truths only.

Evaluating Resources. http://infopeople.berkeley.edu:8000/bkmk/select.html offers additional criteria: "(1) Currency--When was the information created or last updated?" This may be a valuable knowledge; however, most books would probably fail the criterion because they tend to be out of date by their date of publication. Besides, the criterion does not seem to contain established standards. Is two years too old? Too new? Do we have different age criteria for different materials?

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe offers a very strong filter for internet credibility. She writes, "Publishing firms and authors who are paid to create and disseminate information are unlikely to circumvent the marketplace of information and make the same information available free of charge via the internet." [Copyright 1994, Updated May 29, 1997, http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~janicke/ Evaluate.html] So, any information disseminated free of charge via the web, thus, is suspect; after all, given the ubiquity of the profit motive, we should not expect anyone to hand out free information. So, almost everything on the internet is suspect since almost everything is to be gotten free of charge. Of course, Ms. Hinchliffe is simply wrong: Information on the internet is not entirely free; it is being paid for by advertising. I can either subscribe to my local paper, or I can read it over the internet. The advertiser, who largely funds the paper, is being read whether I read the internet edition or the paper edition.

In a message on NCTE's list-server, John B. Abbott spoke of "valid academic sources," a dangerous term, since I would thus have to distinguish between valid and invalid academic sources. Presumably the web page or article by Mr. or Ms. Nobody from Podunk Community College would weigh in more lightly than the page from Dr. Bagbottom from Harvard Medical School? Is that what we'd mean? Or once I know that the writer has spent time in jail and does not have adequate footnotes and marginalia, we would throw out both Erich von Däniken (who probably deserves it) and Karl May, a German cultural icon if ever there was one. Sherry Godsey picks up this idea and offered three student-developed criteria on NCTE's list-server. Her students suggest: "1. If it has 'edu' in the URL, it is probably a better site. 2. If you find misspelled words on the first page, look elsewhere. 3. If they compare Shakespeare to NASCAR, you might want to keep surfing." One of my first hard-core-porn encounters was on an "edu" site. I bet Sherry's students threw away Chaucer after one look. And if I ever find the site that compares NASCAR and Shakespeare, I'd bookmark it instantly; there is a better-thanaverage chance that these folks have discovered some psychological universals in Shakespeare that most of us straightlaced critics haven't even begun to dream about.

I suppose, in short, I'd like to say that I am not really convinced by the criteria that I have seen offered and that I find some criteria to be conducive to authority consciousness in a kind of intellectual totalitarianism. I suspect also that the hypocrisy implicit in the fact that several cable companies offer several paid channels of pornogrophy is the direct result of inadequately open discussions in schools. To illustrate bad examples of human morality, the teacher must be at liberty to cite some such.

Thus, there must be different ways to approach the evaluation of sources. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe offers: "Once the desired resource or information has been located, either through a purposeful search or serendipitous browsing, the resource or information should be evaluated. This evaluation process is really no different than the process people use in evaluating the information they acquire from a neighbor, friend, newspaper, television broadcast or bulletin board flyer." So, the question now is clearly: What do I use to evaluate information I receive from other sources? I want to try to suggest some principles by which we do select information. For purposes of analyzing sources, I suggest that we use criteria of correspondence and contiguity. And these are teachable forms of critical thinking.

I am not a philosopher, so I will deal with these criteria at a level that makes intuitive sense to me. Correspondence simply suggests that "to say of a thing that is that it is or to say of a thing that is not that it is not, is true; but to say of a thing that is that it is not or to say of a thing that is not that it is, is false." I think Alfred Tarski put it: "The proposition 'snow is white' is true iff snow is white." As long as the status of the real world can be said to be corresponding to a set of statements, in other words, I can comfortably agree with the statements. If someone tells me that the American embassy in Tripolis, Lybia, was burnt down in 1979/80, I should know differently. I was there. I know that the statement is not true. Someone who was not there should have a far more difficult time trying to evaluate this information, which was misreported in the American press. And when someone tells me that an American bomb fell near the French embassy by accidental miscalculation, I should not believe that person either, for the information is not contiguous with my memory of the layout of Tripolis. The French embassy is several miles away from Mr. Qaddhafi's compound. If precision equipment was that loosely precise, I am sure the attack must have been flown by vintage World War I bi-planes and visual guess work. And that was not the case. By the way, I found out later from one of the pilots who flew the attack that the "accidental" bomb was a quite purposive reminder to the French that they really should have allowed the American planes to cross French air space. As you recall, France had disagreed with the American attack, in part probably because, since Qaddhafi had ordered a stop to the import of American cars in the late seventies, the large Peogot 505 had been the most successfully exported automobile to Lybia. So, "accidental" bombing was quite non-contiguous with information I had beforehand, and my skeptical view was corroborated later.

Let me try to apply the same approaches to reading an internet page. This page comes from the Ku Klux Klan.

Oregon's Ku Klux Klan reports on its web site as point 8 of 40 points to support segregation: "8.Contrary to U.N. claims,the stronger nations of the world today are predominately white. This includes the U.S.,Great Britian,France,West Germany,Australia,Canada and regretfully Russia" [http://personal.atl.bellsouth.net/atl/a/k/akia/Seg.html]. Most kids should know as part of their standard geographical training that the claim is false on a factual basis for several of the logical presuppositions. Russia contains large segments of Mongolian inhabitants, and the U.S., France, England, Canada, and even Germany are racially mixed. The statement, thus, is simply not true. Even if we grant that predominance in that we say that the "leading" forces in these countries are "white" and that "whiteness" is indeed defensibly a racial characteristic, we still have no idea what is meant by the expression "stronger." If we mean military might, we also include the potential for self-destruction, which Germany has shown with all her military might a few times. If England is "strong," then surely only as the shadowy reflection of a once terribly over-extended empire. If the U.S. is strong, then surely mainly as a cultural imperialist with rock music and cultural icons that largely come from her strong multi-cultural roots: exports of country music go hand in hand with jazz and blues and soul; or perhaps as a bully of the rest of the world with a far greater than necessary military apparatus. Perhaps "stronger" refers to GNP; however, then we would probably have to strike Russia from the list. Or perhaps "stronger" refers to the lasting qualities of a culture; but then a much more persuasive case can probably be made for the nature-adapted cultures of the Amazon region, of the Australian outback, and so many others, who seek to live with nature, rather than to dominate her. Given the ambiguity of "stronger" and given the lack of supporting evidence of the statement, I would suspect most readers to be at least uncertain about the veracity of the statement. Even if children had a strong rooting in some southern conservatism, they surely would be able to find evidence enough to question such a statement in terms of the actual facts in the real world without our having to make an attempt at an ad hominem against the KKK as a whole. The task of schools and teachers, then, is to tackle such information head on and to guide the learner in an effort to flesh in what might not have been stated in the source.

Let me illustrate with another example from the same source. "39. Segregation is Scriptural. Check the following sources:Genesis 9:21-27,Deut 3:2-8,7:3, Matthew 7:12,Matthew 24:35,II Chron. 5:10 and Rev. 3:16." Let's do that: Genesis 9:21-27 is an account of Noah's drunkenness and his sons' varying reactions. Metaphorically, this passage has been taken to be the institution of black slavery by Noah; it does not per se make any claim for segregation. Any reading should reveal the misquotation. The first reference to Deuteronemy is an endorsement of genocide, not a support of segregation. If anything, it forbids mixing with a racially alike enemy, not with a racially different group. The second reference to Deuteronomy forbids intermarriage with enemies, not racially separate groups. Of course, there are other biblical passages, such as King Solomon's avid intermarriage to extend the power of his empire, that would support racial mixing. Matthew 7 is the simple moral principle that what you want others to do to you, do it to them, a principle which is quite unrelated to any issues of segregation. Matthew 24 witnesses to the long life attributed to the so-called holy scriptures and is obviously unrelated to segregation. Second Chronicles reports merely that god made a covenant with Israel and has no relation to segregation. And Revelations is an admonition for people to be either hot or cold, for those who are lukewarm will be spat out. Whatever that spewing reference may mean, it certainly has nothing to do with segregation. It is quite easy, then, to check these quotes against their sources to show that misquotation has taken place or that the writer might even endorse genocide. In a setting of rugged freedom of speech, teachers may have to deal with controversial material in a straightforward and honest manner. That kind of approach does not let a cultural icon such as the holy writings of various religions off the hook. Without ad hominem arguments, one can use "correspondence" to the real world as a criterion to grow a quizzical attitude on the part of the student readers. One can even ask students to report if they themselves would manufacture evidence, like the KKK in this case, just to win an argument. .

I do not suggest that these approaches to evaluating sources are easy. In fact, it would be an entirely different problem if one were to seek pedagogical approaches to letting students discover this kind of discrepancy. I am sure that the biblical readings can be assigned fairly easily; in most cases, bibles are fairly easy to come by. Determining the status and population characteristics of "strong" nations presents more of a problem, but a thoughtfully planned lesson in geography, economics, and history might help immensely. Besides, historical knowledge might adduce insights about empires in antiquity that were not the creation of Europeans. A student-centered curriculum, I suppose, would almost be inevitable. I wonder if it might not be feasible to teach a daily two-hour segment on internet research with one research hour and one dialog-and-discussion hour, followed by research tasks in a variety of standard reference works or refereed web sites, such as the Britannica's web site, for example--although a fee is due for its use.

Let me go on to illustrate contiguity with the following example, again from the KuKluxKlan: "2. Segregation has kept racial tension and racial intermarriage down,allowing for both races to progress peacefully." Several items can be part of one's thinking about their coherence with other things we know about the world. "Racial tension" needs to be defined, and we need to be clear about "segregation." Now, with those definitions in mind, we can explore evidence of riots and uprisings. Since many riots will be clearly placed into ethnically homogenous neighborhoods, we have ipso facto contradicted the Klan's statement. If a riot is the consequence of racial mixing, there must be evidence of such mixing. But if neighborhoods are clearly identifiable by ethnicity, then a de facto segregation has clearly occurred without pacifying race relations. "Intermarriage" is another such term. Considering that de facto segregation was widespread until well into the seventies and--in terms of residential circumstances--well into the present time, we merely need to ask about the background of some people to find out about the silliness of the claim. I don't know about other such informal research, but I have found black acquaintances to be as much of mixed origins as any of my "white" American acquaintances. In most cases, there was about as much validity to calling someone "black" as there was for calling him Scottish, German, Irish, Italian, or native American. If it weren't for the skin pigmentation, the attempt to classify people of African origin would have been abandoned long ago. Again, an awareness of recent history and some informal "ask-around" studies will do amply to help someone evaluate the contents of this particular source. And I would always caution the student against generalizing too quickly. It is not appropriate to do away with the source or the writer of the source entirely merely because we have now found several items that we can comfortably reject. Intellectual evaluation is a continuing process; it cannot ever be a snap judgment of any sort. But the process should nonetheless yield an insight into some discrepancies between the KKK's general statement and the students' narrower perception of their smaller world. This lack of contiguity should make the source suspect. Again, these are ways of gathering information that a sensitive teacher can guide students to discover.

"FACT #9: The name Homo sapien [sic] was first used by the 18th Century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. The word "sapien" means "wise." The name was originally used to speak of the White man and synonymous with "europaeus." As a result, many later taxonomists and geneticists believed that Negroes and other races should be classified as different species. In fact, Darwin declared in The Descent of Man that the varieties of mankind are so distinct that similar differences found in any other animal would warrant their classification in different species, if not different genera." This so-called fact has shortcut potential. Since the source misspells "sapien" from the present participle "sapiens, sapientis," we might reject it as ignorant. But then, I'm not sure that our students would offer instant agreement on the basis of some Latin criticism. No, I'm afraid that a little insight into the nature of scientific reasoning, paradigm shfts, and European colonialism will be necessary for an intellectual digestion. We can show that the observation is logically flawed since we are little likely to seek evidence for, say, current atomic theory in Democritus. Times change and with them, scientific theories. To gain insights into this process, students might want to engage in a study of the history of science in a variety of fields. The early European explorers, I believe, also tried to make contact with gorillas, believing them to be members of the human race. However, we are little likely to use that antiquated thinking as basis for seeking union with our primate cousins. Even the research of DNA-similarities across all human divisions and the likelihood of a common origin from Eve in Kenya might be relevant for student discussion and student research. To do this justice, I should include an entire lesson plan to deal with the topic. Perhaps we need to pay much closer attention to discovery learning, where the student's interest drives the lesson plan, not some a priori assumption about students' maturation patterns. When a child can ask questions about a matter, a child is ready to receive information about that matter; it is fundamentally wrong to attempt to cushion a peson from reality as it is.

What I have demonstrated with information from the Ku Klux Klan, I am willing to assert also about pornographic sites. Even there, students can learn about the demeaning of human beings by way of frank and open discussion. Given the general fear of criticism and out-of-context condemnation, I choose not to offer examples; but I would hope the method to be clear in itself. It is perfectly proper to have students explore--without barriers--any area of human activity and thought, the only other alternative being their becoming victims of their own naiveté later on. Research and discussion and logical analysis may take more time than the ad hominem attack; but, in the long run, students will function as a better educated and more strongly aware citizenry. I can perceive schools of the future, where all research will be web-based, where questions arise from research, and where teachers will help students find ways to satisfy their desire to know and to evaluate. Correspondence to the real world and contiguity with what we know about the world already are the elements of such a building of knowledge within the framework of student-centered curricula.