The problem with sources

At some point in the last twenty four hours, one of my favorite liberal Christian bloggers made an update to a post he made about claims that the National Park Service staff were prohibited from giving an answer about the Grand Canyon’s age. This claim was made based on a statement issued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, aka PEER. Bob’s update was to let everyone know that these claims appear to be unfounded and to apologize for being duped. He also provided a link to a lengthy explanation and retraction posted by Skeptic Magazine, who had also been duped by the story.

This is a clear case where some relatively simple fact checking (namely calling the National Park Services and asking whoever answers the phone whether they could comment on the age of the grand canyon) could have saved both Bob and the folks at Skeptic Magazine the trouble of wiping a considerable amount of egg off their face. Both parties admit this. But I don’t wish to be critical of them, as I can completely empathize with their position. Truth be told, this could have happened to me as easily as it happened to them. I’ve been known to trust sources without much fact checking as well, and I certainly don’t want Bob or the folks at Skeptic Magazine pointing their fingers at me and laughing should our roles ever be reversed.

Instead, I want to focus on the frightening (to me, at least) reality that this could happen to anyone. It’s easy to spread information simply because a source we trusted had an off day or otherwise got their information wrong. Perhaps their source was incorrect. After all, misinformation can get spread even when there’s no deceitful intent on anyone’s part. I’m reminded of Bogaert’s statistical study that I blogged about back in August as a prime example of that. An aquaintance had blogged about an LA Times article on the topic. After searching for the original study and reading it, I concluded that the newspaper article was somewhat misleading about the conclusions of the study. Granted, that writer hadn’t gone as far as repeating blogus claims, but I feel it’s still an issue.

So I find myself wondering what level of responsibility I, both as a conscientious individual and a blogger, need to take on when it comes to verifying my sources? The ultimate solution would obviously involve me checking every fact for myself as directly as possible. Unfortunately, I’m not a paid journalist. I have another full time job. And even my free time is split between multiple projects. So while the ultimate solution is attractive, it’s simply not feasible. So what would be a more reasonable solution?

Another obvious albeit vague solution would be to only use reliable sources. But how does one determine what sources are reliable? And don’t even reliable sources make mistakes? (I suspect Skeptics Magazine and any other journalistic group whose had to publish a correction or retraction would answer that question with a resounding “yes.”)

I don’t think I have an answer to my questions. I’m not sure anyone does. (Though I’m more than willing to listen to them if they do). But I suspect I will struggle with those questions for some time now.

Leave a Reply