Evaluating Evidence Effectively

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This skill is designed to help you become confident and critically engaged in your use of primary and secondary sources – and in successfully planning your research and reading. It also takes a particular interest in the challenges of practicing critical engagement online, and of successfully navigating the potentially overwhelming realm of digital resources and options.

It begins by asking what it means to assess sources critically, and to map the landscape of evidence within a particular field. We’ll look at the importance both of engaging critically with different types of evidence, and of establishing successful strategies for reading and research in order to plan your engagement with this evidence.

After exploring what it might mean for you to find ways of working that work for you, we’ll consider the significance of factors including authenticity, representativeness, relevance, bias, authority, currency, and context – and what it means confidently to arrive at your own assessments of these.

In particular, this skill is intended to emphasise the close relationship between critically engaged reading and writing, and the ways in which becoming an active reader of different sources is essential to building understanding. This ‘reading’ of sources is meant in the broadest sense, and applies across visual and interactive media as well as to traditional texts. At its heart is the business of assessing a source’s usefulness, limitations, and context – and establishing understanding by interrogating it in parallel with other sources.

After focusing on the above aspects of critical engagement, we’ll finish by considering the online context in particular, starting with what it means to differentiate between data, information, and knowledge. Although definitions of all of these words vary, it’s useful to draw a distinction between the raw data that a particular claim is based upon; the ways in which a deliberate context or framing can turn data into an informational claim about the world; and the notion that knowledge is information we have good reasons to accept as true.

We’ll consider these distinctions in the light of misinformation (that is, any inaccurate information) and disinformation (inaccurate information that’s explicitly intended to deceive), and the wider challenges of verifying claims and sources online. Finally, we’ll explore some of the habits that might help you deal with challenges such as information overload and distraction – and help you make the most of the myriad resources at your fingertips.

Suggested Readings

  • Northeastern University has a handy, accessible page about primary and secondary resources – and the research process in general – on its library website.
  • For an in-depth guide to using sources well, and avoiding plagiarism, Robert A Harris’s Using Sources Effectively (Routledge, 2017) is a fine place to start
  • There are countless good guides to citing sources accurately and effectively online: a particularly useful, accessible example is this one from the MIT Libraries
  • What does it mean to be productive and find focus? David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done (Piatkus, 2015) remains one of the best things written about this.
  • Looking for a quick guide to bias and fake news? This article and video from NiemanLab offers some useful links, analyses, and suggestions.