Graziano and Raulin (8th ed)Graziano & Raulin
Research Methods (8th edition)

Skepticism: A Required Navigational
Aid for Using the Web

A great deal of information can be obtained easily and conveniently from the web. A few key strokes on your home computer and information on almost any topic comes tumbling out at you. But as discussed in Chapter 1, we need to be selective about what information we will accept with confidence. It is important to emphasize that on the web, as Kelley (1999a) argues, "…skepticism is a required navigational aid."

When we arrive at a website that appears to be exactly what we want, we must be cautious. Is the information valid? Is it unbiased? Are there hidden sales pitches? We must be wary and skeptical of website information. Computers cannot be treated as if they are some sort of authority figures!

When we read an article in a main line scientific journal, we have reason to be confident in the information that is presented, although we must still be good skeptics and use our skills to evaluate what each article says. These journals have demanding peer-review procedures; each manuscript is read by two or three reviewers and the editor, who frequently demands revisions before accepting the paper. The acceptance rate is often less than 10% of all submissions. Thus, the reader knows there is at least the structure for quality control. Of course, authors who publish in professional journals are concerned with establishing and maintaining good professional reputations, so most will tend to be cautious about what they write and submit.

With websites, however, there is no peer-review requirement, and much of the information may be anonymous. Anyone, for whatever reasons, including personal gain, can create web pages and put in any information they please. For example, advertisements on the web are not as clearly marked as they are in good quality newspapers and magazines. A web site article on a medical topic, for example, might appear to be scientific and unbiased, but actually turn out to be an advertising pitch for some commercial product that might not even be monitored by the Food and Drug Administration.

How can we evaluate the information on a web site? Kelley (1999b) makes several suggestions, a few of which are noted below.

  1. Be Skeptical . Do not simply accept whatever is printed there.
  2. Know the Source. If you cannot recognize it as a legitimate source, be wary. You can go to rsinternic.net and use the whois search of the database of registered domains to find information on the source. Knowing who is behind a web site often gives you insights into potential motives that they might have to present information in a biased or one-sided manner.
  3. Look for the most recent update of the material. The Netscape Navigator browser, for example, provides a feature to do this. 
  4. Beware sites with many spelling and grammatical errors. These suggest a less-than-careful writer. Be wary. High quality sites usually get the details correct. They may not be flashy, but the writing will be precise and clear. Of course, a flashy, well written site does not guarantee that the information provided is accurate and unbiased.
  5. Look for hyperlinks. A good page will have links that point outward to other sources, as well as internal links. Beware the site that has only internal links that keep pointing to the same site.

Other ideas are found in Kelley (1999b), and the web sites listed below provide guides for reliable on-line information sources. If your computer is connected to the internet, just click on the site addresses to visit them.

Kelley, T. (1999a). Whales in the Minnesota river? The New York Times, Thursday, March 4, 1999, p. D-1.

Kelley, T. (1999b). How to separate good data from bad. The New York Times, Thursday, March 4, 1999, p. D-9.

In addition, most University Libraries will have guidelines and suggestions posted on their website or available as handouts in the library. Don't be afraid to ask a librarian if they have such tutorials.