Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cite Your Source

My kids learned at an early age that they couldn't convince me of anything just by saying it.

"Cite your source," I'd say.

One time, when Aidan was about ten or eleven, he told me I should stop buying gas at certain gas stations because the company owners hated America. At the time, he attended a tiny conservative Christian school where the popular consensus was that Obama was a socialist fascist dictator, born in Kenya and bent upon destroying the American Way of Life. Some folks were quick to jump on any McCarthy-esque rumor that popped up on the internet.

The inherent socio-political contradictions of that assertion aside, I wanted to teach my kids to respect other people's views, but also to think for themselves by looking at them with a critical eye. 

"Don't believe it just because someone says it's true," I would say.

So, when he told me about the gas station, I asked him to cite his source.

"Ringo's mom," he said confidently.

"She's a secondary source," I said, and then I explained to him the difference between primary and secondary sources. This explanation involved me defending myself against the charge that I thought Ringo's mom was a liar. 
Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in
Mad about You; photo from TV.msn.com

"What source was Ringo's mom citing?"

"She read an article," he said.

Ah-hah. The definitive, indestructible "she read an article" defense.

(Mr. Peevie and I watched a show in the 90s called Mad About You with Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. We still quote one of those episodes, in which Helen Hunt's character Jamie argues with her husband Paul, and he asks her how she knows what she's claiming. "I read an article!" she says--and it becomes a recurring theme. I squandered an hour watching Mad About You clips to try to find this scene, to no avail. This is how seriously I take my Green Room duty. You're welcome.)

As it turns out, the politics of gasoline are far more complicated than a simplistic anti-America rumor would have it. Snopes breaks it down. Notice the list of sources at the bottom of the article.

Sometimes, even sources that appear on the surface to be legitimate lack scientific rigor and should be source-checked.. See, for example, this article on the dangers of vaccinations from a secondary source called The Free Thinker (which looks like the Libertarian version of Huffington Post),written by a dude named Dave Mihalovic.

It all comes down to science and math: does the article cite (and more importantly, link to) legitimate scientific sources? The vaccine article referenced above makes many claims, none of which are sourced. The author cites "secret" CDC documents--but doesn't link to them or provide screen shots. There's no way for a thinking person to double check his claims--we're just supposed to believe him.

Um, no.

The first link in the article is to an article in another secondary source with equally shady credentials--not to an FDA document or a CDC memo or a news story, but to another article by the same guy. "Here," Dave Mihalovic is essentially saying, "you can trust me, because I said it again over here in this other article." Please.

In the third paragraph, the article quotes Brian Hooker, "a PhD scientist" about a CDC cover-up of the alleged risks of vaccinations. Who is Brian Hooker? What are his credentials in medicine, and medical research? What replicated studies has he conducted, and with what legitimate scientific controls?

The answers are, in order: He is a biochemical engineer who works as a consultant in the biotech industry.  He has no medical credentials, and has done no studies, that I can find. He's just a guy who is motivated, sadly, by the alleged vaccine-caused autism of his own child.

Regarding the claims in this article that the CDC has covered up data from their own Vaccine Safety Datalink database showing a "very high link between Thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism rates in children": Show me the proof, dude.

The article claims that there are "a number" of public records that back up this claim--but only links to a 20-page Congressional Record from ten years ago. This document actually contradicts the authors claims: "...exposure to less than the minimal risk level is believed to be safe" and "the minimal risk level would need to be multiplied by ten to reach a level at which harm would be expected through exposure." You can find this out for yourself by clicking the link, and then control-F searching for the word "risk" and looking at the 18th occurrence of the word. See? I have done all the work for you.

You're welcome.

Whatever. This is just one example of millions, and just one topic of dozens that we encounter every day in the news, on Facebook, or in casual conversation, which requests our uncritical acceptance of a questionable assertion. 

Don't do it. Be a critical, questioning listener--not just about gas stations and vaccinations, but about everything--things that cause cancer, things that prevent heart attacks, things that pastors say, things that politicians say--and not just the ones you disagree with. You get the picture.

Or, alternately, you could just trust the opinions here at The Green Room, and I promise, we will always provide primary sources.


Dave Haynes said...

I agree with you generally, but I find that when am discussing a subject (especially political) people tend to ask for the source of any fact they disagree with, and then dismiss the source as illegitimate.

Eve Bradshaw said...

This post is about asking for sources and checking sources for yourself, not about whether or not other people trust the sources YOU cite. That would be a whole other post.

You get to decided whether or not you find a source to be credible or not--and so do I. We (meaning people in general, not you and me in particular) will always disagree with the credibility of SOME sources. I guess the key is, if you are really trying to persuade someone, you have to use sources that they find credible.

In the examples I cited, none of the sources the articles cited were, IMHO, credible. That guy who wrote the anti-vax article was apparently preaching to the anti-vax choir, because he did not cite or link to any primary sources or documents that supported his case.