Using Computers as an Aid to Retrieving and Processing Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Information
Garbage In, Garbage Out
time permits in problem-solving situations, people often make use of
information drawn from resources outside of their own brains. Advances
in technology have certainly aided this process. Here are a variety of
types of examples. As you read these examples, think about the possible
reliability of the information being retrieved and processed.
Using Information That is Not in Your Brain
Triangulation in Research and Information Retrieval
Triangulation is a term referring to the process of obtaining several different sources of information and cross checking the information. The term is used to describe a research methodology, especially in the social sciences. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulation_(social_science).
In the previous issue of this newsletter, we described a variety of ways you can consciously use your brain to check on your mental information processing and retrieval tasks. In essence, we described a type of mental triangulation. A similar approach can be used in an attempt to detect errors in information processing and retrieval tasks such as described in 1-6 of the previous section.
For example, consider doing a Web search using a search engine such as Google, and receiving a large number of hits. These hits are arranged in an order that is determined by the search engine in a manner that it “thinks” will meet your needs. Different search engines will produce different lists of hits and will arrange the hits in different orders.
A well educated adult (such as readers of this newsletter) will browse the brief descriptions of the hits, and then visit several of the sites that seem likely to be useful. Such a Web user will compare and contrast the various information sources and content, and will also check for sense making against information stored in his or her brain. One way to think about this is that the Web is an auxiliary brain. Retrieving information from the Web is somewhat like retrieving information from one’s brain or from the brains of other people.
Effective information retrieval in a face-to-face conversation with another person can often be a challenge. However, extensive interaction, and both of you working together to clarify the communication, is very helpful. In a somewhat similar situation of “conversing” with a computer, the computer lacks the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a human being. While a computer can seem to be carrying on a conversation with you, it is a very limited type of communication. This places a considerable burden on the human who has specific information retrieval interests in mind. It suggests that part of the school curriculum in each discipline should include a focus on effective information retrieval from computers.
If you use the Web a lot, the chances are that you have identified a number of information sources that you consider to be trustworthy. In addition, you have probably developed techniques for making a rapid judgment as to whether a Web site is apt to be trustworthy. See, for example, http://www.virtualchase.com/quality/ for some ideas on how to check the quality of a Web site. See http://ergo.asu.edu/ejdirectory.html and http://www.doaj.org/ for free access to thousands of high quality research journals.
You may also have identified and make use of some of the Web sites that are designed to identify and debunk incorrect information that has been posed to the Web, is receiving wide circulation through other media. See, for example, http://www.snopes.com/, http://www.factcheck.org/, and http://www.truthorfiction.com/.
Finally, consider high quality problem-solving computer software sold or made available free by trustworthy companies. For an example, see the various free computer algebra systems and the statistical software listed at http://iae-pedia.org/Free_Math_Software. Generally speaking, you can think of such software as a reliable source of information processing. However, that still leaves you with the task of selecting software designed to solve the problem or accomplish the task that you are facing, and providing the machine with accurate input.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE
is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology
museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki
with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the
you are now reading.
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