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This is the first IAE Newsletter
in a new series devoted to the educational issue of credibility and
validity of information.
Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 1: Introduction
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The concepts of credibility and validity will play central roles in the
following series of articles. Credibility
focuses on a belief that the person who made an allegation about a
phenomenon is believable and can indeed be trusted. It is common to
talk about a person and what the person writes/says as being credible
Validity is an important
component of educational research. The word tends to be used in two
somewhat different ways:
Validity is the quality of being logically or factually sound.
Validity is the extent to which a concept, conclusion, or measurement
A research instrument or test is valid if it measures what it is
purported to measure.
In brief summary, one can think of credibility having a subjective base
and validity having an objective base.
Anyone can post anything on the Internet today at practically no cost,
and self-publishing is relatively simple and inexpensive. Editorial
oversight for accuracy and truth that was historically so important in
print media becomes less important when the biases of those who
read/view the increasing number of websites coincide with the biases of
those who write for the site. A similar situation now exists in television
and radio broadcasting. In TV, for example, many
channels (such as FOX and MSNBC) focus on very specific biased
demographics. Viewer Beware is the new watchword.
This series will explore the credibility and validity challenges that
21st century students and adults confront as they cope with this flood
of information coming from the global reach of the Internet and the
rapidly increasing number of television channels and radio stations.
They must learn to recognize the bias that individuals or advocacy
groups reflect in their materials.
Students also must realize that, no matter how much they
admire/revere/adore their favorite athletes or musicians, being a
celebrity or pundit does not make one an instant expert whose
pronouncements should be treated as valid or credible.
Assessing credibility and validity is now much more complex than it was
formerly. This article will explain how objective and subjective
determinations of credibility and validity add to the complexity of the
A Generation Ago
Imagine late 20th century high school students confronting their first
research paper. Their teacher had explained the principal sources,
cultural biases, and APA or MLA guidelines. Teachers knew and students
learned that the school and public library books and periodicals, a
major research base for student papers, would have been vetted for
credibility before the librarians would purchase them.
Published material was printed on paper, and distributed books and
journals can't easily be changed. Editors generally required authors to
provide suitable support to insure that their information and
allegations were factually acceptable prior to
publication. Teachers tended to know the principal sources and
cultural biases in the field they taught and so could guide students to
a clear understanding of charts, graphs, statistics, and logic. This
allowed otherwise naive students to assume that most published material
available for them was credible and valid from the perspective of
Parental and religious beliefs tended to be reasonably similar in
homogeneous communities, and this was reflected in school curricula.
Pre-adolescent children tended to accept their parents' beliefs because
their parents supposedly had a superior understanding of such things as
true/false, right/wrong, and fair/unfair.
Analogy, Caricature, and Credibility/Validity
We have long been a society in which analogy plays a central
explanatory role. Children learn about Santa Claus, Aesop's fables, and
religious parables. We tend to prefer fiction over non-fiction, and
narrative films over documentaries. Songs and much visual art are
narrative-driven. We want fact but prefer analogy.
Analogy and caricature identify common elements between an understood
concept and one that's not yet understood, and so they can play key
roles in helping people understand (or alas misunderstand) issues
involved in assessing credibility and validity. Analogy and caricature
might lead to (but they aren't the same thing as) factual
understanding, but they seem to dominate the much broader current
cultural discourse (Sylwester & Moursund, 2014).
Our ability to understand and make such analogical comparisons may be
what cognitively separates humans from other primates and social
mammals (Sylwester & Moursund, 2014). Analogies can thus move us
away from mysteries towards scientific/technological discoveries,
cultural/artistic explorations, and governmental variability. An
analogy isn't true at the valid and credible levels. At best, it's just
a representation of truth, but that representation can move us closer
to credible and/or valid truth.
The World Confronts Credibility/Validity in the Olympics
The Olympic Games seek to identify the best athletes in the world.
Judges use two different techniques to determine winning athletes: They
use objective (or valid) measurements
in some events and subjective (or
credible) measurements in others.
The determination is straightforward with runners, jumpers, throwers,
speed skaters, etc. They go through multiple meets before arriving at
the finals. Very precise timing instruments are used to get very valid objective measurements of
performance data. Speed or distance determines the winner—provided the
athlete passes drug testing and doesn’t violate such rules as
obstructing a competitor.
The second approach to Olympics credibility is the use of subjective measurements to
determine how well the athlete performed. Events such as gymnastics,
figure skating, and diving come to mind. A panel of judges observes
each athlete's performance and a scaled response form is used to score
Each judge assigns a score based on requirements in the event, the
difficulty of various components, the quality of performance of
individual components, and the overall performance. The judges
eliminate the highest and lowest of the scores, and the remaining
scores are averaged. The elimination process is used to reduce the
effects of judges being strongly biased in favor of or against a
particular athlete. The final result is a score that can be compared
with the scores of other competitors.
Thus, either objective measurements
or subjective measurements
are used as appropriate for each event. The results are considered
appropriate to determine gold, silver, and bronze medalists. The
first-place winner gets the gold medal and bragging rights until
someone else wins in a future Olympic event.
This kind of determination is somewhat similar to the search for objective scientific credibility in
some areas of discovery. For example, the scientific winner is whoever
first made an important discovery, but again no claim is made that the
current discovery will be forever valid or credible. The Nobel Prize is
the scientific equivalent of an Olympic gold medal. It suggests that
the discovery is exceptionally good, but it may be superseded by
subsequent scientific discoveries.
Perhaps what the Olympics provide is an analogy for life itself–the
yin/yang of subjective/objective decision-making about what is actually
Credibility/Validity in Science and the Humanities
Science may appear to be based on solid objective validity. The
belief that scientific discoveries are true, however, misses the point
of what science is. Scientific discovery involves a search for truth,
not truth itself. The world's mysteries encompass both unknown and
known elements. Thus, a newly discovered element is unknown, but it
seems to be analogously like a known element.
Science thus begins with the analogical germ of an explanation to an
unknown element. This can lead to a hypothesis, which can lead to a
theory, which can eventually lead to the overwhelming scientific
support that a valid law might have (such as in the Law of Gravity).
But even that upper level of validity is always open to further
discoveries that might modify or even replace the original discovery.
This determination of acceptance is similar to the system found in the
humanities (social sciences, literature, the arts, philosophy). The
highest level of credibility in a field seems to go to allegations that
have a high subjective average level of collegial support.
That doesn't mean that imaginative outliers don't exist. The humanities
have a long history of new ideas that arrived with initial rejection by
the majority in the field, only to be later adopted as credible.
Credibility in Governance
Pre-human governance in human societies began with Alpha males (and
sometimes females). It evolved as human tribes, communities, and
nations increased the complexity of assessing ownership and ensuring
appropriate behavior. Oligarchies gradually emerged as a dominant
political force (with theocracies, royal families, and wealth
Medieval Europe provided an example of what can happen when oligarchies
over-reach and lose political credibility. Over several centuries,
uprisings and revolts accompanied the gradual emergence of a middle
class. Many dissatisfied families decided to sail west to America and
begin life anew in a country far away from the power that the ruling
royal family or the established church had to make decisions about
their present and potential life.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the United States had become
sufficiently independent of England and folks had to decide how to
proceed politically. The basic secular pattern that emerged was that
periodic elections would occur and the winners could legislate until
the next election. The general assembly (from Congress to city council)
would argue an issue before they voted on it. The majority would win,
but it would rarely be unanimous. Each vote was acceptable, and
credibility in argument rather than wealth or inheritance would thus
remain important. A majority vote would determine the credibility of
The court system would provide Constitutional redress for those who
lost a legislative argument. If those charged with criminal or civil
offenses believed they were wrongfully charged, a series of court
decisions would determine whether the charge was credible. Again, it's
important to be able to rationally argue in a credible manner.
This first genuine global democracy had a rocky beginning, but by the
end of the 19th century a dozen more countries had moved towards a
representative democracy. The 20th century saw the number increase
dramatically to about 200 and the 21st century is adding even more, a
rocky beginning defining almost all nations.
Democratic societies believe that the votes of all registered voters
are credibly acceptable, regardless of how individual voters arrived at
The emergence of new forms of independence in adolescents, and of mass
media innovations in society have profoundly changed the locus of
responsibility for determining credibility and validity.
It's a good thing that adolescence has long been the period during
which we humans tend to question the credibility and validity of adult
discoveries and beliefs. If we didn't have such a volatile rejection of
adult beliefs just prior to adulthood, our society probably wouldn't
have moved forward in culture, science, and technology. For example,
each generation redefines popular music. It's thus been important that
the current shift in responsibility for determining credibility began
in such communication areas as music that especially intrigue
adolescents before it moved into such more complex areas as science.
Each of us gets a brain, and all brains come to think differently.
Scientific and technological advances as well as our cultural and
artistic diversity have provided human life with the incredible
diversity it now has.
We each must constantly convince others to hire us, marry us, vote for
us, buy our merchandise, and attend to our teaching. To become
cognitively credible is thus essential in a democratic society, and
even more so since young people are now going to have to develop a
stronger ability to assess the credibility of others.
The subsequent articles in this series will continue the discussion of the complex nature of credibility and validity
issues, and how schools might develop a 21st century curriculum that is
both credible and valid. The next article will examine subjective
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit four books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: email@example.com.
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