How Good is the Original Source?

April 3, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Information Reliability. This is a pet peeve of mine. Stephen Jay Gould was a stickler for finding out where ideas “that everybody knows” came from, and often finding the original source to be dubious.

I am writing today because of a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon proclaiming that “new reports give strong evidence for global warming being caused by warmer sun temperatures, not humans”. I regularly read this strip to see what the other side might be thinking. Wherever I read outlandish claims (in any publication), I like to check the source. To this author’s credit, he usually publishes his source for any counter-intuitive claims right on the panel!

The source for this one was, an unabashedly far-right-leaning, tabloid-like publication.

“Discover forbidden attraction secrets that the Liberal Media don’t want you to know about!” cries one front-page ad.

The article about global warming mentioned (without citation or link) studies comparing 3 years average surface temperature readings from Earth and Mars, and showing that Mars has also warmed up slightly during the study period. This seems reasonable; likely to be correct. But it doesn’t contradict any of the hundreds of studies covering dozens of different types of measurements over thousands of years of climatological data that they are trying to debunk. But Mallard said it, and cited a source. I know I’ll see it propagated from there. Just like the following.

A year or two ago Mallard proclaimed that scientists have proven that there are more trees in America now than there were in pilgrim times, and his source was listed. That source linked to another, to another. So far, so good. The original, dry study showed that the count of trees in the Boston Bay area in 2004 was greater than that calculated for the same region after the pilgrims finished clear cutting for construction, cropland, and fuel. Duh. As it migrated down the literary intestinal tract, the area grew and the time period of comparison became more vague. For a month or so after that, conservatives were repeating that there are more trees in America now than there were in colonial times!

Always look to see where surprising claims come from, and track it back to the source. You’ll usually find that several layers of spin sit on top of a simple misinterpretation. On the other rare occasions, someone ends up with a Nobel prize. It’s worth checking if you want to hold onto your claim of being informed.


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Category: Communication, Education, Media, Science

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Now what was that source for that often-repeated claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Talk about layers of spin . . .

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    Bishop Ussher.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Fillmore presents more proof: He refers to the much more reputable National Geographic as another source for the same story about solar warming cycles. Here, however, it points out that the data for this "new" conclusion involves one (1) observation from 2005 compared to one (1) from 2007 showing the shrinkage of the Mars polar ice cap.

    Most astronomers attribute the Mars change to slight (but measurable) changes in its orbit and orientation, and not to the sun getting warmer.

    No climatologist doubts that there are solar cycles. But confusing the order of 10,000 year solar cycles with the sudden (century) rise in carbon dioxide and recent anomalous temperature rise on Earth is misleading. Not science.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    And since when have the great unwashed masses of far right wing neocon Brown Shirt weblog echochambering yobbo yappers ever cared about "facts"?

    "Facts' says W, are for when you want to get your message out to many people faster by machine!

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Failure to refer back to original sources is like the old game of Telephone that many of us played in grade school: line the kids up, whisper a paragraph of text to the kid at the head of the line, have each kid whisper (from memory) the text to the next kid in line until it reaches the kid at the end of the line, have that kid say the text out loud, then read the original text out loud, so everyone can see how much the original content has been distorted by the process. Though it is a lesson taught to many grade school children, it is a lesson that is forgotten or ignored by many adults.

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