The Truth: How to Find it
Finding the truth in a world of deceptive media advertisements, axe grinding news channels, and miscellaneous bullshitting is no easy task. But it can be done. Here’s how.
All research begins with questions. Researching a topic means you need to know more about it, which means that there is something you don’t know about it. What you don’t know forms your questions. The goal of your research is to answer these questions.
For example, here are some classics: What happened before the Big Bang? What is the meaning of life? How widespread is the H1N1 flu virus? What are the implications of Einstein’s work?
Next research the topic. Once you understand the field of study, you can likely figure out what resources you need to answer the question. For example, if you want to understand how to write well, you will be better informed if you consult an English teacher or a style manual rather than digging through peer-reviewed journal articles. So, is your question of a medical, scientific, philosophical, historical nature? Can it be properly researched?
Another question to ask: what knowledge do you need in order to answer your question? Is your question the kind of thing that you probably learned in middle school but just can’t remember? Or is it something known only by an accomplished expert? A little common sense can usually help here, and of course the answers can determine what sort of resource you should use. For example, if you want to know something about Newton’s Laws, you could probably find a good and easy-to-understand book at your local library (perhaps even in the children’s section). But if you have a question about String Theory it would probably be best to go to the adult section and find a book about modern physics written by an expert physicist.
How to find quality resources
Once you’ve gotten past those common-sense questions, the next thing you need to do is to obtain resource material (stuff that might answer your research question) and to become aware of the methods you can use to obtain these resources. These include:
- Books: Available at the library (of course!), bookstores, and Google Books
- Peer-reviewed articles, available by:
- Finding physical copies of the journals (which will be available in many libraries, especially in universities).
- Through an electronic database (which universities and colleges usually have, but which are sometimes funded by the state and available for public use. My home state hosts a “virtual library” which all can access for free).
- Through Google Scholar and other websites that act as databases for a single subject. For example, PhilPapers has an extensive collection of papers on philosophy. PubMed has a vast collection of medical and scientific literature.
- The author(s) of the paper. Many times I have found that I cannot access the full version of a paper that I want to read online. So what do I do? I Google the author’s name. Sometimes I add the subject that the author studies (For example, if the author of the paper I need is named John Doe and he works as a Mathematician, I google “John Doe Mathematics”). That can help you to find the author’s webpage (if she has one) and possibly some contact information. You can then get in touch with the author and write to her requesting a copy of the material. More often than not, the person is happy for someone to be interested in their work, and will gladly send you a copy.
- Websites: These are very easily found through search engines like ask.com and google.com. If you cannot find what you are looking for in your first search, try phrasing it a bit differently.
- Magazines: These are found, of course, in bookstores and libraries, although you can sometimes obtain certain articles by visiting the website of the magazine.
- Encyclopedias: Primarily found in libraries.
- Personal correspondence: On a number of occasions, I have looked up contact information of an author or well-known professor and have been able to obtain answers simply by emailing and asking. You could also write these people letters, or talk to a professor at your local university.
- Wikipedia: Yes, folks, I’m serious! Wikipedia is a treasure trove of resources because most articles have very detailed citations with links to more reputable resources. I’m not telling you to trust Wikipedia’s word on the subject alone. Instead, also look at the references Wikipedia provides (this is what makes Wikipedia useful; it can point you in the right direction). Read the references for yourself, critically analyze them and use any relevant information.
How to identify quality resources
One question remains: how do you tell a good resource from a bad one? How do you know that the resources you are using are feeding you accurate information? After all, there are all kinds of cranks and quacks lurking around the Internet, and the standards of print publishers are rarely better. Google may offer some good tools for research, but good research doesn’t come from Google alone: it comes from a cautious user. I’ve devised a set of criteria to find out which sources are good and which are not:
- The author of your resource should be someone well-credentialed in the field about which they are writing (or should frequently cite those who are well-credentialed). Being able to think through the problems of a complex and vast subject like, for example, Ancient History requires years of training in an academic setting. Reading the writings of historians or scientists will help you to see this for yourself: there are often certain problems within a field which an amateur thinks he can easily answer, but in reality he cannot because he has not learned enough to be aware of all the information about this problem or all the complications that may arise within it. Occasionally someone with lesser credentials is able to write something that receives high acclaim from true experts. An example is Kris Komarnitsky, an airplane pilot who wrote a book called “Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection” which was highly acclaimed by several historians and New Testament scholars. Kris’ book is easily recognizable as an exception to the rule of using mainly expert writing as resources, since his book cites a vast amount of scholarly literature, and, moreover, has been approved by many who do have the proper credentials.
- How do the majority of scholars react to the author’s writings/opinion? This may sound like the old argument from authority, but it isn’t. Most people’s minds work reliably enough to be able to draw sound conclusions, especially concerning data they’ve worked with for decades. The majority of experts is right far more often than not, and those dissenting from the majority should not be believed by those outside the field unless the dissenter convinces the majority of his opinion, or at least proves beyond reasonable doubt that the position of the majority is hopelessly fallacious.
- Through what venue does the author publish? Is it a venue where truth matters and there is high standard for critical thinking? This is why peer-reviewed journal articles are considered of greater worth than almost anything else. Medical doctors have no other reason to create journals except to improve their practice – there is no ulterior motive. Likewise, a publication may be seen as more trustworthy if it’s from Oxford University Press, because such institutions have strong incentive to maintain high standards of evidence and critical thinking. If they did not, confidence placed in them by the academic community would wither into nothing. On the other hand, many non-academic publishers have a primary goal to sell what makes money, whether the topic is true or not. These publications must be regarded with a higher degree of skepticism.
- Do the author’s statements stand up to critical scrutiny? If you find a source which contradicts itself, engages in fallacious reasoning, cites poor or unreliable evidence, et cetera, you have a right to be extremely suspicious of everything this author writes. On the other hand, writers who show amazing consistency, sharp reasoning abilities, and only appeal to good evidence should be trusted quite a bit more. (A word of caution: if you ever believe you have found a contradiction in a peer-reviewed paper or book, it might be best to read the material a few times and consider alternative interpretations of the text before concluding that it is contradictory. If all else fails, contacting the author about the problem and asking for an explanation might help clear things up. Nevertheless, the point still stands that logical contradictions and obviously bad reasoning can never be accepted, no matter how esteemed the source.)