Monday, October 26, 2009

Urban Legends: A Case Study in Critical Thinking

Halloween is this Saturday, and it seems that this time of year is especially rife with urban legends - stories that most people have heard and many people "know" are true, but aren't. Here are some Halloween urban legends (and one or two that are actually true.)

Urban legends are passed as anecdotes among friends and e-mail chain letters. Sometimes they show up on websites and TV. Once they're widely accepted, they can appear in reputable books, the evening news, and classrooms (like the "we only use 10% of our brains" myth.)

We believe them for 3 main reasons:
1. we read/hear them so often
2. they're passed on by people we trust - a cousin, an author, a TV anchor, somebody who says they work for Microsoft
3. they fit in with our pre-existing hopes and insecurities about the world

Snopes (http://www.snopes.com) is a fantastic site to check out any sensational "news" you read or hear of a computer virus, get rich quick scheme, conspiracy theory, or "scare." Here's what they say about themselves:
We don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we've used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.
You can trust them - provisionally - because they show the sources of their information so you can go back and decide for yourself.

The TV show MythBusters has a fan site full of articles and interactive features here: http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/mythbusters/mythbusters.html.
MythBusters is entertaining but it's also educational - it demonstrates how to apply basic scientific method to determine whether or not to believe something that's commonly "known." In other words, form a hypothesis and design an experiment to prove or disprove it. In real life, this is often as easy as looking it up in a reliable reference book to see what others have already discovered.


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Monday, October 19, 2009

Chaining: A research technique

When you're searching in a Library database, whether it's JSTOR, Academic Search Complete, or Science Direct, sometimes you'll find only one or two articles that are exactly what you're looking for. But you need more than that. Chaining is a technique that helps you find "more of the same."

Chaining means you go into the footnotes and bibliography of the article that's right on topic, and note down what sources the author cited. The idea is that the author is only going to cite sources that provided information relevant to their article topic, so those sources are probably relevant to your topic too.

Then go back to the database and search for those articles. Remember to search for the article title (not the journal title) and to enclose the whole title in quotation marks.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sign up for an @Home Library Workshop

The next @Home Library Workshop, Introduction to Searching, will take place next Tuesday, October 20, from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. Please go here to sign up.

Participate in an @Home Library Workshop from your own computer. You don't have to install any software but you do need a highspeed Internet connection, speakers, and a microphone hooked up to your computer.

@Home Library Workshops are 90 minute live, interactive sessions with a librarian and your fellow students. Introduction to Searching covers how to:
  • Create a search strategy from a research topic
  • Use the Resources by Subject guide
  • Search Journal & Newspaper Articles
  • Use powerful search results page options
  • Search E-Books
If you are new to library research, or would like a refresher, please sign up to join us this coming Tuesday!
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Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day

"In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." It was a significant accomplishment. With the technology available to Renaissance Europeans, crossing any wide stretch of water was incredibly risky.

It's funny though, that we say Columbus "discovered" the Americas when there were already tens of millions of people living there. That's not to diminish the accomplishment. We should acknowledge and even celebrate the flourishing of discovery and innovation that took place in Europe at that time, and the immense courage and talent it took to explore the unknown.

But while we commemorate the achievement of a great European explorer and his crew, we have to break our silence about the achievements of the civilizations and cultures that had already existed on the American continents for thousands of years. Not to mention the history of war, exploitation, resettlement, disenfranchisement, forced assimilation, and discrimination.

Sometimes people get angry if they hear anything good about the bad guy, or anything bad about the good guy. But if history is motivated by a contemporary agenda, whether a conservative or a radical one, it's compromised. History is simply about learning from the past. It's up to us to apply the lessons in the light of reason and human decency.
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Monday, October 5, 2009

Finding GOOD information on the web

You may do most of your research on websites, or you may have the opinion that the Internet can't be trusted as a source of information. The truth is between the two extremes. There is a lot of valuable information on the Web, some of which can't be found anywhere else. But that valuable information is the proverbial needle in a haystack. What you need is a magnet!

There are a number of sites that can be considered powerful magnets for finding that needle. They have people who find the best resources in every topic and then list, categorize, and describe them for you.
  • Open Directory Project - the largest human-reviewed directory on the web. Its human reviewers are volunteers, so not all of them are information professionals or subject experts.
  • Librarians' Internet Index - the human reviewers are information professionals but not subject experts. Selection criteria are stricter, and the site is smaller.
  • Internet Scout Project - information professionals and content specialists work together to select sites that are included here. This site is the smallest and has the strictest selection criteria.
The next time you need web resources on your topic, don't just dig through the whole mess with a search engine. First look in these places, to see if someone else has already done all the digging!

Bear in mind that the people who selected the resources on these sites may have standards for reliability and usefulness that differ from your own. Always use critical thinking to evaluate resources and the information they contain. More on that can be found here: Evaluating Websites
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