F is for Facts

Welcome to this week’s Pagan Blog Project post.

First, a quick practical note: I’m at Paganicon this weekend. If you’re reading, and I don’t already know you’ll be there, I’d love to say hi! You can find me running madly around being useful in various ways (despite living in Maine these days, I’m still the hotel chair for the convention), but you can also find me presenting at 1pm on Saturday on “Seeking Knowledge, Finding Wisdom” – specifically about how to use a variety of research tools for Pagan goals. There’s lots of other awesome stuff on the schedule, too.

This week, inspired by a question online about how to evaluate things, I want to talk about facts. This started with a question on an online forum, from someone who was curious about learning more about the equinoxes, and then about how they might be celebrated. And it makes such a great example for talking about fact versus interpretation that I asked if I could use it as my example this week.

So, let’s look at this question. There’s some fact questions in here (“What’s an equinox?” “How do we know when they are?”) and then there’s some interpretation questions (“How does that fit into religious paths? What do people do about celebrating it?”) and then some experiential questions (“What does all that mean for me?”)

So, facts are those things that we can document or demonstrate in some way: things that other people can confirm for themselves without relying on individual experience, reporting, or anything like that.

How the earth moves around the sun – which makes the equinoxes – is a fact thing. It took people a while to figure out all the details, but these days, we can prove it by various observations, but also by things like computer modeling.

So, how do we learn more about that? My usual starting place is Wikipedia (with a couple of caveats…) I use Wikipedia to give me a general overview of the subject, and to give me terms and concepts that I can use for other searches.  I also take a close look at their references to see what other places I might want to go look.

It’s here that I feel the need to give my usual speech about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an enyclopedia: a tertiary source that collects information from other sources and organises it, exactly like the Encyclopedia Britannica or WorldBook Encyclopedia. Yes, anyone can edit it, but over the years, Wikipedia has developed a bunch of methods to ensure that inappropriate information (either stuff put in that isn’t sufficiently sourced or stuff that should be there removed) mostly doesn’t linger long.

Wikipedia is imperfect, but honestly, anything put together by humans is imperfect. Britannica and other print encyclopedias had imperfections too – sometimes really vast ones – and on the whole, I find Wikipedia’s imperfections more useful.

Let me give you one small example: back in 2008, I spent a month filling in for a librarian on leave at the school where I had gotten my MLIS the previous summer. One of the things my boss had me work on (I was basically working evening and weekend reference shifts) was to do a comparison of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica and give some examples about which worked better on a variety of topics.

One of the ones I picked was Anne Boleyn, partly because she’s long been a favourite historical figure of mine, and partly because The Other Boleyn Girl was coming out as a movie right around then, so it was a topic with some current popular interest.

Britannica had 600 words about her, that had not been updated as far as I could tell since sometime in the early 90s. It mentioned none of the larger political maneuvering of her family, none of the specific accusations laid against her when she was convicted and executed, none of the larger political and religious ramifications of her marriage to Henry. You had to know those things were an issue, if you wanted to find them. It had only one item in the bibliography, written in the mid-80s.

Wikipedia, in contrast, had something like 3000 words, laying out her family connections and the implications, making it easy to find information on the larger political, religious, and cultural issues. It had brief summaries of some of the recent significant academic research on the Boleyns, and I could quickly find a list of about a dozen major works from historians to explore specific topics. And it gave me links to historical fiction about the Boleyns, including extensive summaries of what Phillippa Gregory had made choices about, and how this fit into what various historians thought.

One of these makes a much better jumping-off-point for further research than the other. And one of these was both far more current and far more *useful* – in terms of giving me further names, dates, terms, topics, and directions.

Now, Wikipedia does have flaws, but if you know a bit about the site, most of them are easy to mitigate. Each page has the content itself (the ‘article’ tab). But it also lets me see the editing history (the ‘view history’ tab), and a place where I can see collected conversations about editing the article (the ‘talk’ tab). While these can be complex to dig through (especially on articles that have become controversial for some reason), they give you a good way to see what you need to be aware of.

And frankly, while there certainly are plenty of pages with substantive (and not substantive but fierce) disagreements on Wikipedia, the vast number of pages on there go along providing solid useful information most of the time.

In other words, don’t take it as the final word – but you shouldn’t do that with any encyclopedia anyway. Go back and look at the original sources, and at their sources.

Back to our topic: 

Anyway, if I search for equinox, it gives me a bunch of information, beginning with the definition which is that equinox is when the axis of the earth is pointed neither into nor away from the sun. There are some diagrams, and a lot of scientific explanation. There’s some calendar information (for a long time, the equinox was more or less the beginning of the new year under the Roman calendar). And it gives me a bunch of different names.

Now, I have some facts to sort through. I can take a look at all of those different kinds of information and see where they come from, and whether they seem to be commonly agreed upon. How do I do that?

Can I prove it myself? This one is a little slippery, because there’s a lot of things that are true in some cases (that I could prove) but may not in all cases. On the other hand, sometimes you can test things yourself and see if they work.

Did a reputable source prove it or demonstrate it? No source is perfect, but there are plenty of reputable ones out there. Look for sources that explain how they proved something, that provide references to other materials or people doing similar things, and that encourage you to look at other information in general.

For example, for medical information, the Mayo Clinic is considered a widely reputable source of consumer health information. For information about astronomy, I’d tend to trust NASA over many other sites. I can see that this equinox article references the United States Naval Observatory, which I’d consider a reputable source.

A word about verification: 

However, a blog post from some random person – not necessarily so much, unless they’re very clear about their experience. Let me use myself as an example here: I can tell you that I’m a librarian, and that I hold an MLIS (and I am, I promise.) But because I blog under a name that isn’t my legal name, there isn’t a lot you can do to verify that.

So, a lot of the time, in more casual conversations online, you have to rely on other things. Some I use include:

  • Is this person reasonably consistent over time? (this one takes time to prove.) 
  • Are they consistent in ways that someone claiming particular credentials probably ought to be?  (If I started saying stuff that did not sound like a librarian, you should ask questions, at the very least. If I showed up and couldn’t construct a basic search string, you should doubt my competence.)
  • Are they aware of the limits (and common ethics) of their field? (For example, you often see people who claim to be lawyers online writing about things that are clearly out of their speciality. This is problematic.)
  • Does what they say match up (reasonably) with sources I can verify? (You can’t determine if I’m a librarian, but I often link to librarians blogging under their professional identities who say very similar things, for example.)

Anyway. There’s so much more I could say about this topic, but I need to stop typing and go help run a convention. Feel free to ask more questions in the comments, or wherever else you may find me online, and we can go on from here next week.

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