Monday, January 4, 2010

Take Another Step

Information can be misleading.

This is why it's a good practice, once you've found potentially useful information, to take at least one more step to verify what you've found.

Consider the following example:

This is a snippet (or abstract, if you prefer) from Google for the query Isaac Newton fallacy.

January 4 is Newton's Birthday, and in commemoration, Google featured a pretty cool search box graphic. Looking to see if I could unearth some misinformation about Sir Isaac, on the tenth page of returns for the query, I came across the snippet above.

That reference to leprechauns is pretty interesting. If I were to stop here, I might think I just discovered a chink in the knight's armor. But it's never a good idea to form a conclusion on the basis of a snippet. It's hard to assess the big picture from bits and phrases of a larger work.

If you go an extra step by clicking on the page from which this snippet is extracted, you'll discover the author made up the part about leprechauns. First, you have to find the text (I used ctrl+F and looked for leprec) and see what else you can learn. This is the critical phrase:
"Remember, Isaac Newton believed in leprechauns! Well, not really, but you get my point."
Your students are likely to come to conclusions based on information in snippets. Impress on them the need to take an extra step and look at the actual material to which the snippet points.

If you want to make an activity out of this, challenge your students to answer the question: Did Sir Isaac Newton believe in leprechauns?

By the way, another really good snippet challenge is this: When is Isaac Newton's Birthday?  Query: sir isaac newton birthday -- it's hard to tell, just from reading snippets.

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