Part I: Consider the Source!
BS and MUS (made-up-shit)* have been longtime problems plaguing the internet, Paganism, and (where these forces combine) Paganism on the internet. I can’t even begin to lament the number of times I’ve shaken my head in sad resignation over comments made by well-respected authors that I like in a (hopefully edited) book, much less less regarded authors (especially online). This is why, I believed that the most useful skill for Pagans to acquire is not meditation or holding effective rituals, but information discernment.
Information discernment, most simply described, is the ability to detect what is (or is not) accurate, valid, and factual about a given set of information and to judge its usefulness. When it comes to information discernment, everything comes down to one general rule–Always consider the source! (there’s a second general rule, but we’ll cover that another day) But when it comes to following that rule, there’s a lot of considerations to be considering…
Who said it?
Origin is important. How we get information and who we get it from often matters when it comes to the accuracy of the information itself.
- I hate to be snobby…but what are their credentials? What claim to authority or experience do they have in this topic? Where did they get their experience? Don’t get me wrong, experience, authority, certification, etc, is no guarantee for competence, much less excellence…but it is often a buffer from incompetence. Credentials don’t have to be some official certification or degree, they can come from life experience or from an area of interest, research, work, etc. But, the person should have something to back up the idea that they have experience in the area they are discussing—do you know what it is? If not, do they have information about themselves (or some other body of work) that you can evaluate to determine whether or not they can be generally trusted to give a fair assessment?
- What is their source? Hey, where did they get their information from? Is it from personal experiences or insight? From their bartender or their sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s hairdresser? From a peer reviewed journal? Do they document this source? Have they given you references for the information being passed on? Do they explain how they have come to their conclusions? Do they show discernment in their evaluation of the information? If its UPG or SPG, is it labeled as such (or at least not presented as fact)? Do they site their sources, link to them, etc? Do they
- What is their bias? Do they admit it? Does it interfere with their conclusions or its presentation? Look, everyone has bias. The problem isn’t having bias, its being upfront and honest about it. How well do they identify and mitigate the influence their bias has on their ideas? Do they present or acknowledge differing interpretations? Do they defend their position, particularly if it is novel or not supported by evidence (more on this in a bit)?
Facts is facts:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. While even a stopped clock is still right twice a day, its rather unhelpful the other 99.8611% of the time…
- Is this common knowledge? If its “common knowledge” –George Washington was the 1st President of the United States of America, the sky is blue, water is wet, etc, then it doesn’t need a source and we can take the information for granted. The trick of course, is determining what “common knowledge” consists of–not every one has the same level of education. Also, some “common knowledge” is wrong–bumblebees, for example, do not “break the laws of physics” when they fly. My rule of thumb for disseminating “common knowledge” is that 1) I can find it in a dictionary, encyclopedia entry, etc and 2) I learned it before 12th grade…the problem there is that I had parents that thought that readingness**was next to godliness.
- Is this uncommon knowledge? My IRL degree is in biology and my IRL career is as a scientist (though not in the field of biology). My husband is a Civil War reenactor. My mom is a nurse with over 30 years experience and a master’s degree. My best friend has a degree in outdoor education and has guided and taught wilderness classes. My neighbor is obsessed with fossils. All of us have highly specialized and compartmentalized areas of interest where we have likely done lots of reading and research, whether its a hobby or for work or because we just like it. Because of this, our knowledge in certain areas goes beyond what is common knowledge for the average person. If you know that the person has an area of personal expertise (this goes back to the idea of credentials), what seems uncommon knowledge*** to you might be something you can consider as common knowledge to them. When it comes to uncommon knowledge, my rule of thumb is “Can I find a good reference that supports this claim in under 5 minutes on Google?”–personally, I then try to link that information, but sometimes things slip by.
- Is this a personal interpretation on common/uncommon knowledge? There is a tendency to assimilate information into our world view, either to reinforce it or to redirect it (both of which depends on how open minded and flexible we are). For someone that is neither of those things (or lacks that capacity on certain topics), there is a tendency to deny or disregard those discrete pieces of information that do not agree with our pre-existing bias. If someone is giving a personal interpretation or supposition based on their understanding of information, do they illustrate how they have come to these conclusions or built this point of view?
- Is this a novel claim or a claim without evidence? If I say something like “there is no god” or “there is one god” or “there are many gods”, I am making a claim without evidence. While none of these are particularly novel statements (think something along the line of “Chinese scientists have invented a time machine” or “People rode dinosaurs like horses”), they are claims that cannot be supported with replicatable, independently corroborated, physical evidence. This doesn’t mean that these ideas are wrong, but rather that they are not fact. UPG**** has a very important role to play in personal traditions, but the presenter of the information should not pass it off as something that it is not, particularly as historically or scientifically accurate.
Is it written to you, for your needs?
- Who is the target audience for the information? Different audiences have different requirements for the verification of claims. What and how I support information that I present here in a blog post or what I see when I read someone else’s blog post (where it should be expected to be my opinion on the basis of my experiences) is very different from what and how I support information that I present in reports for my job or for a presentation or research article (where my information and assessments are based on direct observation, testing, and a comparison to third party established limits and a fairly wide body of research). Expectations for the latter type of support in the former type of format is unrealistic and excessive.
- Is the audience general or specific? While I don’t write for any specific “target audience”, its undeniable that my blog is of a Pagan, eclectic, pantheistic/soft-polytheistic, bioregional, and family-based tone. Also its occasionally liberal, feminist, concerned with veterans issues, and environmentalist. And, I’m white, hetero, cis, middle class, and married with a child that has ADHD. So my bias (in what I consider “common” or “specialized” knowledge) will tend fall into those areas–not consciously or intentionally, but because I am those things, it goes to follow that those will usually be my inherent biases. This means that certain words may have additional definitions or a subtext that another group may not think of–as a witch and someone that makes things with yarn, when I talk about crafting, it can go either way (or both)…for that matter, as a person that crochets, when I use the word “hooker”, its in the context of making things with yarn. When we read something specialized from a different specialization or from a general perspective, we need to consider whether or not the author is intending their words in the way we are interpreting them, or if they are geared towards a more specific context due to their intended audience.
*I’m totally borrowing this acronym from PF member Thorbjorn!
**yeah, I totally made that up :p
***what I call uncommon knowledge is maybe more accurately called specialized knowledge…
****Unverified Personal Gnosis
(And stay tuned for Part II, WHEN IN DOUBT, CHECK IT OUT!)