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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Who said it? Why should I care?

This week you get a twofer. I have been publishing this newsletter regularly for a couple of months and I am on a roll. I am also getting some excellent feedback so please keep that coming. I am out of the country next week without access to the world (yay!). This newsletter is essentially two newsletters. I will cover the remaining topics in my "how do we know it's legit" puzzle - Relevance and Documentation.

[Preview note: When I return from elsewhere I plan to use what I've discussed here to analyze real world scenarios. Specifically, I will take current disinformation campaigns, dissect them, and give you tips to help deflect disinformation. This comes at the perfect time - holidays. I think we all have that one family member we know will want to share disinformation and I want to make sure you have to tools to deflect. Join the conversation by sharing with me what topics you'd like help with.]

Back to the newsletter..... What does UC Berkeley's Library resource have to say about relevance and documentation (taken directly from its website)?


How is it relevant to your research?

  • Does it analyze the primary sources that you're researching?

  • Does it cover the authors or individuals that you're researching, but different primary texts?

  • Can you apply the authors' frameworks of analysis to your own research?

What is the scope of coverage?

  • Is it a general overview or an in-depth analysis?

  • Does the scope match your own information needs?

  • Is the time period and geographic region relevant to your research?


Did they cite their sources?

  • If not, do you have any other means to verify the reliability of their claims?

Who do they cite?

  • Is the author affiliated with any of the authors they're citing?

  • Are the cited authors part of a particular academic movement or school of thought?

Look closely at the quotations and paraphrases from other sources:

  • Did they appropriately represent the context of their cited sources?

  • Did they ignore any important elements from their cited sources?

  • Are they cherry-picking facts to support their own arguments?

  • Did they appropriately cite ideas that were not their own?

You may be reading the above and thinking, I'm not doing this kind of research so how do I translate this for my own use? Challenge accepted..... When thinking about whether something is relevant, you may consider its relevance to your "research," but more likely you will consider the scope of coverage.

Let's suppose we have an important election on the horizon (I already voted absentee!). We have all seen campaign ads from different candidates. We are also seeing and hearing commentary and/or news stories about the problems of fraudulent elections. Also, as long as I can remember, we've heard about dead people voting. (It turns out dead people do not vote. They also don't do anything else like drink wine or go to the gym.)

What if you see a "report" that notes that voting by mail is rife with fraud. Let's unpack that. Who is doing the reporting? What evidence do they have? Who is reporting this evidence? Is the word of one person being relied on or is there a more in-depth analysis? Where is this alleged fraud? Are we talking about South America or the US? Is the "side" alleging the fraud doing so in an area that is heavily weighted toward the other side? Those are things to consider.

[Cheap plug: tune into the Data Doyenne podcast next week as my friend and colleague, Ben Gross, and I unpack conspiracy theories related to politics, elections and voting. Available Monday wherever you listen to podcasts.]

Let's take another example. Winter is coming to much of the northern hemisphere. With winter comes increased risk of Covid, flu, and other respiratory ailments. What if you see a report that those who are unvaccinated are at greater risk of contracting respiratory ailments? You and those you care about are vaccinated. Is that information relevant to you? It may certainly be an in-depth analysis, but does it match your current information needs? We could argue that it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure our community is safe so we should care about all members, but we can only do what we can do. Unlike my voting example, the respiratory ailment scenario is true. Those who are unvaccinated are at greater risk. Even if we work with accurate information, we may still assess whether it is relevant to us and whether we need to take some action. Now, if you have a family member who is opposed to vaccines, this may be a bit different (and be sure to return to read about how to handle situations like this in future newsletters).

Let's use our two scenarios to look at documentation. Voting by mail is rampant and fraudulent. We noted what was relevant information but let's look at the documentation you may see surrounding it. What sources are cited in this reporting? Again, is it just one person or are there many? Are those people in a position to truly know that absentee voting is fraudulent? Are people who would have that information cited or not? Is information being cherry picked to suit the story (just taking information to support the opinion of the piece without looking at alternatives)? (Reminder....there is no evidence whatsoever that voting by mail in the US is fraudulent.)

What about respiratory ailments? When you read reports like this you are - or should be - hearing from epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, medical doctors, public health practitioners. In other words, specialists who know! One might argue, well, what about the other side? Shouldn't we listen to those who are opposed to vaccines? Well, sure if you are going to unpack that information in the same way. Documentation is all about citations and giving credit where credit is due. It is also about citing documentation and sources that are relevant, timely, expert, accurate, and purposeful.

Thank you to my regular readers. I am humbled and thrilled that you have chosen to read my newsletter. Please continue! Please also vote if you are able - if you live in the US, are of voting age and are not dead. Please also get vaccinated. It is our best defense against disease.

Stay safe and stay curious.

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