How do you go about researching things you don’t know? How do you determine whether your sources of information are reliable?

This is a wonderful and important question. A lot of the information I use comes from notes and text books that I read while studying such topics. In order to be taught in classes by PHD professors, it has to be rigorously investigated and proved by many sources, so I accept what my professors have to say. Not to say  I don’t do my own research, I often do. One thing I am really wary of is using Wikipedia. I do like it, because it gives a great overview of a subject to be researched. It gives a good start, but is by no means definitive. If I use it as a source, I have read the page, and have done previous research about it. To make sure that you are using good sources I recommend using academic sites, like Jstor. If you just search Google and find a site that has some good info I would check to see if it is peer reviewed, check the background of the author of the site, and try to find other reputable sources to corroborate the claims. In short, it takes a lot of staring and a computer screen, reading, note taking, and searching. It certainly isn’t fun, but it is important if you really want to make some good claims. Then if someone wants to question your validity, it is a welcome question.

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About Gary White

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5 Responses to How do you go about researching things you don’t know? How do you determine whether your sources of information are reliable?

  1. alid says:

    Sounds good! Seeing wikipedia links all over your writing perturbed me but I guess I can appreciate it in this context. There are some good quality wikipedia articles but also some very poor ones; the variability makes it difficult to respect as a source. I find in general the best way to put across an argument is to fully explain it oneself, and directly link to supporting evidence rather than to another article espousing the same viewpoint as you.

    One little niggle:

    “In order to be taught in classes by PHD professors, it has to be rigorously investigated and proved by many sources”

    What standard of proof? Beyond mathematics and some science, most investigation is more like educated guesswork surely?

    To highlight the point – in controversial topics (such as historicity of the Bible, but equally in many areas of other academic subjects) there are numerous PhDs, peer-reviewed articles from journals, etc, with a whole spectrum of different conclusions/viewpoints (often diametrically opposite). How do you meaningfully ascertain the truth without arbitrarily deferring to some authority over another?

    • Gary White says:

      Yea, good point. If you want to make a claim, like Jesus existed around the first century (in a history context) you would need to find 1st or 2nd hand sources, or some writings by Jesus. The next thing you would have to do is carbon date (or use some other method) to figure out if the timeline matches up. Of course if you are reading about someone else doing this then you would need to conduct your research.
      I assume you are familiar with the process of getting a PHD. You need to write a dissertation about a topic (say the historicity of Jesus, to further the example). This involves countless hours and days of research, checking facts, making sure that you have all the information necessary to write it. A short dissertation is about 100 pages, just to give a reference to how much information is packed into one (obviously length and information will vary based on what you are writing your dissertation on). Then the dissertation is submitted to a board to review your information and then you are given an oral test, so to speak about the topic by this board. There is more that I am leaving out, but I think this gets the point across. It is not easy to get a PHD, and you have to know your stuff. However, there is one small caveat. Once you have your PHD, what then? Some people just don’t keep up with the times, so their dissertation may have been relevant when it was written, but some information that was in it has been updated since then. I call it a text book problem, because this is most common with text books.

  2. The trouble, of course, is that no matter the source available to your average household they all need to be researched, which begs the question.

  3. alid says:

    Sorry if I’m being thick, I’m not sure I’ve completely woken up today, but I’m not sure I get your point myatheistlife; how exactly is that begging the question?

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