Evaluating Sources: Can You Back that Claim Up?
In this article I will discuss the difference between a good and a bad source, and how to go about evaluating your sources. Additionally, I will show how Christian apologists often neglect to offer valid or even reliable sources, how they try to impose double standards while not wanting to get directly involved with the pertinent material which they are debating over, and how they occasionally manipulate the information to convince their audience of their case even as the information will, in reality, invalidate their entire position.
Dealing with Double Standards
Not so long ago I was debating a Christian about scientific matters. After stating my points clearly, and listing my sources, and supporting my reasons I felt that I had made a pretty sturdy case. The Christian, however, thought otherwise. He immediately retreated into that apologetic denial of having the merit of numerous references at my disposal when he does not, and stated, “I’m glad you’ve read lots, but I’d really rather hear what you have to say. I want to know what you think, not some scientist I’ve never heard of. What do you believe personally about it all?”
This threw me off because I honestly thought I was telling him what I thought. What I thought just so happened to be informed and supported by the hard work and findings of professionals and other critical thinkers. But this sort of tangible support is difficult for people of faith who rarely have anything other than anecdotal stories to rely on in supporting their claims. So the easiest thing to do is dismiss such a heavily backed case and ask the atheist or skeptic to start from scratch—what does your emotional intuition say to you? But then this becomes a position of faith, not knowing, and when dealing with substantive claims and assertions of truth, knowing is half the battle.
Instead of dealing with the bulk of information I had thrown at him, he dodged the issue, and forced his devotional interpretation as the default position. This is what most apologists try and do, make God the default position, then demand you disprove his existence. When you bring forth the bulwark of evidence which seeks to refute, confuse, or complicate their God hypothesis they then like to deny your evidence outright or else will claim you’ve not understood it (even as this accusation runs counter-intuitively to the fact that you just supported your understanding of the claim with the diverse array of sources cited).
Likewise, according to my theist friend evolution was false and that my information about evolution was faulty, fine tuning and intelligent design proved a deity of conscious intent but that my understanding of cosmology and physics was clouded by my skepticism, the origin of life as well as the universe were all evidence for God even though I just *refused to see it. When I asked him how he knew all this with such certainty, he answered by quoting scripture line and verse. But what’s this now? He denied my myriad of factual sources when he disagreed with my reasoning, but when forced to supply evidence for his reasons he cites the Bible? I could have just said, “I’m glad you read the Bible, but I’d really rather you read something which actually matters. Such as a history book, a science text, a physics or cosmology paper, a peer reviewed scientific journal, or something along those lines. What you believe personally is fine, but if it’s biased and unfounded it is likely to be wrong, and if that’s the case then who in their right mind is gonna give a damn about what you have to say?” Yet my kind atheist heart couldn’t bring me to say something so faith shatteringly blunt. However, it still confounded me that he couldn’t see the unfair double standard he was seeking to impose.
Inadequate & Unsubstantial Sources
Many dubious supernatural or religious beliefs rely on little to no good evidence and so are largely speculative. Take, for example, the Christian belief in the rapture which stems from three lines of one scriptural verse, e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. But can this belief even be defensible? I hold that it cannot, since it lacks good support, is highly implausible, and is too tenuous to mention. Christians who become absolutely infatuated with this idea, however, start to quote mine pages from the Bible with the desperate longing to find any bits of mystical or superstitious sounding religious language which would support this Tribulation theory. Upon finding some baffling and enigmatic phrases in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17; John 14:2–3; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:49–55; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-7; and Matthew 24:36-41they find themselves able to derive some peculiar beliefs about some rather poorly informed dates for an incredible event (which looks like thinly veiled millennialism—something common to superstitious cults) with little to no real data to support its validity.
Needless to say, this is how a firm belief in Jesus’ second coming and the Tribulation is sustained. What shouldn’t be overlooked though, is that the logic here is completely circular, as it begs the question: what is their qualification for dependability? Nothing outside of the Bible is used for support, which makes it even harder to prove their case, therefore all they are left with is a fallacy for support. Let’s look at how this fallacy works, shall we?
The Bible vaguely asserts something along the lines of the rapture will (possibly) occur, and since Christians believe the Bible is trustworthy they therefore cite the Bible as support for their belief in the rapture (or any other supernatural/faith based declaration). Mostly it diagrams like this: Bible = True; Bible and mentions rapture; therefore Rapture = True. Ah-ha! But this is begging the question—big time. Such circular reasoning, they think, sustains their faith based convictions and so belief in the rapture becomes reasonable for the person of faith—even though all they have done is assumed what they wish to prove.
Our inspection reveals that the only thing driving the Christian belief in the rapture is a huge confirmation bias coupled with a big fat fallacy and circular reasoning, not any relevant data or empirical evidence like we would expect when qualifying a claim. This makes any prediction for the rapture purely conjecture, and therefore the belief in the rapture is not sustainable, mainly because, it’s not actually supported by anything relevant. Not to mention the fact that nearly every major rapture prediction ever made has failed miserably—and I would bet you almost anything that the remaining few do too.
This is why having pertinent sources becomes such a vital point: sources aid your argument by qualifying your reasons for believing what you do. Without sources your reasons for believing something lose their value and are relegated to mere uninformed opinions. Although, not to overlook a key point, it’s worth pointing out that using the wrong sort of sources can discredit your claims and make your argument ridiculous as well.
Insufficient & Poorly Researched Sources
Many Christians make the common error of aiding their wild theories with illegitimate sources, things which might look valid, but are in actuality quite useless and do not help the argument along or provide evidence for their principal proposition. This is also known as a hasty generalization, and is included in the list of fallacies I gave in my prior article on the subject (for more on fallacies click HERE).
A recent example I came across arose from a debate I was having on the validity of evolution with an Evangelical Christian. In any case, the Christian apologist denied my statement that evolution was true and gave me a link to a Christian apologetics website which denied evolution. More specifically the Christian gave me a link to an article by Don Batten who was defending the thinly veiled Creationist anti-Evolution position with a slew of scientific sounding reasons for why primates, such as Chimpanzees, sharing 98% genetic code with humans is false. I read the article and then immediately checked the author’s sources. Where was this author getting his information? Could he be trusted and were his sources dependable? Did it detract from my position and enhance his claims or not?
I’m sorry to say, but after examining the author’s sources I found the article a complete waste of time, as it not only did not benefit the author’s disbelief of Evolution and the shared genetic heritage we have with our ape ancestors, the article’s biased stance and lack of support didn’t act as support for his position as it wasn’t a proper refutation for the reasons the author believed proved Evolution to be counterfeit (for more on how to craft a proper argument see my article on the subject HERE). Also, I would caution, trying to be scientific sounding is not the same as being scientifically accurate. Furthermore, none of the anti-evolution articles ever meet or pass peer review standards, and that says a lot right there.
Upon closer inspection we find that the sources in the article to be completely irrelevant. Don Batten’s article starts out with the wrong ideas about evolution. He claims we did not evolve from monkeys, and this is true. We did not evolve from monkeys any more so than a tiger did, and any evolutionary biologist worth his weight in salt would tell you as much. This initial misconception, however, shows us that Batten doesn’t understand the first thing about evolutionary theory. The truth of the matter is, we’re all primates with a common ancestor, just like the other animals from whales to giraffes to tigers to octopuses who all share a common ancestor too, and somewhere down the line of our genetic family tree there was a genetic divergence and speciation occurred. This is true of all living things as well, and the evidence is encoded in our genome, that is to say our genetic family tree is stamped on our DNA.
If you read the article you will notice that all the references in Batten’s piece are mostly from 1985 and 1987 with one exception of a 1993 reference, which, by the way, isn’t even a science reference; it’s a Creationist conjecture book! So as far as I can tell, by looking at the sources, we find there is really no argument against the 98% shared genetic code between humans and other higher primates mention. What we find is lacking in support, the piece only cites pre-genomic sources without the relevant information, relies on a confirmation bias and a misconception of the science it is meant to critique, and none of the references have anything to do with what modern genomics has undeniably proved about our ancestor’s tale. In other words, it doesn’t even try to support its main argument, it just asserts the claim that evolution is false and that we didn’t evolve from monkeys, and then tries to sound scientific—but fails.
Meeting the Prerequisite of Dependability
After reading Batten’s article, or any article for that matter, we must ask: is this a dependable or reliable article? How can we tell? We must put on our critical thinking caps! Looking at the Creationist conjecture piece we find a non-scientific minded writer offering a scientific critique without knowing what he’s talking about. That’s the first demerit. How can we be so certain that this article that the Christian sent me is a bad source? Because the information in the article’s own sources are inadequate, outdated, and irrelevant—that’s the second demerit. Of course, this would mean that any argument the Christian author attempted to make would be relying on inadequate, outdated, and irrelevant information—therefore my Christian friend’s information is faulty and unreliable.
Articles like the one above contain little in the way of actual evidence against evolution, and in the words of Michael Shermer, there is a lot of “woo-woo” being thrown around without a correct understanding of the science. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, so I wouldn’t presume to correct all of the scientific errors and misunderstandings here, but I am confident in what I know is legitimate (I could even cite you my own sources if it came to that) and what is said in these anti-evolution agenda articles is mainly just trying to sound authentic, but mostly isn’t.
We know this, as is the case with the Batten piece, because of its distinct lack of reliable sources and the sources it does list actually do not support the author’s argument. For example, it would be better to use references to the field it directly talks about with the up to date and current knowledge, especially since it is arguing from a position which denies the evidence found with the decoding of the human genome. Why cite sources that predate the genomic sequencing as evidence against shared genetic code? That’s like trying to prove the holocaust didn’t happen by citing sources which all predate the holocaust! It’s not even rational.
So the question becomes, how do we go about evaluating our sources, conceivably to make our reasons for belief that much more reliable, meanwhile adding support to our argument/position in the process?
Considering the reliability of print and online sources is vital in establishing a basis for trustworthiness. If you can’t support your claims, then they are hollow claims, and any argument hung on them is likely to fall through—in other words, if all you have is an opinion then you’re not really acquainted with the arguments and can’t be taken seriously in a conversant discussion. If your sources are lacking, then your reasons for believing are wanting, and your believability is jeopardized by the deficiency of support—as I showed with the three Christian apologetic examples above.
Once again, looking to The Norton Filed Guide to Writing (p. 401-402) we find valuable list of things to look for when evaluating our sources and whether or not they serve our purpose. The following questions (as found within the section entitled Evaluating Sources) are helpful in selecting useful sources.
- Is it relevant? How does the source relate to your purpose? What will it add to your work? Look at the title and at any introductory material—a preface, abstract, or introduction—to see what it covers.
- What are the author’s credentials? What are the author’s qualifications to write on the subject? Is he or she associated with a particular position on the issue? If the source is a book or a periodical, see whether it mentions other works this author has written. If it’s a website, see whether an author is identified. If one is, you might do a Web search to see what else you can learn about him or her.
- What is the stance? Consider whether a source covers various points of view or advocates one particular point of view. Does its title suggest a certain slant? If it’s a website, you might check to see whether it includes links to other sites of one or many perspectives. You’ll want to consult sources with a variety of viewpoints.
- Who is the publisher? If it’s a book, what kind of company published it; if an article, what kind of periodical did it appear in? Books published by university presses and articles in scholarly journals are reviewed by experts before they are published. Books and articles written for general audiences typically do not undergo rigorous review—and they may lack the kind of in-depth discussion that is useful for research.
- If it’s a website, who is the sponsor? Is the site maintained by an organization? An interest group? A government agency? An individual? If the site doesn’t give this information, look for clues in the URL: edu is used mostly by colleges and universities, gov by government agencies, org by nonprofit organizations, mil by the military, and com by commercial organizations.
- What is the level? Can you understand the material? Texts written for a general audience might be easier to understand but are not likely to be authoritative enough for academic work. Texts written for scholars will be more authoritative but may be hard to comprehend.
- When was it published? See when books and articles were published. Check to see when websites were last updated. (If the site lists no date, see if links to other sites still work.) Recent does not necessarily mean better—some topics may require very current information whereas others may call for older sources.
- Is it available? Is it a source you can get hold of? If it’s a book and your school’s library doesn’t have it, can you get it through interlibrary loan?
- Does it include other useful information? Is there a bibliography that might lead you to other sources? How current are the sources it cites?
Personally I find this list contained in The Norton Filed Guide to Writing (p. 401-402) to be more than a valuable asset in helping to evaluate one’s sources. The next step is to use your critical eye in order to weed out the good sources from the bad. After all this you may have material which is authoritative and better supports your ideas, beliefs, position, etc. So next time someone sends you a link to a website or online article to read, or ask you to review a book or periodical, check to see if its sources are significant or relatable. If not, then you’ll know they don’t have any ground to stand on. However, be careful not to fall victim of the same plight of paucity when it comes to citing your sources, which is to say, never forget to cite good sources and reference material after having thoroughly evaluated them and verified their applicability. Happy researching!