Statistics May Lie, But Writers Can Choose Reliable Internet Sources

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know your sources

Go to the Horse's mouth for the best data (image from http://students.cis.uab.edu/kendre07/sources.html)

This is a guest-post by writer/editor Jan Lee. Jan Lee is a former college instructor and topic editor for Suite101.com. She  regularly writes for publications in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Jan has been published by B’nai B’rith Magazine, Jewishindependent.ca, World.edu and BCAdventure.com. Read Jan Lee’s blog at Blogspot.

By Jan Lee

The depth of a writer’s research tells readers how “good” she is. Readers can be impressed with accurate statistics; dates, times, and other anecdotal information paint vivid pictures and help to convey or support the writer’s ideas. Anyone who uses the Internet knows it can be difficult to ensure that information is accurate.

Why You Need Primary Sources

As a writer, you understand primary and secondary sources. A primary source is the clichéd horse’s mouth. It’s the

Jan Lee

Jan Lee

woman who pontificated the idea; the man who discovered the discovery. You’re obligated to find their phone numbers and dial them up. Or send email. You ask direct questions and receive direct answers you can quote or paraphrase.

Maryan Pelland makes the point that it’s critically important for careful writers, authors, and especially ghostwriters to rely on primary sources for quotes and for anecdotal information. She believes that irresistible quote you found on the Internet, those stories that cinch the point your blog is making should come from trustworthy primary sources.

As a good writer, you need the same caution when referring to statistics. You know — that government data you came across that a writer nebulously quoted from another source that you can’t easily verify. If you want to be sure of your position, find the original source.

A case in point, I did research for an article some months ago. While trying to locate Census Bureau data on the number of private businesses in the United States that franchise to private investors, I discovered that the statistics were already widely published by newspapers, blogs, and business firms … well, sort of. One writer published an inaccurate summary of a government report, and generously rounded up a statistic published by the Census Bureau. Dozens of publications followed suit and copied that reporter’s info, sometimes inflating the number further.

Business attorneys, real estate firms, newspapers, you name it — all cited versions of the statistic they had read without tracing its origin. In some cases, the authors cited the website used, but never made an attempt to confirm that data was accurately cited by said source.

How Writer’s and Authors Can Vet Statistics

So how do you ensure that data you use in your blog post, article, or book is accurate?

Writer and retired college instructor Robert A. Harris, author of several textbooks on English composition and ways to avoid plagiarism, says there are steps to help you negotiate research pitfalls. In his article Evaluating Internet Resources, he highlights what he calls CARS (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support) questions used to evaluate both print and Internet sources. Harris’ checklist is used by students at several U.S. colleges.

He proposes points to think about when you evaluate whether a website is trustworthy.

Credibility (Site and author’s authority as a reference)

  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • Is the website a trustworthy source?
  • Is the site respected and known?

Accuracy (Confirms truthfulness and precision)

  • Is the data accurate and up-to-date, the latest published data?
  • Is the data comprehensive?
  • Is it relevant to your audience?

Reasonableness (The source is balanced, fair, and avoids bias)

  • Does your source use objective criteria for its argument?
  • Does it strive for balance in presentation?
  • do you notice conflicts of interest?

Support (Confirms its argument through supportive research):

  • Does your source support its data with at least two independent, confirmable sources?
  • Are its sources identifiable and reliable?
  • Is there supporting documentation?

As bloggers, journalists, and authors, we want our public to trust us. Admittedly, blogging and some non-fiction writing is a bit less formal than is academic writing, but linking to or citing your sources will never do you any harm. It’s up to us to prove that our work is fair, accurate, credible, and well-supported, by using good research tools and reliable sources.

You can find Jan Lee online:

Suite101.com
Follow Jan on Twitter: @janleethiem
Friend her on Facebook: Jan Lee-Thiem

See also  Why Writers and Bloggers Should Not Rely on the Internet by Maryan Pelland at ProBlogger.

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7 Responses to “Statistics May Lie, But Writers Can Choose Reliable Internet Sources”

  1. This post created a discussion at LinkedIn’s TWO BITS / Writing advice to writers from writers group. In the following comments, I’m porting the remarks from that discussion with permission from the participants.

  2. Dick Harrison said • That’s silly. Statistics lie all the time. As Benjamin Disrali said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  3. I replied to Dick,
    Maryan Pelland • Thanks. I wonder if you’d consider reading the piece before you critique it. Your opinion might have more weight then. But again, thanks.

  4. Dick Harrison said • Maryan — I did not offer a critique on your piece, but a comment on your headline. I assumed — perhaps erroniously — that the headline was meant to be taken seriously rather than facetiously. Based upon that — possibly erronious — assumption I decided not to read any more of the post since the assertion that statistics don’t lie is completely at odds with what I have observed and so I assumed that the post was based upon a presumption I know — not believe, know — to be falacious.

  5. Betsy A. Riley said • I DID read the piece–which was not easy since it comes up as brown text on a black background. I have in my library a book titled “How to Lie with Statistics”–it is an old book. Dick is right–your headline doesn’t really represent the content of the article. There are some good points in the article about primary versus secondary sources and the relative reliability of various sources. It’s mainly aimed at being sure you use accurate and reliable statistics in articles. But it is VERY easy to be misleading with use of statistics (even easier if you use charts). And the article does allude to the fact that statistics can misrepresent the facts (i.e., LIE).

  6. After we re-thought the headline and made a change, from “Statistics Don’t Lie…
    to the present head, Dick and Betsy added:

    Betsy A. Riley • that is a better title. Ok with me to pass on my comments to the author

    Dick Harrison • Saw the new head. An improvement.

  7. Thanks to everyone for the insightful comments on this post. The intent of the title (thanks Dick for the other take) was to point out that statistics can be persuasive tools and valuable for making a point, but the researcher still needs to do his/her homework and ensure a) they are accurate and b) they truly represent the original source’s data. I won’t quibble with Disraeli’s statement except to say that it is the person who is presenting the statistics that bears the onus for accuracy, which was the intent of the title.

    Thanks Betsy for the critique as well. You’re correct in what I was trying to say, and I’m happy to know it came across!