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What information is reliable?

Nothing is certain. We can doubt everything and even scientific 'truth' is conditional on perspective, or possible future refutation. Here are some general pointers

1. Use scientific publications

Although the difference between accepted knowledge and disputed conjecture is not always completely clear, there are some widely used criteria to assess the value of knowledge. Peer review is a crucial one: knowledge that has been checked by colleagues to make sure it is methodologically and theoretically sound. Articles published in scientific journals go through peer review, as do most scientific books. However, keep in mind that scientists do not always agree: there may be different approaches, schools of thought, opinions, etc.

2. Reports

Reports may also be used as a source of information, although they are second choice. In the case of reports, you should try to assess the reliability or reputation of its producers. Reports may be produced by government (in which case they are likely to represent to view of the government at hand), by consultants, academics, non-governmental organisations, or ideologically motivated think tanks. When you think a report may represent only one viewpoint, you can still use it, but then use it as a representation of that viewpoint, not as undisputed fact.

3. Internet

A lot of sources can be accessed through the Internet, but the quality of free-ranging Internet information is very variable. Please be very careful and keep an eye on the source of the information, e.g. did you find your document on the website of a ministry or an advocacy group? Bulletin boards, blogs, web magazines and the like may trigger a search for information, but are in themselves generally unreliable.

4. Wikipedia

The Wikipedia deserves special attention. Although on average the Wikipedia is as reliable as a good printed encyclopaedia, it suffers from specific flaws. One of these is vandalism. Especially highly controversial entries get damaged by vandals and virtual graffiti.

Climate change is such a controversial topic. For example, on 19 March 2008, the Wikipedia Climate Change entry read: “keep killing that environment”. On 15 March 2008, it read: “Climate Change is a natural cycle that does involve the earth getting warmer and cooler. this cycle varys in ice age times” (including the bad spelling).

Such obvious vandalism is usually quickly repaired by people who protect their favourite articles, but it is not always clear whether you have surfed to an article before or after the damage has been repaired. In addition, some topics draw in organised dissenters, who will enforce their outlier interpretations as mainstream schools of thought. For these reasons, the Wikipedia may be an excellent place to start looking for information, to get a general overview, or to be forwarded to other sources, but it is never enough as a source in itself.