About once a month, I run into someone who asks some variation of the following question: “How I can be sure that what I read is true?”
This question usually comes up with regard to bias in the news industry, but I’ve heard it asked about every conceivable academic discipline.
Part of the answer is that there are signs one can look for that make a source more likely to be “true” or accurate. These signs include:
- Whether the text you read cites sources. This is a sign that the author has read widely and is familiar with the literature related to their claim.
What others have said about the text in question. For example, after having read a book I’ll often Google[^jstor] some variation of “[Book Name] review.” This usually gives me a list of brief articles (“reviews”) that supposedly will highlight any major flaws in the text in question.
Similarly, if you are reading an academic article you should check if the article is peer reviewed. This essentially means that other experts have read the article and found it to be acceptable.
- Whether the author is qualified to write about the subject of the text. I know of many exceptions, but in general, something written by a professor of [subject x] is more likely to be accurate than something written by an anonymous blogger on the internet.
- Whether the text in question is old, and thus more likely to be out of date. If you are experienced in the subject area, you should also be able to determine whether the methods the texts uses are outdated.
- If you are careful and creative, you could consider the underlying assumptions that the text used, and determine whether these assumptions are reasonable. This is extremely difficult to do.
However, none of these methods are enough to guaranty “truth.” There will always be errors that slip through the cracks. And even the most meticulous texts are not capable of describing every perspective on an issue.
Besides, the notion of a “perfect text” is is one that is contrary to the process we use to acquire knowledge. The whole point of the scientific method–the whole point of the academic process–is that we constantly discover new information that was previously unknown. There will never be a perfect, true text because we are always learning new information about everything.
This brings me to the only truth in this blog post, which is perhaps the only truth that there is. There is only one solution to the question “How can I be sure that what I am reading is true,” and that solution is to read widely from diverse perspectives. Only by understanding all of the arguments regarding a specific issue in all of their diversity can one claim to know the truth.
This is perhaps an impossible task. But discovering the truth was never going to be easy. Scholars have dedicated their lives to discovering the truth. Why should you be able to discover the truth by reading one “perfect” book or news article?
I hope that you aren’t feeling overwhelmed at this point. There are obviously thousands of texts available on any given subject, and it can be hard to decide where to start reading, to say nothing of the enormity of the supposed task of reading every text available. In response, I have two final points that I think I will clarify matters:
First of all, the goal is rarely to know the truth: such a goal is typically unobtainable. Instead, we usually pursue a lesser goal, such as to know something with a reasonable degree of certainty. In a perfect world we would be able to discover the truth, but we live in the real world, and have to settle for something that’s merely “good enough.”
I suspect that the original question–“How I can be sure that what I read is true?”–is motivated in part by the underlying question “There are so many sources about [topic x], and I don’t know which one to start with. Could someone help me by recommending a source to start reading?” If you are having trouble deciding what book/article to read, my advice is to, again, choose a book/article and start reading. The tips I gave you at the start of the article can help you make your decision (e.g. what are the qualifications of the author?, does the text cite sources, etc.), but at the end of the day, the goal is to choose an article that is good enough, not perfect.
But even so, I still think it is important to read widely. It’s the only way to learn every side of an issue.