CARS & CAFE : Evaluating Web Sources

IG-1A big part of any teacher’s job is helping students effectively use the web to research information. To avoid this practice to become yet another “Go to Google and pick up the best of the top 10 hits” exercise, Dr. Robert Harris, a former professor of English at Vanguard University of Southern California, proposes two pragmatic strategies to capture well verified, critically evaluated and robustly referenced research work. This appears in his 2007 article : Evaluating Internet Research Sources

The first strategy is CARS.

  • Credibility – Of the author, the source, the organization etc.
  • Accuracy – Of information, dates of publication, coherence etc.
  • Reasonableness – Fair and balanced view on claims, non-biased approach.
  • Support – External references that support this claim.

The idea behind this approach is to check for author’s credibility, accuracy of content in terms of timelines and dates, fairness and unbiased approach of the material and , perhaps the most important, who else can support or triangulate with that theory.  These are crucial elements in any research work in the highest of academic areas so it is only fit that we in K-12 education find ways to explore what these would look like in our own setting.

In an attempt to document what a CARS strategy would/could look like in a class, I am presenting below an attempt at researching the following question  – “Why do we tell stories?”

Now let us follow the student instinct and Google up this question. A few websites emerge as a result. The range is vast from Wired to Quora to Time magazine. Good. Now we pick one of them to try and apply the CARS framework to validate the source.

I picked this article Why do we tell stories? Hunter-gatherers shed light on evolutionary roots of fiction for my test. Something about its connectivity to history appeals to me since I need to justify reasons of why stories are told.


Credibility

The Organization

The Conversation, is an Australian news agency launched in 2011. On their Who We Are page they list their credentials along with affiliations to banks and universities. What is also important is that they have a yearly stakeholder report which documents their work behind the scenes to create a fair, balanced, well researched and documented journalistic standard. This is a good way to capture their belief in reporting ethics. They also have a section specifically dedicated for teachers where they clarify why/how their articles are credible. Teachers can even pitch an idea that needs coverage via their website. This degree of transparency is usually a characteristic of a credible source.

The Author

Daniel Smith is a Ph.D candidate of Anthropology at University College London. UCL was established in 1826 and is a prominent research university in London. A later article confirms that he completed his degree and also contributes to The Evolution Institute, a non-profit organization that aims to provide science-based solutions to today’s challenges. On looking up more information on the author, I find that he has a prominent presence on Research Gate as well where he has contributed several research items.  UCL’s website also documents his work with hunter-gatherers for the project in the article I found originally. So a cross reference on his credentials also exist.

These two baselines for the organization posting the article and the author give me enough to feel like this is a pretty credible source. So I feel like the C portion of the CARS is satisfied.


Accuracy

Since dates are a vital part of this check, I notice that the article is published December 6, 2017. While this is not a very latest article it is not too dated either. The data on the page shows me it has 108 shares on Twitter and 879 shares on Facebook. So it’s audience reach also is high.

I scroll down to the comments section of the page and find 8 comments. Two of them jump out at me – one by a Professor at Glasgow Caledonian University (who also links another resource for further reading), and another by a user who links to an article about mythology, hence providing a contextual response.

So do these things mean the details of the article are fresh even today? Perhaps. It is hard to gauge information quality by just one source which is why referring to several credible sources is required to figure out which ones are more accurate than others. The article itself links to various sources (including a video) as a way to validate its points. That is also worth noting.  For my purposes of research, I would deem all this quite accurate.


Reasonableness

The author establishes a historic context right away by wondering why hunter-gatherers spent time telling stories when other areas of survival were critical. He then links a study from Nature Research (an online portfolio website that places scientific research work on public domain) that links human behavior and fitness levels to the act of hunter-gatherer storytelling. The focus is Agta – a Filipino hunter-gatherer community – who has been used by the author and his team to examine the impact of telling stories on their lifestyles via cooperation. He calls this “meta-knowledge”, information about what other people know. So, he argues, it is a way for societal rules to be set.

He then writes about four stories his team collected from Agta community’s mythology. He includes a custom video created as a result of this study. The moral dimension to divinity via the act of telling stories is captured. In the second half of the article he highlights the reproductive advantage storytellers have. Anyone who can tell stories, he says, have a socially stronger chance of getting a mate than those who do not. From an evolutionary point, this is the reason storytelling was encouraged and admired. He draws parallels from the modern world to make his point by including empathy and society building as a result of it.

His arguments are few but they are rooted in reason based statements. The article is fair and balanced since it does not hinge to just one aspect of why stories are told. From social order to evolution, different angles are explored. The author backs some of these claims with evidence which makes this pass the Reasonableness check too.


Support

The hardest part of the CARS, in my opinion, is this segment. How many other sources agree with this point of view? The only way to search for this triangulation is go deeper into the author’s profile to get more information. If I click on cited by link for the article (via Google Search) I get 9 links. They go to different papers online who have connected to Daniel’s proposal. Would highlighting this satisfy this criteria? Is that the litmus test any credible information should pass? To me this is good enough but for your requirements, you may need to explore more.

To confirm my research I plug in “Daniel Smith Hunter Gatherer” in Google Scholar and I get one hit which takes me to a link on Nature.com. This is a part of Nature Research whose sole purpose is documenting scientific research. Hence, this article can be said to have sufficient support to be used as a credible source.


The second strategy Dr. Harris proposes is CAFE. This is more advice than strategy. The idea with CAFE is to recognize the dynamic and fluid nature of all information in today’s age and to keep ourselves flexible, responsible, organized and well informed. He documents it as below:

CAFE.jpg
Fig 1. From “Evaluating Internet Research Sources”, Robert Harris (2007)

 

Conclusion

There are several ways to perform deep research. But I think CARS and CAFE sets up the right baseline framework for our students. It forces them to critically think of essential questions they need to ask of the source they are reading about. In today’s world of fabricated news, polarized editorials and general spam, it is becoming increasingly challenging to sift through what are facts and what is propaganda. The more we arm our kids with tools to fight this battle, they better.

 

-Shashi