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Evaluating claims you find on web sites: A. The Claim

What is a credible source: a checklist

Is this claim clear? Is it reasonable? Does it smell "fishy"?

A claim is a belief that is put into words. It is a statement that someone claims to be true. But it might be false. How do we determine the truth of a claim?

Some claims are pretty obvious:

  • The World Wide Web contains billions of pages.
  • The word "claim" is spelled with five letters.

Some claims can be validated by eyewitness testimony:

  • He was stumbling and slurring his words.

Verifying some claims requires systematic study and expertise:

  • In developing nations, as the social and economic status of women improves, the birth rate falls.

Most claims are based on data--facts that we observe about the world.

  • Some data are easy to gather. 
  • Other data may take funding and special skills to acquire.

Data require interpretation before we can make conclusions.

  • Normally, this isn't a problem for us.
  • But sometimes interpretation requires training and experience.

How do you evaluate the truth of a claim when you lack the data and specialized interpretive skills?

  • Answer:  You evaluate the source of the claim.  If it is credible, then you can accept the claim as (probably) true.

However, before you scrutinize the source of the claim, examine the claim itself

Now, try the questions (in the right column).

Do you understand the claim?

  • Can you put it in your own words?
  • Is the claim clear or fuzzy? Does it contain weasel words?

A weasely claim: "This detergent is guaranteed to brighten your laundry by as much as 95%!" 

  • The phrase "as much as 95%" sounds good, but it doesn't promise anything. 
  • What does the claim actually guarantee
  • Can we measure the "brightness" of laundered sheets?

How plausible is the claim?

  • Is the claim surprising?
  • Does it raise any "red flags"?
  • Use your B.S. detector. If something feels phony, investigate further, or look for another source.

Does your paper depend upon this claim?

  • If it does, you can't afford to cite a weak source.  Check it out carefully.

Which academic discipline best matches this claim?

The academic discipline should be relevant.

  • Claim: The bottlenose dolphin develops hunting techniques through social learning, not by instinct.
    • Relevant disciplines:  Marine biology; Animal psychology
  • Claim: Lowering the capital gains tax would add billions of tax dollars to the federal government.
    • Relevant disciplines: Economics; Accounting; Public Administration

Go to the next tab: Authority