Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sources, and the value in going offline

A few days without internet access gives quite a different perspective on information absorption.

When I found myself with some research to do and some time to do it, Internet access was kaput. So I spread out a number of books around me: Britannica, Stephen Jay Gould, two evolution primers, two academic books, and an evolution atlas. I also consulted my mother, since she'd done a geology degree some years back.

It's rather different from the lazy person's guide to everything, Wikipedia:
a) Within each source, the information was less well structured, and less lucidly presented. I had to do more work to extract the information;
b) I had a variety of viewpoints in toto, as opposed to ground down and polished within Wikipedia;
c) I found errors in most sources.

Britannica is often dreadfully opaque, and rambles on in whatever fashion it chooses to ramble on about, making it difficult to gain an overview in the context I was seeking. My mother gave the best overview of geology - because the investigation process was interactive. However, as with everyone there are gaps.

Looking through five books for that standard diagram of geological time, I found five different pictures. It's expected that there will be some differences: time periods definitions have traditionally differed between the Europe and the US, and have changed over time. Yet I found actual errors (or egregious omissions) in each one. Except Britannica - because the diagram I found was sparse on detail.

- Wikipedia is certainly less time consuming to consult. Yet although it gives different perspectives, they're not usually well fleshed out; and while the detail is generally good, it lacks the depth of a dedicated work. And you can chase down the sources when necessary;
- Britannica is a substitute for internet access; no more authoritative than Wikipedia (in general), but harder to navigate and less up to date;
- comparing and contrasting different sources can provide extra insights;
- indepth narrative often provides extra insights too;
- trust yourself, and if something doesn't sound right, chase it up rather than accept it;
- consult your mother.

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