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In this page

  1. Search the web
  2. Read the source
  3. The importance of citations
  4. Compare sources
  5. Summary

Using Google for research

Google (or some other web search) is your tool of choice when you have to do a project for school, or hand in a class assignment, or begin to learn a new subject from scratch. This is as it should be, because the web now holds a large fraction of human knowledge in easily accessible form.

There is only one problem with this approach: all human knowledge is not correct. Some things that pass for tested knowledge are merely hearsay. Sometimes older accepted wisdom is now known to be wrong. Sometimes falsehoods are deliberately passed off as genuine. How do you know whether something you dug up through a search is not of this kind?

There is no magic bullet for discarding incorrect information. That is a skill that you will have to learn for yourself. This web page is meant to get you started. Here I will give you a case study on how to weigh conflicting evidence thrown up by Google. There may be methods not covered here; this is a beginner's manual after all, not an encyclopedia.

Search the web

I was examining a thesis recently and it began with the following quote: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine". The author of the thesis attributed the quote to Sir Arthur Eddington, who is famous for his experimental verification of Einstein's theory of relativity. However, no source was cited, so I could not know when and where Eddington might have said this.

One of the less savory episodes in Eddington's life was his opposition to the early work of Subramanyan Chandrasekhar which implied the formation of black holes. His opposition was apparently based on his inability to accept the existence of black holes. Knowing this about Eddington, I was a little surprised to see that he was supposed to have written (or said) the quoted sentence. But stranger things can happen, so one should investigate further.

My research consisted of googling the quote, and that brought me to this page of results. This example gives us lesson number zero, a no-brainer: always Google, without fail. But this is not really worth repeating, because you know it already.

Read the source

The first link that Google returns says Arthur Stanley Eddington - Wikiquote. So that should be clincher. Wait! Not yet. Let's read the page by clicking through on it. The page is long, because Eddington seemed to have written many things which can be quoted. But right at the end of the page, in a big salmon-coloured box, is a warning:

"Though sometimes attributed to Eddington without citation, this seems to be derived from a statement by J. B. S. Haldane, in Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286: The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

That's lesson number one: read the source, make sure that it says what what you think it says, and not the opposite.

Cite a source

The comparison is not yet over, because up to now we have two sources: one a doctoral thesis which claims that the quote is due to Eddington, and the other a Wikiquotes page which casts doubt on this attribution.

Normally a quote is acknowledged by the name of the author and a citation to the source. So, when someone suspects the authenticity of the quote, you just have to go to the cited source and check. In this case the attribution to Eddington had no citation. This already made me a little suspicious about the authenticity of the attribution.

This is rule number two: cite a source so that interested readers can go and check for themselves. An assertion of a fact which cannot be checked need not be taken seriously.

Compare sources

The Google results page gave us another tool to check the assertion. The second entry on this page said J. B. S. Haldane - Wikiquote.

While this is not an independent source (being part of Wikipedia, like the first source) it could give further information, so click through. Indeed there is a payoff, because the page has a citation to the source of the quote: Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286. Wonderful; the title seems consistent with the quote. Our search will soon be over, if we can locate this book.

On to Amazon where we find two important bits of information: first, that there is indeed such a book, and, second, that it would cost us about $40 to look inside for the information that we want to verify. Unfortunately Google books cannot give us the book either. It gives us a part called "Possible Worlds" (which does not contain the quote). We seem to have reached a dead end here.

Going further down the page of Google results, we find more web pages: some attribute this quote to Eddington and others to Haldane. The ones that vote for Eddington do not give a citation. However, Goodreads gives us a longer paragraph which contains the sentence quoted in Wikiquotes, and refers us to the same book. We could take this as corroborative evidence provided we can prove that Wikiquotes has not simply plagiarized Goodreads. But there seems to be no way that we can prove this.

On the second page of Google results we have a pointer to a web page inside Duke University which attributes the quote to Haldane. Now an university should be dependable. But the original question was raised by a doctoral thesis, normally also considered reliable. Moreover, the Duke University page does not have a citation. So it is not more reliable than the thesis.

It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, as it stands. But the experience has given us rule number three: compare sources, because if they do not agree then at least one of them is wrong, and we need to know which.

The upshot

Research on the web: search, read, cite, compare

  1. Always search the web, without fail
  2. Read the webpages, not just the page of Google results
  3. Always cite a source (or link to the original)
  4. Compare sources to see whether they disagree

In this case web searching and weighing of the evidence gave us reason to believe that the original attribution to the quote was wrong. It is more likely that the idea is due to Haldane, and we may have traced the quote down to the original source. However, the web still does not allow us to search the contents of the book we need to see and thereby close the case. So to get a clinching result we need to make a trip to the library: that ancient brick and atoms place, that foster-child of silence and slow time.


Copyright: Sourendu Gupta ; Last modified on 19 Oct, 2017.