“The stories never said why she was wicked. It was enough to be an old woman, enough to be all alone, enough to look strange because you have no teeth. It was enough to be called a witch. If it came to that, the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about "a handsome prince"... was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called handsome? As for "a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long"... well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories don't want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told...”
― Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
The democratization of science, news and culture is a wonderful thing. The plethora of information available though often makes it difficult sometimes to weed out sources of information and thus, the truths, half truths and the lies, the mis-directions, the head fakes.
We all see the truth through our own filter, subject to our own prejudices, some petty, some justified. And it would be wrong to assume someone's experience or lack thereof as a limitation or advantage on their ability to sort through information and make decisions about vaildity.
I refer to the quote at the start of this post.
So for myself as much as anyone who stumbles across this, I would like to summarize in note form the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary sources of information.
Primary Sources :-
Information created at the time of study, or the time in question. Information that gives a first hand account of the event in question.
The list of things that can be considered primary sources of information is long, briefly described below.
-raw experimental data
-statistical data (if raw data included)*
-research- where an experiment was performed or an observation made
-original research report, often with raw data, collection details, methods, results and conclusions
-Broadcast media e.g. TV and/or radio news reports
-law cases, constitutions, regulations
-newspaper or magazine articles from the time of the event
-reflections of individuals involved in the event in question during or soon after the event
Secondary Source :-
These 'refer to' or 'cite' primary sources.
They offer an interpretation or commentary of primary data and should always be clear that they are such.
These tend to be performed after the event in question, often after much time has passed.
Memory, the passage of time and distance from the event, may make these sources less 'valid' or 'true'.
Any kind of analysis, case report, review articles in a peer-reviewed article or archives of primary sources.
A non eye-witness account of an event.
Tertiary Sources :-
Discussions about secondary and/or primary sources.
Think of things like anthologies, textbooks, databases, field guides etc.
There are of course exceptions to the rule and as we develop more platforms to disseminate information the lines between primary and secondary sources of information are more blurred. A commonly used example is an obituary, or an autobiography which can be both a primary and secondary source of information.
My history teacher, Mr Stanley taught me to think of what might have been excluded from the data set you have been presented with. Think of the perspectives that have been left out and why. History is written by the winners and any GOT fan knows what happens to good people and that "A lion doesn't concern itself with the opinion of sheep." - G.R.R. Martin.
Museums are filled with such excluded items, so much 'lost luggage', often taking up as much room as the items on display. Items are not on display for reasons that include 'not enough room', 'not interesting to the public', items that basically do not fit the narrative or story being told. This information may have been withheld for many reasons, not necessarily anything nefarious. They may have not known what to do with it. They may genuinely have not felt it of any importance. It does not fit their world-view and so must be wrong or a forgery or a mistake.
Likewise with Broadcast media, mainstream or otherwise. Why are missing persons not given more priority? Why are death and mayhem stories given such prominence?
Are you feeling a theme forming here? One more...
Even when looking at peer review research papers. Pick a subject, physics, medicine, biology... Why is this paper/theme being published? Why this angle? When looking at the methods especially the statistical analyses, be very mindful why some statistical tests are reported and others are not. Remember, negative results are not published as prolifically or often given as much importance. Proving your null hypothesis (that there is no significant difference between specified populations, any observed difference being due to sampling or experimental error) is not considered significant in terms of publications.
So the pressure to publish or perish is strong. This motive may alter the prism of reported truth even subconsciously and also a big reason why so many studies seem to contradict themselves.
Happy New Year, 2018 is going to be interesting.
'... are you sure it's all true?'
'I'm sure it's all journalism', said William.
'And what is that supposed to mean?'
'It means it's true enough for now.'
The Truth- Terry Pratchett