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Revision and the Internet

The internet is really big. Really, really big. The best estimates I could find was about 1 trillion (1,000,000,000,000) web pages over about a third of a billion (330,000,000) websites. That’s roughly 500 pages per internet user, working on a figure of 2 billion users (just under 30% of the world population).

Never in history have so many people had so much access to so much information – which is a good thing – mostly.

The internet is largely unedited: subject to little in the way of legislation; frequently the purveyor of obscene material; the home of racial bigotry; a forum for bullying; and so on. Having said all that there are many fantastic, free, educational, uplifting, interesting sites out there. In spite of all its troubles the internet is amazing. It has toppled corrupt governments, revolutionized the ways we communicate, the ways we shop, changed written and even spoken language (OMG!), even (for some people) the way we find friends, even what we mean by a friend (pre-Facebook a friend was usually someone you’d at least met once!).

So what does all this mean in terms of you and your exams? On the up side there is a huge amount of free and really useful stuff out there, from the BBC’s bitesize through to the Open University. On the down side there is a huge amount of inmate drivel or worse still well written, seemingly “sound”, drivel. The first big problem is to filter out all the crap.

Evidence and Reliability

This section could have easily been titled “Crap and how to avoid it…” because that is a key skill you need to develop. The first point I want to make is extremely important if seemingly very obvious: not everything you hear, see or read is true. This is even more important when considering information available on the internet.

In a world full of healthy sceptical minds where no-one deliberately lies this point wouldn’t need labouring. However, given that there are a surprisingly large number of people who believe the British Monarchy consists mostly of shape-shifting alien reptiles (13,400 hits on Google) there is an obvious and depressing lack of scepticism and a lot of lying.

So how can you be sure of information from the internet? In short you can never to 100% certain; however, you can get close enough for almost all practical purposes.

Let’s take an example: suppose we want to find out Joseph Stalin’s dates – not quite as easy as it might at first seem, Stalin lied about his age, and Stalin was not his real name…

Google Stalin dates

Even on this first page of the search results we have a contradiction. We have two dates for his birth: 18th December 1878 and 21st December 1879 (the actual date may be 6th December 1878). So the first page of Google may not have the correct answer – worse still perhaps we will never know with a high level of certainty exactly when he was born.

So how do we find the right answer?

Well we don’t try to find the right answer, we try to find the best answer, the one that seems most likely to be right.

So where does the popular 21st December 1879 come from? Well the most useful thing to turn up from the searches in the following extract:

Stalin dates - official biography

The 21st December 1879 date comes from the official biography of Stalin printed in Russian in 1938 pretty much at the height of Stalin’s powers. Should we believe this? I would say no, not sure that a bit of propagandist literature is a particularly good source. (Apparently lying about your age was common practice amongst Russian men at the time – it was a way to avoid military service). Ironically this Stalinist lie (if that’s what it is) has made its way onto many websites and even into some text books – it is even the date quoted on the BBC history page! See BBC: History - Stalin

Stalin BBC

So it seems likely that December 1878 date is probably right – it is frequently quoted by reliable sources and appears in well-regarded books. However, which date in December? 6th or 18th? This mystery is finally solved by the following footnote from Wikipedia:

Stalin dates - 6th or 18th

So the date on the documents will be 6th December 1878 (Russian date) which was 18th December 1878 in Britain. Britain reformed its calendar in 1752 whereas Russian reformed in 1918. So rather weirdly both 6th and 18th are correct, providing you explain that the 6th is the Russian old style date (best source document I could find below - shame I can't read Cyrillic).

Stalin DoB document

For even something as straightforward as a date of birth of a well know tyrant we have to be careful even when consulting reliable sources. With the exception of Stalin’s initial lie, I am sure none of the sources quoted above set out to deliberately spread the lie.

Thankfully, most of the things you might look up on line will be more straightforward. A search for Churchill’s dates give consistent answers from a large number of reliable sites, so we can be pretty certain to the dates: 30th November 1874 to 24th January 1965. No lies and no changing calendars.

As a rule if you look something up on line and you find lots of reliable sites giving the same answers then there’s a good chance it true. However, watch out for what you look up, where you look it up and how you phrase your search. The question “was Hitler a narrow minded bigot” is likely to give you a “yes” as the question pre-supposes the answer – even though the answer is probably “yes” it’s best not to load the question.

The standard of evidence you require will depend on the work you are doing. If you are writing a GCSE essay on Stalin that requires his dates, the above is probably a bit of an overkill, probably about right for an A level essay (unless the entire essay was about his DoB) and insufficient for university work.

The reliability of a website is a more difficult thing to judge. Wikipedia is pretty reliable now, the BBC is generally good, university and exam board website are generally good, beyond that you need to use a bit of common sense. Facebook, as fabulous as it may be, is rarely a reliable source of information of any academic merit, for example we could have seen J Stalin at the Pheonix Theatre this February according to Facebook.

Stalin in town

Plagiarism: cut and paste essays…

As tempting as it is to download essays rather than going to the effort of writing it is pointless on so many different levels. Firstly, you won’t learn anything much; secondly, they are mostly rubbish (yes even the ones that claim to be grade A standard) and thirdly, if you hand them in as coursework it is almost certain the exam boards will notice. For a start you won’t be the only one and also the exam boards have software and humans looking for cut and paste essays.

Below is a small collection of quotes from “great” essays.

“When I changed the constants.”

“Geomagnetic storms caused by solar winds… Solar winds are geomagnetic storms…”

“No matter how many times this topic has been argued abortion is and always will remain immoral.” Not the best start to a “present both sides” essay.

Even if you just want to use the essays as examples they are frequently really bad examples: phrases like “Descartes got it wrong man” are very unlikely to score top marks. Neither is the essay about “Albert Eichmann”, given that his name is “Adolf Eichmann”. Incidentally, according to Facebook, Albert Eichmann is a rather glum looking man from North Carolina.

 

Possible and Probably

Just because something is possible it doesn’t mean that there is realistic chance that it will ever happen. Consider the lottery – the odds on winning the jackpot with 1 ticket is 13,983,815 to 1 – so 14 million to 1 in round numbers – which is pretty unlikely. Now it is possible that the same person could win the jackpot with 1 ticket every week for a year, the odds of that are 13,983,815 raised to the power of 52 - to 1, now that is a very big number. Way bigger than the number of atoms in the universe. The chances are inconceivably small: roughly 373, 710, 090, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 to 1.

To all practical purposes the chances of winning the lottery every week for a year are zero. To say it might happen is really stretching the phrase “might happen” to beyond its breaking point. Or to say optimistically “there’s still a chance” essentially shows that you don’t understand the odds.

The point of this is always be wary of claims that start “it is possible that…” Ask how possible is it?

The other side to this argument is sensationalist news – American news is particularly good at this.

lost brother news item

“Man finds long lost brother in Walmart!”

Well that is very lovely for the man. Let’s consider if it is really newsworthy. Let’s guess that the odds on that happening are 1,000,000 to one on any given day. There are roughly 150,000,000 men in America, of which at least 30% will have a brother, that’s 45,000,000 men with brothers. Now suppose the 1 in 1000 lose contact, that’s 22,500 couples of lost brothers. So that means that this 1,000,000 to 1 event will happen once every 4 and half days – not really that amazing.

Ockham’s Razor and the Lizard Queen

Ockham’s razor, put simply, states that the simplest viable explanation, with the least assumptions, is the best one. So what has that got to do with revision, the internet or the lizard Queen. Well, essentially to make good use of the internet you need to be critical, you need a way to filter out the rubbish. So if you are reading something on the internet then you need to ask yourself a few questions.

Let’s take the contention that royal family consists mostly of alien lizard creatures. There is an entire website dedicated to this and other extraordinary claims: Google “illuminati and the queen” if you don’t believe it.

Now once we have finished laughing, we need to take a proper critical look at it. The story of the global lizard conspiracy fails the Ockham’s razor in so many ways. Firstly, I would say that it is not particularly viable – it lacks any real evidence. Secondly and the real razor test, it requires a huge amount of assumptions, which mostly ludicrous and again lacking credible evidence. We have to invent aliens, shape-shifting (that’s how they manage to look human), a massive cover up – thousands of people over many centuries, flying saucers (to get the aliens here), an alien reptile – human compatible DNA, and so on.  

Unless you count the following photo as conclusive evidence, which shows the Queen’s true lizard nature…

The Queen as a lizard

Erm. I think the brown mark that looks rather like a bruise is supposed to be her lizardiness showing through.

Perhaps a better explanation is that those who believe this are nuts and the Queen is an eighty-something year old human that bruises or that someone has been messing about with Photoshop. Very few assumptions need to be made here and we do have evidence for those assumptions. And just for the sake of it, I’ve Photoshopped away the mark, just to make the point.

The Queen not as a lizard

OK so this is a silly example, but the principle stands, it is always worth considering the assumptions that have to be made so a claim or position stands. If they are lots of assumptions, without much evidence, then at best the claim or position is weak.

One last piece of evidence I have to include is the following:

lizard pics

The reason I have included this is because I think it is funny – sadly not intentionally so. The best bit is that it is apparently it's common and lots of people see it!

The internet is littered with extraordinary claims that require many giant assumptions. Keeping the number of assumptions as low as possible is a good crap filter.

Eurozone - fact versus opinion