The need for new techniques for analysing information


(web page under construction)




In the past, finding information was a major task in itself.  Every specialist field had its own sources of information, and part of becoming an expert in the field included learning about the sources of information and how to use them.


With the advent of the Internet and search engines such as Google, finding information has been greatly simplified.  Firstly, the Internet includes vast stores of information previously only accessible in specialist libraries.  Secondly, search engines enable people to find information about specialist field without much extra training.


The upshot of this is that non-experts using Internet search engines can now find information often more quickly than specialists using traditional reference sources.


However, while information is now much more easily accessible, a key issue is assessing the quality of information on the Internet. In this, experts still have the upper hand. Yet experts in a particular field are often greatly outnumbered by other people were also interested in that field.  The result is a phenomenon which I call "white-noising": the tendency for correct information to be drowned out by large quantities of incorrect or irrelevant information.


Dealing with "white-noising" involves handling information in a different way to learning from school textbooks. Various techniques can be used, for example:


1. Carefully refining search techniques. Searching on a selection of common words usually produces vast numbers of results, too many to be of any use. The trick is to find very specific words or word combinations which only appear in the subject you are interested in. Doing this not only reduces the number of search results to look up, it also helps to eliminate "white noise".


2. The journalistic approach. When a journalist researches the background to a story, he or she must evaluate the reliability of information in order to make sure that the story is accurate. Over the years, journalists have developed techniques for evaluating the reliability of information which can be useful in evaluating the reliability of the results of Internet searches. For example, the idea of primary sources.  If a journalist is not sure if something is true or merely a rumour, he or she tries to trace it back to its primary source: the person who first said or wrote it. (This principle is even recognised in law in Britain: in order to defend oneself against a libel suit, one must produce primary sources for the disputed information.) Having found the primary source, we must then make an assessment of how reliable that source is.