An undergraduate student recently emailed us to ask about using Snopes.com for fact-checking and undergraduate research. The truth is Snopes is good for debunking outlandish urban myths, but it is biased junk for far too many other things, especially politics, history, and current events. Many professors point out that Snopes and Wiki are not rigorous, unbiased, high-quality, peer-reviewed, reliable sources of legitimate information, which is why they tell students not to use them. Any fact-checker should be willing to verify sources, the methods of how one came to such conclusions, and never take the surface claims of an obviously biased blog as gospel. This is a brief response to the student, in an effort to promote higher quality fact-finding missions and research sources.
Question: “Professor Alonzo, I wanted to know what the best sources of debunking are for stuff in life like politics. I forwarded you a story about Snopes and wanted to know your thoughts. Is it a good source that is unbiased or not? It seems like Snopes isn’t good enough for a skeptic to use. Just so you know, I emailed several other professors (—–) from —- and they also told me students shouldn’t even use Wiki or Snopes for research papers. There has to be a reason for saying that. I couldn’t find any sources that talk about Snopes credibility. Why? Do you agree?”
You ask a really good question and it’s fantastic that you’re paying attention to the sources you read. This is one of the things we teach students, especially as they start to apply the scientific method during research. Being able to make informed decisions will greatly help you in nearly every aspect of life.
I won’t go too much into the background of whoever the Snopes founders are, you can read about that yourself (here, here, here). Snopes is a popular website, but hopefully more people will investigate it further.
You’re absolutely right to separate out skepticism from Snopes. It’s really unfortunate that so many so-called skeptics use Snopes as if it is the sole arbiter of factual information. The truth is Snopes does make it convenient for people that are impatient, unwilling to spend time reading sources for themselves. Fact-checking, depending on the topic, can take hours, weeks, months, even years. We have so many people with a short-attention span that would rather visit a website for a few seconds and then come to what they think is an informed decision.
As a practicing scientist and professor that teaches sound science, facts are critical. We make some of our most important decisions based on what we’re told, read, see, hear, etc. This is why I’m so vocal about this issue and why we try to stamp out pseudoskepticism, pseudoscience, and biased data. Social media makes it really easy for people to mindlessly parrot misinformation, spreading it quickly around the world. This also makes it harder for students to find just the facts.
As you know from our lecture, we discuss biases in scientific data sets. We talked about where biases come from, such as money, political affiliation, and religion. These are things that can influence someone to pick and choose facts or come to a conclusion different than what is suggested by the data itself. We each have to do our part to make sure our own personal biases do not interfere with finding facts.
I’ve actually been reviewing hundreds of Snopes.com articles over the past few years. It takes many years to be able to recognize subtle biases, especially if there is a purposeful obfuscation of process or people involved. There is no doubt in my mind that Snopes.com is not a neutral, rigorously fact-checked source that you should rely on for decision-making. I don’t have the time or interest to study Snopes any further because I’ve seen enough. However, I encourage you to take a look at numerous articles, research the sources they list, verify the claims for yourself, and then come to your own conclusions about Snopes and its content. I also encourage you to see other articles (example, example) from other journalists that are also concerned about how biased Snopes and its writers are.
I do not necessarily agree with the content of the Daily Caller or Medium, for example, but they do seem to indicate a clear bias in their examples of Snopes articles. What passes off as a fact-checking source is very weak at best, in all of these cases. I list these just as examples only!
Snopes is Childish, Very Biased
Here is an example of how childish, immature, agenda-laden, inconsistent, and biased Snopes.com content can be. If you were to read a blog post like this one (screen shot), you have to question a blog touting itself as the best fact-checking source around.
The site seems to also attack anyone that questions or disagrees with their self-proclaimed facts, even to the point of calling them names. Is this what a professional does? A wise skeptic or journalist shouldn’t even bother reading Snopes, if you want to be truly informed.
50% Junk, 50% Depends
After analyzing hundreds of articles published on the Snopes website, there is a consistent political bias present that many times uses a system of political spinning, picking and choosing of only sources that support the author’s agenda, and questionable conclusions of what Snopes determines to be true, in-between, or false. It’s unfortunate that so many people simply read a Snopes article for 60 seconds and then make what they think is an informed decision about a story or claim. In some cases, there are claims about political figures that seem to purposely ignore factual sources that could change the outcome of the article from true to false or vice versa.
There’s an article from Medium that does a good job summarizing Snopes:
You mentioned that several other university professors told you that students shouldn’t be using Snopes or Wikipedia for research papers. I completely agree with the other professors and applaud them for telling you such.
For the same reasons I mention above, students should be using reliable, as unbiased as possible, higher quality sources, such as a scientific peer-reviewed journal article. You certainly should know who the author is, how they came to the conclusion (methods), and if there are any ethical considerations, such as conflicts of interest. If it is a technical or scientific topic, it takes certain expertise to interpret such data, which also means your author should have some kind of recognized, formal credentials in the area. The more rigorous, high-quality sources you use during your research or fact-finding missions, the more informed you will be. The other professors you talked to were absolutely right.
Since skeptic enthusiasts will likely see this article, the same applies to them. The scientific method of fact-finding is the only proven utility to determine fact from fiction, identify bias, and make informed decisions. It’s just as important for K-12 teachers to discuss reliable sources and bias as well.
You should use multiple reputable, unbiased sources during research. You should also be open-minded, just in case what you find is not what you expected. There’s nothing wrong with getting second or third opinions, especially on important issues.
This MIT article puts it best, reminding students that any legitimate research paper should rely on sound science sources. The articles you cite, specifically an author or article piece itself, should have been written by someone with appropriate credentials in that subject area. If your source wasn’t created by a qualified expert, you shouldn’t use it. That’s rule #1 for quality sources!
I couldn’t believe that any college professor of any subject would allow any student to use Wikipedia or a similar site for a college paper, unless that was the topic of the paper. Other professors have mentioned that Wiki isn’t a reliable source to cite for anything.
It’s easy to go to a popular website and spend 30 seconds reading an article that basically tells you what to think or what is true/false, but that’s a dangerous way to get facts. People that don’t bother verifying claims in an article as well as the expertise/credentials of the author also demonstrate some a lack of consistent critical-thinking skills (also sometimes called healthy skepticism). There’s a cult of intellectually-lazy people that lash out against professors that point out the fact that students shouldn’t be using such sources for their college papers or any legitimate research effort. It makes sense that any other fact-finding mission should approach this issue the same way.
Be careful about your sources. It’s a shame many college professors actually encourage their students to use online magazines, Snopes, Wiki, and other unscientific, non-expert, biased, and questionable sources. To be fair, in regards to political websites, both the Left and Right create pseudoscience and misleading content. Students really need to go the extra mile and verify the author’s expertise, credentials, and the validity of the information itself. Ask questions, don’t take the word of the author. You must verify the claims of the source (validity) and the credentials (expertise) of the author. Your source should be recent (current) and relevant to your topic of interest. Just because a “fact-checking” site is popular doesn’t mean it’s valid, accurate, or otherwise acceptable for research and college papers. Each college should have a guide as to what is expected for a college paper, which could include how to cite, acceptable sources, and other details.
Hopefully, this answers your questions. It’s good to know that you are practicing sound science and healthy skepticism.