Ask a Science Professor: Is Snopes.com unbiased, reliable for skeptics or journalists to use for research? No!

By Ben Alonzo 12 Comments
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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?”

Answer:

Student,

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.

snopes-example

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:

“Snopes is actually a pretty good at disproving “outlandish urban legends”, but when they deal with political ‘fact checking’ their bias is blatant.”

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!

“
If the person is not a qualified expert, you should not use the information.” – MIT

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.

“Many instructors forbid reference to Wikipedia at all. This surprises me, because I didn’t think many professors allowed encyclopedia citations, period. Don’t do it even if permitted, as a general rule. Just like you can drive 65 miles an hour in a dense fog, but it’s not a good idea. Wikipedia suffers from the problem that it is not a primary source and has very weak quality control. More recently it’s suffered from the problem of deliberate sabotage, vandalism, and censorship. It’s generally reliable for checking routine facts and extremely specialized topics, and it’s often the only source on popular culture. But don’t use it if you’re not familiar enough with the subject matter to spot biases or errors.” – University of Wisconsin

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.

bio
About Author: Ben Alonzo is a scientist, tech expert, professor, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s currently CEO of the media and tech firm Storm Sector. Ben holds an M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Nutrition and Health Sciences, and a B.S. in Geoscience. He’s a highly-rated professor that teaches several courses at multiple colleges, including earth science, environmental science, oceanography, meteorology, and public health. His diverse background spans numerous science fields, enterprise network and computer systems, healthcare, telecommunications, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, computer programming, and web development. Ben holds numerous professional licenses and certifications, ranging from information technology to healthcare and emergency medical technician. He’s been writing about science and technology for over 10 years. You can also see some of his past articles on the Houston Chronicle, eHow, Sciencing, Hearst, and other news networks. In his free time, he loves to scuba dive, travel, and write guitar music. More about the author.
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  • Blake

    Why didn’t you show us a source of other professors saying you shouldn’t use Wikipedia? It’s just as good as peer review. What’s wrong with using Wiki for research at a college?

    • Craig Rowland

      No, according to MIT and UW, Professor Alonzo is 100% correct. A website’s popularity doesn’t have crap to do with its credibility!

      A good professor should be saying the same thing to students. My professor told us we can’t use any kind of Wiki. I used to get mad about it but doesn’t it make sense though. You shouldn’t have crap for sources is what it comes down to.

      Sources:

      https://integrity.mit.edu/handbook/citing-your-sources/citing-electronic-sources

      https://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/paperref.htm

      http://connorsstate.edu/disted/wikipedia/

      http://asiamediaarchive.lmu.edu/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_Academic_use.html

      “Wikipedia is not considered a credible source. Wikipedia is increasingly used by people in the academic community, from freshman students to professors, as an easily accessible tertiary source for information about anything and everything. However, citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.[1][2][3]

      This is especially true considering anyone can edit the information given at any time, and although most errors are immediately fixed, some errors maintain unnoticed. However, it can be noted that Wikipedia’s Good Articles and Featured Articles are some degree more advanced, professional, and generally more credible than an article not labeled Good or Featured. It is because these articles are reviewed heavily and edited many many times, passing a lot of “tests” before being confirmed Good or Featured, that they can be used for some deeper research than usual. It is Wikipedia’s Featured Articles that are especially trustworthy in contrast to normal or even good articles, as they have to pass even harder “tests” to become featured, as they are to be “the best of Wikipedia”, “a model for other articles”, and thus, a much more reliable source than average articles.”

    • https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8cFk7FzuFJg5frKsZWWlUA CocoaNutCakery

      I’m sorry, but no. Those that think that Wikipedia is unbiased because “anyone can edit” it are unfamiliar with how online cultures evolve, not to mention how Wikipedia actually works.

      The worst part of Wikipedia is this: If you edit the wrong article with something that is demonstrably true and unbiased, including correcting something that is blatantly false, you can be banned. There are full-on Wikipedia lawyers that have control of many of the pages, especially the political ones. If you edit a page that they have control over, they can report you and get you banned and the only thing you can do about it is just to admit fault and move on.

      But even if Wikipedia did live up to its claim that “anyone can edit” it, it still presents the problem of mob rule: What is popular is not always right. What is right is not always popular. It becomes fairly easy for the majority of people editing the site to be biased (which they are) and drive out dissenters simply by disgust. Even if the imbalance is 55-45, the overwhelming voice of the 55 will drive the less dedicated of the 45 away and attract others in line with the 55. This tips the balance further and the cycle repeats until only the most dedicated of what was originally the 45 are left.

      And then there’s the problem of sources. Wikipedia has some of the most bizarre rules when it comes to sources, and they come from the Wikipedia lawyers. Reliable sources are disallowed, even on pages about said sources, while sources that regularly post false information are allowed merely because Wikipedia allows them. There isn’t any consistency or logic in which sources are allowed, simply “whatever the Wikipedia lawyers want.” Consider this scenario: Source A posts an article on their site claiming Source B posted an article advocating for X on their site. The Source B article that it links, however, does nothing of the sort and even goes out of its way to point out that that’s not the case. You would think that you would use Source B for this, and you should. Wikipedia, however, disallows Source B. So the Wikipedia article carries the Source A claim as fact. And I’m actually thinking about a specific case here.

      Wikipedia is biased because the overwhelming voice of Wikipedia editors is biased and those capable of making the rules on Wikipedia share that same bias.

      And all of that is aside from innocent errors. I’ve had Wikipedia articles linked to me that say the exact opposite of what their source says or screws up the wording so that it means something completely different. I remember that it had something to do with misquoting the study in regards to oral herpes cases, but it was years ago and so I don’t remember the exact error. I pointed it out to the person linking the article, however.

      The point is this: Wikipedia is bad and you should feel bad for using it.

      • tmac789

        I only use Wiki to look up technology articles as I’m a systems administrator and celebrity facts, because for some reason I feel like looking them up. I wouldn’t trust it for anything political, that’s for sure. I’ve read stories about notorious Palestinian/Israeli pages where people who tried to inject facts said the pages were controlled and impossible to edit. The truth is everyone is biased and has a point of view.

        I would label myself a Christian libertarian. I brought up to my left wing coworker and friend (friend as long as we don’t talk about politics often) that I was horrified by Trudeau’s new law forcing organizations to answer a political test and say they support abortion on demand which I think is the government overstepping its bounds and threatening to withhold funds to organizations who don’t agree with Trudeau’s worldview. My coworker thought this was perfectly acceptable behaviour and claimed certain organizations were using the funding to fund abortion protesters, although an online search returned nothing of the sort, I’ll take his word for it that happened, but still feel it’s political opportunism by Trudeau to hammer conservatives. My coworker and I can never see eye to eye on these things and people with such disparate views could never understand each other. This is why you should always assume bias in any online publication. Everyone has strongly held views based on a particular worldview.

    • jhamaker

      The way I see it, Wikipedia is a good starting point if you’re trying to learn about a subject. Especially something which is academic and apolitical. Most articles contain numerous citations, so it is very easy to work backwards to more reliable sources if you need them. But if I need a quick reference for something I am not familiar with, I have never seen anything to suggest Wikipedia is a bad place to start.

  • Christopher Nugent

    This professor starts his dissertation using The Daily Caller as a reference and source? Jaysis

  • Mendoland

    Read the actual “childish” article cited by the author, who also refers to the Daily Caller and Medium. Yes…very objective. No political slant in THIS article, none at all….

  • Jeffery Allen Morgan

    So what I derive from all the comments here and the article is that everything to a point is obviously corruptible, because mankind is corrupted.

    • Ron

      Yes, because Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and Adam ate some too.
      I believe that story is strictly allegorical, but it marks the point at which mankind became separated from the animals.
      Unfortunately, many people still seem to be animals. Or else they choose evil.

  • GoBlue

    Multiple colleges, huh? Which ones–DeVry and Phoenix?

  • jhamaker

    When it comes to analyzing policy, there may be an argument that Snopes has some bias. However, I have found the site to be very reliable for debunking the run of the mill garbage that comes across my news feed on an average day. This includes the outrageous urban legends, as well as much of the satire/fake news masquerading as real news.

    When I do read a Snopes article related to a policy issue, I often try to read the actual policy. Or at least look for a deeper analysis of Snopes information. However, after using the site for nearly 20 years I have found very few examples of their reporting having a true bias or lack of research. If anything I have found they can be too careful in parsing the details of a claim, to the point they prove the claim is either true or false, but take a neutral position because some of the details are off. One notable example of this was about a Bernie Sanders claim regarding health care expenditures by other countries.

  • https://www.facebook.com/tony-venuti Tony Venuti

    a must read…