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Digital thinking tools for better decision making
Digital thinking tools for better decision making

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Session 2: Getting to grips with information


Ctesias writes that in the same country [Ethiopia] is born the creature that he calls the mantichora which has a triple row of teeth meeting like the teeth of a comb, the face and ears of a human being, grey eyes, a blood-red colour, a lion’s body, inflicting stings with its tail in the manner of a scorpion, with a voice like the sound of a panpipe blended with a trumpet, of great speed, with a special appetite for human flesh.

(Pliny the Elder, AD 23–79, Natural History, Book 8, p. 30)

No modern reader would seriously believe this story (see Figure 1). Why did Pliny think it was worth passing on? Why was he not more sceptical?

Pliny was only using the best information he could get hold of. And perhaps he had no reason to reject what appeared to be a fact.

An attempt to portray the the animal described by Pliny.
Figure 1 A manticore

This example illustrates two key questions about information:

  • How can you get hold of it?
  • How do you know whether or not to trust it?

You are already familiar with search engines such as Google, and with websites such as Wikipedia. But in this session you will learn things you might not have known about them. You will also meet new sources of information.

When Pliny lived, in the first century, there were only a few tens of thousands books altogether in the world. Today, the US Library of Congress holds about 100 million items. Any internet search may return millions of hits. This introduces a third problem, one that Pliny probably didn’t have: if you have too much information, how can you filter it?

In this session you will also look at ways of evaluating information and assessing its credibility. Simply being able to find information is useless unless you can decide whether to believe it.

By the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • use Google operators to fine-tune your information searches
  • appreciate the limitations of both traditional and online reference sources
  • apply strategies for comparing and critically evaluating websites.