Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tea Information, Misinformation, and Quality of Scholarship

I'm catching up for my time away from posting! A.C. Cargill just wrote a thought-provoking post title Too Much Tea Info, which sparked me to write this post--I just couldn't wait. I am excited to see bloggers questioning the legitimacy and accuracy of information about tea (or about anything) on the internet.

Passing on Misinformation & Myths:

Like A.C. Cargill, I also believe that most people are basically honest, but I also think that there's a large degree to which most people do not have the highest standards of fact-checking and do not understand how to do rigorous research. Because the majority of people pass information on without questioning it, all it takes is one person to make up some false information, and sometimes hundreds or thousands of people will pass it on. A great example of this is the widespread myth that white tea contains less caffeine than black tea--this is totally false, as some white teas are much higher in caffeine. And yet, thousands of websites make the false claim about white tea being low in caffeine. Teavana is one such company that makes this claim. On their page of Low Caffeinated Teas (which has since been taken down, thankfully, but the old page can be viewed, by source only due to an HTML error, on archive.org) they list Silver Needle White Tea, and Snow Peak Downy Tips White Tea...both tippy teas that are high in caffeine. This is very sloppy and is a major, and potentially dangerous oversight. This is a particular matter of concern because people often seek to limit their caffeine intake due to medical reasons, including pregnancy, or drugs that interfere with caffeine metabolism.

How I Maintain Accuracy:

One of my main motivations behind the creation of RateTea was to combat misinformation and set a higher bar for the quality of tea-related information on the web. To achieve this goal, I've taken great lengths to make RateTea a place where people can trust the information. Where there is conflicting information, such as on the page on Milky Oolong, I take effort to identify which sources say what, and I try to reconcile the conflicting perspectives. In the case of something subjective like describing aroma and flavor, I'm more than willing to use blogs as sources. But where health topics are concerned, I have higher standards, relying on quality scholarly work in peer-reviewed journals.

Honestly, I am not the most rigorous scholar out there. I've made numerous mistakes, both on RateTea and on other information sites and articles I've worked on. And I am always very eager to fix or improve material on one of my websites or articles.

The keys to making information as accurate as possible:

I think that the key in making an informational webpage or article that someone can trust is (a) identifying the source of your information, (b) using the most reliable sources possible, and (c) admitting when your sources are questionable, conflicting, or hard to verify (as with the page on Milky oolong, or on scientific topics where some evidence exists but the research is sparse, young, conflicting, or inconclusive).

Higher standards for health-related topics:

For health-related topics like the health benefits of tea, or the new article on tea and pregnancy, blogs and company websites are not acceptable as sources. In the case of health info, accurate scholarship not only involves using primarily articles published in peer-reviewed journals, but also questioning them: is the research current, or have the results been disproven by more recent research? Is there an isolated study supporting a certain idea, or a handful of studies all conducted by the same team of researchers, or a scientific consensus built over many years, by many different researchers? Is a certain viewpoint being pushed by an organization with a known bias? (Even non-profit scientific organizations can have well-known biases.) Does the research all point in the same direction or does it conflict? It's not only important to present what is known, but it's important to present the degree of certainty which can be placed in whatever results are thought to be true.

Learning from Wikipedia:

To anyone who is interested in learning more about how to conduct rigorous scholarship, I would point them in a very unusual direction: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is widely regarded in the public eye as a place where information cannot be trusted, for the simple fact that anyone can edit it. But I would challenge this notion: I think that if you check the edit history of a page, and ignore blatant vandalism, advertising, and other destructive or careless edits, Wikipedia is actually among the most accurate informational sources out there, especially on controversial pages where there are a large number of active editors constantly revising the page. And perhaps most importantly, there is a lot that can be learned about how to conduct scholarship and how to write and cite sources, by closely examining Wikipedia's guidelines.

Wikipedia's guidelines for identifying reliable sources are, in my opinion, spot on. Another, more subtle, but equally important guideline are Wikipedia's policies for writing with a Neutral Point of View. It's no secret that being an active wikipedia editor for years has helped me to become a better researcher. While my liberal arts education certainly helped somewhat, my professors never ripped my work to shreds the way the often-anonymous community of wikipedia editors does on a daily basis. People who want to improve the quality of their research would do well to read those guidelines, and perhaps even better, to start participating in Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree Alex. Wikipedia is far more reliable than some would like to believe. I do believe you need to double-check the information you find there, but when I do, I'm often pleased at the accuracy.

    Nice post.