The information on this website, crap or CRAAP?


Don’t you sometimes wish you just had Belle’s library?

The interwebz is an interesting place. You can find lists of the top 31 things only “Friends” fans will appreciate or lists of studies trying (mainly failing) to find a link between vaccines and autism. You can find glorious videos of David Bowie singing in sassy high heel boots in the Labyrinth or videos of little-known comedians in the 80’s. And then there’s this baby panda trying to make a break for it.

Aside from the fun and wonky, the internet is also a great place for basic information. Whether you’re trying to remember what poison ivy looks like or attempting to stave off a baking disaster (save the pie!!), a quick Google search is generally all you need. A more thoughtful search can also guide you through some complicated tasks, like tracking down a politician’s voting records or pulling up the details on a car or neighborhood before a major purchase. But…what about when you’re trying to wade through fact and opinion? What if you’re trying to find information on a subject that is hotly debated or poorly understood? What if you just want to be assured that the information you’re receiving from out there in cyber space is legitimate and trustworthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the CRAAP test.

C.R.A.A.P. is a helpful mnemonic for remembering a few key characteristics for judging the trustworthiness of a source. Originally designed by folks at California State University, Chico, the CRAAP test asks readers to look for a source’s currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. In the academic circuit, it’s largely taught to help students learn to identify scholarly sources and avoid, shall we say, less-than-legitimate websites. Outside the classroom, though, it’s still a handy map to carry on your quest for knowledge.

So what are the criteria we should be keeping in mind as we look for articles online or in print?

C– Currency. How recently was this article written? The publication date of a source can make all the difference in the world when we are talking about the accuracy of information. If the article or paper is more general background type information, you can get away with it being a bit older, but newer is always better. When I was an undergrad, we tended to avoid papers more than four years old when we were first getting in the habit of looking at source dates, but this really depends on the field and how quickly new information comes out. I’d say try to stick with information generated within the last couple of years, and you’re probably good to go.

R– Relevance. How relevant is a source’s information to the question you’re trying to answer? What was the intended audience of the source? As much as I prefer academic journals, I think if any of us were trying to look up information on heart disease, we would probably have an easier time with sources not intended for cardiologists. That being said, picking sources that are too simplified or tertiary might not even be helpful. If you find yourself needing to look up definitions every now and then as you look through a source, that’s fine; but if the article just reads like the Black Speech of Mordor, I’d go for something a bit less technical.

A– Authority. This. THIS. This is a big one, especially for web sources. Who is the author and why should I trust them?

  • If your internet source doesn’t even give you an author, that’s Red Flag #1. If you don’t know who wrote the article, how are you going to trust it? And if an author is listed, what credentials do they have to be giving you their information? Are they doctors? Astronauts? Writers? Pastors? Philosophers? Lawyers? You want to find an author who is well-educated in whatever field you’re researching. You wouldn’t ask a mechanic to do your highlights, or a pediatrician to bake your wedding cake, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t look to a celebrity for medical information (though I do know a lawyer who is an excellent cook, and you should definitely check out her blog). Now granted, if you’re visiting websites like Autism Speaks or the American Cancer Society, you probably won’t be able to find authors on their background information pages. In that case, though, if you’re looking at a large, well-established organization, they’re probably reliable for basic information. Their information wouldn’t be suitable for a college-level paper, but it can give you quick facts.
  • Is there any contact information for the author or publisher?
  • Who is the publisher behind the author? Is it a biased source? For example, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is most likely not the most unbiased place to start researching the pros and cons of coal-driven energy, and as much as I’ve loved their safety instructors, the National Rifle Association’s website isn’t going to be helpful if you’re looking up crime or accident stats.

A– Accuracy. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s tough when you’re exploring a new subject: how accurate is the source’s information? One of the quickest things to look for is the quality of the writing (dang, I just ruled myself out). Are there obvious typos, breaks in flow or logic (crap, crap, crap), grammar issues–things like that? They aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but they are (hypothetically) more common in sources that have not been peer-reviewed.

What’s peer-review, you say? In a nutshell, peer-review is the evaluation of an article before it is published. The key is that the potential article is not just reviewed by an editor, but by “peers.” This means that if, for example, I did a study and wrote a paper on eagle genetics (who does that?), the journal I submit my paper to would send out my paper to a handful of reviewers. These reviewers would be other researchers who have strong backgrounds in genetics or birds of prey or both. They would pick apart all of my analyses, my rationale, and my conclusions to determine if I answered my scientific questions in the best possible way. If I have a break in logic or don’t properly explain my methods, they’ll catch it before it ever even goes to publication. They could also suggest that I perform more analyses before my paper is published (please no.) Essentially, peer-review helps keep the standard high.

If you’re trying to find information on a given topic, does the source have to be peer-reviewed? Well, probably not. If you’re a student writing a paper, that’s a different story, but in general, I would say it’s probably easier to look at the sources that your source is citing. Do they tend to be .gov or .edu sites? Do they tend to be biased organizations? Are any of their sources primary literature (something peer-reviewed)? Does the source primarily cite its own previous work rather than also including other sources? The types of a sources an article or webpage cites can be a huge indicator of accuracy. And if there are no works cited, beam me up, Scotty. We don’t want that planet.

P– Purpose. The last part of the CRAAP test asks what is the purpose of this article? Is the source trying to sell something? Is the article meant to inform? Is it to persuade? Does the author make clear when they are giving opinion rather than fact? If the article is meant to persuade, do they give solid references to back their opinions? This last item, like accuracy, can sometimes be a bit difficult to ascertain, but honestly, just being aware that there are different purposes for different kinds of writing really makes a big difference.

So there you have it folks, the CRAAP test. Sometimes I wish it had a better name, and sometimes I giggle to myself that I have a perfectly legitimate excuse to say “crap” in front of a classroom of college students (because I’m an adult). I hope it helps you out in your daily web cruising, and if you’re still in school, you can use this guide to amaze your profs with a beautiful reference list!

Peace, love, and science!

The Daffodil Hypothesis

This is a very unscientific post, but the reading of “1° F” on my phone’s weather app inspired daydreams of pink cherry blossoms and a soft breeze that wisps through open windows and flutters flowery curtains. I actually do like winter (snowball fights, crunchy footsteps, and all!), but the handful of days every year that drop into the single digits strike a chill even in my Viking blood. My best solution for those days is to chug coffee and hot chocolate, bundle up like an Arctic puppy, and imagine beaches or springtime.

And springtime daydream is what triggered an old daffodil memory that I thought I would share with you all…


Some years ago, on a Sunday in April, I accidentally left my car’s headlights on for three services of church. Suffice it to say, when I returned to the parking garage, my car was not having the “start” option. I remember being annoyed, not just at myself, but at the fact that I going to be in the lab later into the evening than I wanted to be. Grad school was stressing me out, and a dead car battery just was not what I needed that day.

Flustered, I called AAA, and they promised to send someone as soon as possible—but considering my situation wasn’t technically an emergency, I could be waiting for a while. After explaining the situation to the parking attendant (who was now going to have to stay late because of me), I sulkily settled down to wait on a seat outside the garage where I could see the AAA driver when he arrived.

As I pouted in my chair, my mind raced with all of the things I needed to do that day and later that week, and I grew more frustrated with each passing moment. Honestly, I can’t even remember what seemed so important at the time, but I’m sure it involved something along the lines of deadlines for grants and conferences or the list of bench work that constantly stayed in my mind even when I was procrastinating.

Then in the midst of my cranktastic mood, I noticed across the street that the landscape around my church and the surrounding neighborhood was dotted with beautiful daffodils in full bloom. It was odd; I didn’t remember seeing them that morning, even though my favorite part of spring is watching daffodils and tulips come into bloom. As I reluctantly admired them (I was enjoying my sour thought process far too much to allow joy), it dawned on me that I had not noticed the blooming of any flowers at all that spring—and it was late April! Surely by now I should have noticed at least a few tree-lined streets bashfully glowing with pink and white blossoms, the colorful bursts of Easter bouquets, or even gentle crocuses that peeped from the earth every spring by the student union on campus. Somehow, though, I had missed it all. And it wasn’t that we were experiencing a late spring that year. I had just stopped noticing the beauty of the world because I was too absorbed in myself and whatever was clearly so important at the moment. My focus locked on the daffodils…so insignificant…but so comforting.

Eventually, of course, the AAA guy arrived and jumped my car battery. I went to the lab and started working on whatever had been preoccupying me. Most likely I finished whatever I needed to, I really don’t remember anymore.

What I do remember, though, was that before I began working, I wrote on a little strip of paper “The Daffodils I Would Have Missed,” and I taped it in front of my bench in the lab. I wanted it to serve as a reminder. My drained car battery had frustrated me. It seemed pointless, a waste of time. Yet without that delay, that forced pause, I wouldn’t have noticed that spring was all around me. Each flower I saw that afternoon had seemed to be a tiny gift, something to make me smile. They calmed my frustrated nerves and reminded me there was a big, beautiful world outside of the small confines I had created in my head.

I know that God used that afternoon as a teaching moment for me. I’d like to say that I never forgot the lesson, but I’m a stubborn soul and I often have to learn lessons many times before they stick. In the years since then, I’ve encountered much bigger frustrations than a dead car battery, but they’ve often been accompanied by much bigger metaphorical daffodils. Alternately, I know I have ignored many a daffodil because I’ve refused to stop pouting in my seat, choosing instead to relish in misery and entitled self-pity.

In 2015, I want to stop pouting. There was too much of that in 2014. I allowed defeat to consume me too many times, and I’m sure I trampled over far too many daffodils in my frustration. So, for myself and everyone else, look for the daffodils! We don’t know what God is up to in our darkest moments. Even when feel at our lowest. Even when the windchill outside seems to be a made-up low number 😉

Mission: 2015

Well, friends, family, and cyber community, it’s 2015! That means a combination of things, not the least of which is that I will be signing the date incorrectly on all paperwork for the next month. Rolling into a new year means that, as per Western tradition, some folks will be trying to stick with New Year’s resolutions or break bad habits while other folks will hardly notice that anything has changed other than the calendar on the fridge. (But gold star if that calendar includes hockey players or firefighters with puppies.)

I will admit, I’ve never been much of one for New Year’s resolutions. I’m a Jedi Master when it comes to making excuses, but I would say that my inability to commit to a resolution largely boils down to laziness and a lack of accountability. Who wants to add more work (even if it’s worthwhile?) to their day, and if you’re not held accountable, who is going to notice? I think if I have a support system taking the plunge with me, maybe I will be more faithful to my endeavors.

Thus, I give you:

My 2015 Challenge to All of Us Together
Learn more about the natural world around us and start taking some stewardship steps!

Ok now, wait, wait, wait, before you tune out my save-the-environment shtick, let me give you a really big number: $124-145 trillion. Yes, you read that correctly, trillion. That’s the estimated value of ecosystem services in our global economy. So, on the one hand, our planet is amazing. From mighty volcanoes, to beautiful birds, to the vast and mysterious oceans, to this underappreciated lot, there is quite literally no end to the possibility of discovery and awe with every step outdoors. On the other hand, we quite literally need our natural world. In spite of such beauty and power to be thankful for, we often forget how much we actually rely on our natural resources and easily we can damage them. We may not notice all weather patterns or the water cycle (or the oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon cycles), but we certainly notice when something is wrong. Our planet’s basic processes play a role in everything from our food development to our recreational activities, yet we often take these processes for granted because we don’t necessarily dwell on pollinators in action or notice the consequences of impervious surfaces to stormwater runoff.

Thus, we must remember the words of that great philosopher, Uncle Ben from Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility. We humans, we’re a reasonably intelligent bunch. Sure, we did produce Justin Bieber and these folks, but as a species, we have accomplished quite a great deal. We have power. And what’s more important, we can each make small choices that collectively have a tremendous impact.

So, what can we change for 2015? I know that most of you are aware of probably the majority of the items on this list below, but here are just a few of the things I personally want to be more focused on for this new year. If these are totally foreign, maybe the best idea would be to pick two new things and try to be faithful about those. At least in my experience, I know that if my starting goal is too big, I overwhelm myself and either give up or slowly stop caring (aye, my brain.) So, list, list, listy:

Recycling—This is a no-brainer. If you’re not already recycling, you have zilch excuses. I know that not all neighborhoods have recycling pickup, but most communities have drop-off locations that can be easily looked up on township websites. One of the more popular excuses I’ve heard not to recycle is that it isn’t cost-efficient because not enough of us in the US recycle. Um, know the easy fix to that? More of us should recycle! The contents of landfills seriously just don’t go away magically…they sit for years, and decades, and probably a very, very long time.

Reusable Shopping Bags—I’m super guilty of this one. I own a good number of reusable shopping bags. Half of them are in my car, half of them are merrily skipping about my apartment like pixies in Neverland. Yet somehow, whenever I go grocery shopping, I get up to the check-out line and realize that I don’t have a single bag with me. Fail. So, if you guys are in this with me, I’d super appreciate the camaraderie of other folks trying to remember their shopping bags too.

Change your Facewash—This was a new one for me in 2014. I had never really given much thought to what kind of exfoliants were scrubbing away those old, keratinized epithelial cells on the surface of my skin until I came across an article like this one. Many health and beauty products contain polyethylene microbeads—tiny bits of plastic to scrub away at that dead skin; but plastic doesn’t particularly decompose, it isn’t filtered out of our waste water, and it causes havoc in natural water ways. If you want to make this switch, look for polyethylene on the ingredients list. I switched to a facewash that uses powdered walnut shell instead, and it works great! (And I will clarify…I’m definitely not someone who always wants to be the first to use “natural” products just because they’re natural. Not because natural means bad, but because it doesn’t necessarily mean good or better. I might have do a post on this in the future sometime.)

Use Native Plants in Your Home Gardening–As native plants become more popular, they’re becoming somewhat more common at nurseries and you can most definitely find them if you want to! Using native plants means your greens and blooms are growing up in their best possible environment, which means less work for you, and you will be a magnet for pollinators (plus, you’re not adding the issues with invasive species.) You can also specifically try a pollinator garden. I’m no green thumb, but I know plenty of gardening enthusiasts who can make magic happen with just a watering bucket and a bit of weeding.

Buy Local–When you’re focusing on local businesses, you’re supporting a healthy economy and cutting back on the need for your products to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles. Besides farm markets and small grocers, you can also look into farm shares (might be easier for bigger families, but I’ve wanted to try it!)

Try to Switch to Some Organic Foods–I know it’s more expensive, but I’m definitely a stickler for organic dairy and I try to buy organic produce whenever I can. Now, to be clear, organic foods are not good because they are “more nutritious.” Not at all. Rather, most organic foods have been produced using sustainable agricultural practices–at least in theory. To be USDA organic, they have to meet certain standards, many of which really do promote a decrease in pesticide and herbicide use. Of course, not all organic products are created equally (or are equally earth-friendly), but I figure it’s better to try!

Take Advantage of Learning Opportunities Around Your Town—I live in Pittsburgh, and we have some really great resources for learning about science and nature. We have the Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the National Aviary, and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, in addition to educational efforts like the Citizen Science Lab, local chapters of the Audubon Society, and a number of other organizations. Take the opportunity to learn with these places! Many museums are now even regularly hosting events like 21+ Nights (like this or this), where you can check out all of the exhibits without having to awkwardly tell the six-year-old that it’s actually your turn to complete an electrical circuit and make the bell ring. Visit, have fun, and learn! And hey…if you have a few hours a month, volunteer. You won’t regret the experience 🙂

Make Learning a Habit—In our internet age, we quite literally have the world at our fingertips. We have access to educational resources unlike any generation has before us. Make learning something new about our world a daily habit! Heck, just sit down and Google anything that sounds interesting—why are scarlet macaws red? Where does drinking water come from? Why is the sky blue? What is the aurora borealis? What are the ocean trash patches? You can even get super fancy and hop over to Google Scholar where you are more likely to run into peer-reviewed sources.

**However, it’s a worth a note to please, please, please watch your internet sources. If a website looks or sounds like it was generated in somebody’s mama’s basement, it probably was. The best websites for information tend to end in .gov or .edu, or if you recognize them as a trusted source. Even .org sites can be sketchy (my favorite, honk when you get it), though certainly not always. And I’ll be real with you, this caution includes my own blog! I’m only a couple months out of grad school. I wrote half of this article on my living room couch, and half in my lab. I’m not a master, so don’t take my word for it. Check my resources. But I will say this: if the website tells you not to vaccinate your kids, run, hide, avert your eyes. It’s lying or ridiculous.**

So, are you ready for a 2015 challenge? Definitely post if you have other ideas, this list is by no means exhaustive. I just wanted to create a springboard for change, for positive action. If we each try just a little bit, we’re collectively doing a lot!

Peace, love, and science!