A few months ago, I posted an article about taking control of our self-education as Pagans and suggestions for further learning. Today, I wanted to talk more about self-education and how we can avoid falling into a pit of delusion, misinformation, and bad sources.
Yesterday, a post on tumblr came across my dashboard regarding the validity of sources. The user posited that an internet source is not inherently wrong simply for being on the internet and a book is not inherently right simply for its publication status. They cautioned the reader to never take any source as gospel and to always check their facts. (x)
This is good advice, for Pagans and non-Pagans alike. But there is something missing in the original post, which I noted in my reply:
Yes, but what are you checking your facts against?
If a fact is in multiple books or websites, cool. You’ve likely found an okay piece of info. But learn how to tell crap info from accurate stuff.
That said, nothing is accurate. Theories are always being disproven, in history and science and all sorts of disciplines. So we can really only go out on a limb with some things.
One of the things I took away from my freshman year philosophy class is to learn how to argue from all sides of a question; another is that there are always exceptions, flaws, and/or holes in information. Essentially, no one is ever inherently right.
That said, there are some sources that are more accurate and better researched than others.
Think of the common books we can find in the New Age and Pagan section of your local bookstore. Many of these books are published by Llewellyn; understandable as this is one of the leading publishers of Wiccan and Pagan texts. But if you take down any number of the Wicca/Pagan 101 books and compare them to each other, you will find that much of the information overlaps or is regurgitated from book to book. Some of this will be “history,” and I use that term lightly, about Wicca or neoPaganism from the last 50 or so years and some will be “history” about life in ancient cultures. Much of these claims are untrue, which can often be corrected through a cursory search of texts from an academic, versus religious, approach.
But there are some academic sources out there which are made up of false claims. One of the more prominent authors is Margaret Murray, whose various claims regarding a witch-cult in Europe in ancient times still taint our historical record today. She made up the majority of her claims, rather than pursue archival research and historical methods. Her false claims persist, leading to an inherently untrue account of history that pervades modern Pagandom. (For more information regarding Murray and the witch-cult hypothesis, you can check out the Wikipedia page. Normally I dislike sharing Wikipedia as a source, but the reference section at the bottom of the page is a good place to find further reading on the topic.)
Murray and her ilk aside, there are other ways of finding bad information in academia. This is because historical interpretation is always evolving as we learn more. New documents are uncovered, archaeological sites reveal new artifacts, and our cycle of learning continues. Old theories are disproved and new ones are posed until some other discovery makes the whole thing moot. History, and, in fact, all of academia, is inherently dynamic in this fashion.
So what can we do?
Many PPRWs do not regard their practice as strictly reconstruction or revivalism – Reconstructionists aside, that is. “Historically inspired” tends to be a more accurate descriptor for the lay-Pagan, but there are more individuals emphasizing accuracy of information. From history to geology to politics, more and more PPRWs are demanding an accurate account of practice and information. But how do we find accurate information?
Keeping up with the scholarship in your chosen field is an ideal way, but as we already saw above, not all scholarship is accurate. Read multiple sources of information. Sites and databases like JSTOR offer reviews of book publications; many will not hesitate to point out inaccuracies in a work and will give an idea of how worthwhile the book is. Since many of these reviews are, in fact, intended for others in their fields and written by professionals in that field, they are written specifically and will generally give an accurate summary of whether or not the text is worth your dime. (They may also give you an idea of where else to pursue information, but this is not a given.)
How to evaluate sources is an important skill for self-education. Determining a poor source from a valuable one is something that anyone making informational claims should have in their arsenal, as it will keep one from contributing to the problem of misinformation in our communities. (It is also one of those skills that are transferable from religious to secular life.)
Keep in mind, however, that humanity is inherently flawed. We will not always pass on information that is 100% accurate. At times, we will forget a detail or a disproved theory and pass it on as fact when it is not. While we should maintain some sense of vigilance regarding our studies, we are not all academics and we can simply do our best. The key is to keep learning and not stagnate.