Where Did THAT Come From?

In the last post, I evaluated a source discussing whether changes in the minimum wage might affect union-negotiated wages. But why are source evaluation skills necessary? Often, as in the case of an important decision, it can be difficult to decide between two or more options and finding more information on each of the options becomes more important to answer such questions as “Do I want a Toyota or a Kia?” Or, the question could be more open-ended, like “How do I make my smoke detector stop beeping every thirty seconds?”

In high school, I was in Venturing, an older division of the BSA. One of the requirements involved knowing what food was available in the wilderness and surviving for a day on just food you found outdoors. It wasn’t very easy, and it was tempting to think of cheats. As my adviser said: “Why look! I just found a bucket of fried chicken under this bush!”

I started my research into edible plants in the North Georgia area with a book my dad got me for Christmas, The US Army Survival Handbook. That fine resource told me to test the edibility of plants by eating small amounts and waiting 24-72 hours to see whether I got sick. It wasn’t very helpful. On the other hand, it had detailed instructions for hiding in enemy territory. I then did general web searches with terms like “edible plants in North Georgia”. I found several sites, many less helpful than these ones (Edit: I found this in my notes from the time), detailing plants I might find in my area. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to get *really* good at identifying plants, or subsist entirely on cattails (when’s the last time you’ve seen once of those?), dandelions, acorns (apparently very bitter), or blackberries (if I cheated and camped in the summer in a stand of blackberry bushes). After some further searching to see whether I could camp on the edge of Lake Lanier and fish, I discovered that it was indeed legal. BUT, after extensive searching I happened across a document (EPA or National Park Service I don’t remember) that suggested the levels of mercury in the fish in Lake Lanier were unsafe. Anyway, let’s face it, catching fish is hard, especially when you are hungry.

In the end, due to a general lack of information, as well as other conspiring factors, like my senior year of high school, I never took the wilderness survive trip. Upon turning 21, I aged out of the program. However, at some point, when I have a bit of motivation, and a lot more time on my hands, I’d like to try it, but there are some things I’d do differently.

I started out with a general web search. That’s fine for getting ideas, but I probably should have bolstered those ideas with information from trustworthy sources to avoid…accidents. (If you’ve seen Into the Wild, you know what I mean.) For example, something I did a general search on, but never really investigated further was eating bugs. See list here for examples. Now, normally, you can find food guidelines on the FDA website, but this is a bit more unusual. That first reference for bugs was actually pretty good (the writer had a tv show on travel and edible insects, in which she actually ate insects and wrote a book on the subject), but I wouldn’t want to just take her word for it; I’d want to find another author who ate the same insects (preferably collected from the wild) and lived. I did another general search “edible insects”, by which I found a list on National Geographic, which, better yet, linked to a document by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on the edibility of insects. This document, released May 13, 2013 apparently inspired a string of articles. Now, these were not around when I did the general search back in 2009, but I could have easily discovered the name for the practice of eating bugs (Entomophagy). And, even without the help of Galileo, which I didn’t have in high school, I could have found a scientific article like this. (which, granted, applies to India, but I believe there is some overlap in our bug populations.) I’ll admit that the articles I mentioned are from the past four years, and not the period in which I was looking for information. However, this is the web, and older resources tend to sink, which in this case was accelerated by that UN FAO document

I think I can name some improvements of my approach now over my approach then:

  • Better search terms: Entomophagy, North Georgia edible insects
  • More familiarity with and awareness of scientific articles and article databases: Scifinder and Galileo
  • Awareness of actual books I can get from the library on the subject
  • A realization that sometimes the government databases won’t have everything and that fairly reliable sources become more reliable when they agree independently.

As it turns out, source evaluation skills can be the difference between eating bugs and not eating bugs…or, wait. It can be the difference between eating bugs and not dying and eating bugs and dying. Actually, any time you read false information and believe it, you allow it to change the way you analyze new information which changes the way you act. Perhaps you believe aliens created the pyramids: as a result, you may be a lot more fun to take to history museums. It’s almost as if information controls our subconscious, like those bugs in Star Trek…And that’s why sourcing things well is so important.

Thanks to Nita Jatar Kulkarni for the use of his lovely image.

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