Information Age Education
   Issue Number 147
October, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the first IAE Newsletter in a new series devoted to the educational issue of credibility and validity of information.

Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 1: Introduction

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The concepts of credibility and validity will play central roles in the following series of articles. Credibility focuses on a belief that the person who made an allegation about a phenomenon is believable and can indeed be trusted. It is common to talk about a person and what the person writes/says as being credible and believable.

Validity is an important component of educational research. The word tends to be used in two somewhat different ways:
  1. Validity is the quality of being logically or factually sound. Validity is the extent to which a concept, conclusion, or measurement is well-founded.

  2. A research instrument or test is valid if it measures what it is purported to measure.
In brief summary, one can think of credibility having a subjective base and validity having an objective base.

Anyone can post anything on the Internet today at practically no cost, and self-publishing is relatively simple and inexpensive. Editorial oversight for accuracy and truth that was historically so important in print media becomes less important when the biases of those who read/view the increasing number of websites coincide with the biases of those who write for the site. A similar situation now exists in television and radio broadcasting. In TV, for example, many channels (such as FOX and MSNBC) focus on very specific biased demographics. Viewer Beware is the new watchword.

This series will explore the credibility and validity challenges that 21st century students and adults confront as they cope with this flood of information coming from the global reach of the Internet and the rapidly increasing number of television channels and radio stations. They must learn to recognize the bias that individuals or advocacy groups reflect in their materials.

Students also must realize that, no matter how much they admire/revere/adore their favorite athletes or musicians, being a celebrity or pundit does not make one an instant expert whose pronouncements should be treated as valid or credible.

Assessing credibility and validity is now much more complex than it was formerly. This article will explain how objective and subjective determinations of credibility and validity add to the complexity of the issue.

A Generation Ago

Imagine late 20th century high school students confronting their first research paper. Their teacher had explained the principal sources, cultural biases, and APA or MLA guidelines. Teachers knew and students learned that the school and public library books and periodicals, a major research base for student papers, would have been vetted for credibility before the librarians would purchase them.

Published material was printed on paper, and distributed books and journals can't easily be changed. Editors generally required authors to provide suitable support to insure that their information and allegations were factually acceptable prior to publication. Teachers tended to know the principal sources and cultural biases in the field they taught and so could guide students to a clear understanding of charts, graphs, statistics, and logic. This allowed otherwise naive students to assume that most published material available for them was credible and valid from the perspective of current scholarship.

Parental and religious beliefs tended to be reasonably similar in homogeneous communities, and this was reflected in school curricula. Pre-adolescent children tended to accept their parents' beliefs because their parents supposedly had a superior understanding of such things as true/false, right/wrong, and fair/unfair.

Analogy, Caricature, and Credibility/Validity

We have long been a society in which analogy plays a central explanatory role. Children learn about Santa Claus, Aesop's fables, and religious parables. We tend to prefer fiction over non-fiction, and narrative films over documentaries. Songs and much visual art are narrative-driven. We want fact but prefer analogy.

Analogy and caricature identify common elements between an understood concept and one that's not yet understood, and so they can play key roles in helping people understand (or alas misunderstand) issues involved in assessing credibility and validity. Analogy and caricature might lead to (but they aren't the same thing as) factual understanding, but they seem to dominate the much broader current cultural discourse (Sylwester & Moursund, 2014).

Our ability to understand and make such analogical comparisons may be what cognitively separates humans from other primates and social mammals (Sylwester & Moursund, 2014). Analogies can thus move us away from mysteries towards scientific/technological discoveries, cultural/artistic explorations, and governmental variability. An analogy isn't true at the valid and credible levels. At best, it's just a representation of truth, but that representation can move us closer to credible and/or valid truth.

The World Confronts Credibility/Validity in the Olympics

The Olympic Games seek to identify the best athletes in the world. Judges use two different techniques to determine winning athletes: They use objective (or valid) measurements in some events and subjective (or credible) measurements in others.

The determination is straightforward with runners, jumpers, throwers, speed skaters, etc. They go through multiple meets before arriving at the finals. Very precise timing instruments are used to get very valid objective measurements of performance data. Speed or distance determines the winner—provided the athlete passes drug testing and doesn’t violate such rules as obstructing a competitor.

The second approach to Olympics credibility is the use of subjective measurements to determine how well the athlete performed. Events such as gymnastics, figure skating, and diving come to mind. A panel of judges observes each athlete's performance and a scaled response form is used to score various elements.

Each judge assigns a score based on requirements in the event, the difficulty of various components, the quality of performance of individual components, and the overall performance. The judges eliminate the highest and lowest of the scores, and the remaining scores are averaged. The elimination process is used to reduce the effects of judges being strongly biased in favor of or against a particular athlete. The final result is a score that can be compared with the scores of other competitors.

Thus, either objective measurements or subjective measurements are used as appropriate for each event. The results are considered appropriate to determine gold, silver, and bronze medalists. The first-place winner gets the gold medal and bragging rights until someone else wins in a future Olympic event.

This kind of determination is somewhat similar to the search for objective scientific credibility in some areas of discovery. For example, the scientific winner is whoever first made an important discovery, but again no claim is made that the current discovery will be forever valid or credible. The Nobel Prize is the scientific equivalent of an Olympic gold medal. It suggests that the discovery is exceptionally good, but it may be superseded by subsequent scientific discoveries.

Perhaps what the Olympics provide is an analogy for life itself–the yin/yang of subjective/objective decision-making about what is actually credible/valid/useful.

Credibility/Validity in Science and the Humanities

Science may appear to be based on solid objective validity. The belief that scientific discoveries are true, however, misses the point of what science is. Scientific discovery involves a search for truth, not truth itself. The world's mysteries encompass both unknown and known elements. Thus, a newly discovered element is unknown, but it seems to be analogously like a known element.

Science thus begins with the analogical germ of an explanation to an unknown element. This can lead to a hypothesis, which can lead to a theory, which can eventually lead to the overwhelming scientific support that a valid law might have (such as in the Law of Gravity). But even that upper level of validity is always open to further discoveries that might modify or even replace the original discovery.

This determination of acceptance is similar to the system found in the humanities (social sciences, literature, the arts, philosophy). The highest level of credibility in a field seems to go to allegations that have a high subjective average level of collegial support. That doesn't mean that imaginative outliers don't exist. The humanities have a long history of new ideas that arrived with initial rejection by the majority in the field, only to be later adopted as credible.

Credibility in Governance

Pre-human governance in human societies began with Alpha males (and sometimes females). It evolved as human tribes, communities, and nations increased the complexity of assessing ownership and ensuring appropriate behavior. Oligarchies gradually emerged as a dominant political force (with theocracies, royal families, and wealth predominating).

Medieval Europe provided an example of what can happen when oligarchies over-reach and lose political credibility. Over several centuries, uprisings and revolts accompanied the gradual emergence of a middle class. Many dissatisfied families decided to sail west to America and begin life anew in a country far away from the power that the ruling royal family or the established church had to make decisions about their present and potential life.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the United States had become sufficiently independent of England and folks had to decide how to proceed politically. The basic secular pattern that emerged was that periodic elections would occur and the winners could legislate until the next election. The general assembly (from Congress to city council) would argue an issue before they voted on it. The majority would win, but it would rarely be unanimous. Each vote was acceptable, and credibility in argument rather than wealth or inheritance would thus remain important. A majority vote would determine the credibility of the argument.

The court system would provide Constitutional redress for those who lost a legislative argument. If those charged with criminal or civil offenses believed they were wrongfully charged, a series of court decisions would determine whether the charge was credible. Again, it's important to be able to rationally argue in a credible manner.

This first genuine global democracy had a rocky beginning, but by the end of the 19th century a dozen more countries had moved towards a representative democracy. The 20th century saw the number increase dramatically to about 200 and the 21st century is adding even more, a rocky beginning defining almost all nations.

Democratic societies believe that the votes of all registered voters are credibly acceptable, regardless of how individual voters arrived at their determination.


The emergence of new forms of independence in adolescents, and of mass media innovations in society have profoundly changed the locus of responsibility for determining credibility and validity.

It's a good thing that adolescence has long been the period during which we humans tend to question the credibility and validity of adult discoveries and beliefs. If we didn't have such a volatile rejection of adult beliefs just prior to adulthood, our society probably wouldn't have moved forward in culture, science, and technology. For example, each generation redefines popular music. It's thus been important that the current shift in responsibility for determining credibility began in such communication areas as music that especially intrigue adolescents before it moved into such more complex areas as science.

Final Remarks

Each of us gets a brain, and all brains come to think differently. Scientific and technological advances as well as our cultural and artistic diversity have provided human life with the incredible diversity it now has.

We each must constantly convince others to hire us, marry us, vote for us, buy our merchandise, and attend to our teaching. To become cognitively credible is thus essential in a democratic society, and even more so since young people are now going to have to develop a stronger ability to assess the credibility of others.

The subsequent articles in this series will continue the discussion of the complex nature of credibility and validity issues, and how schools might develop a 21st century curriculum that is both credible and valid. The next article will examine subjective credibility.


Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (2014). Understanding and mastering complexity. Chapter 7: The central roles of the varieties of analogy. Chapter 8: The role of caricature. Eugene OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit four books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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