Benbrook Library / Musings

Seeking Good Information & Avoiding Snake Oil


I recently had to do one of the most annoying-yet-necessary things in adult life: Get my oil changed. Or did I? Well, yes, I actually did get my oil changed; I (probably) wouldn’t yank your chain like that in the opening sentence. But did I have to? Probably not.

I went to get my car inspected and noticed that according to the little sticker in my windshield, I was due for an oil change, as I had surpassed both the recommended mileage (3,000) and time (3 months). Figuring I’d be wise to kill two birds with one stone and save myself another car errand in a couple months, I went ahead and got my jalopy a fresh Texas Tea infusion. I immediately regretted it and cursed myself for wasting money. Surely, I could have waited. How often do you really need to change your oil, anyway? There are a number of sources of information in this and any situation to potentially abide by, the breakdown of which makes for a nice little exercise in analyzing information, the forte of library folk:

  1. Conventional “wisdom” – This type of information is easy to obtain, as in many cases, you don’t have to do anything to get it; as the Dothraki would say, “It is known.” There’s a general sense among people that it is correct, but there’s not always necessarily anything backing that up. In the case of oil changes, conventional wisdom is, or at least for a long time was, that they should be done every 3,000 miles. Times have changed, and there have been advances with both cars and oil, but the 3,000 mile rule still seems to be the prevailing way of thinking, thanks in part to the second source on the list…
  2. Knowledgeable, but biased, experts – Information from this type of source seems good because it comes from people in the field related to the question at hand who should know what they’re talking about. Knowledgeable as they may be, these types have other motivations at play that may or may not lead them to give you information for the purpose of benefitting them or their agenda rather than providing you the most accurate answer. In the oil change scenario, information like this comes from businesses that provide oil change services. The aforementioned little sticker in my windshield prompting me to change my oil after 3,000 miles came from a place that financially benefits from having me change my oil as often as possible. While their advice should be taken with a touch of healthy skepticism, I’m not saying that quick luberies, or other entities with potential ulterior motives, can’t be trusted at all. In fact, some oil change places are openly advocating waiting longer than 3,000 miles, or deferring to our next source…
  3. Authoritative sources – Information from this type of source is usually as solid as it gets, as it comes from those in an authoritative position to know it best. It’s often either from people directly involved with the subject, or from unbiased outside sources with extensive knowledge of the subject. For oil change information, the authoritative sources that should best know the optimal oil change interval for a car are the people who actually made the car receiving the maintenance. Luckily, information from such sources can be easily obtained in your car’s owner’s manual. In the case of my car, my owner’s manual advises me to change my oil whenever the Engine Oil Life System tells me to, which I can tell you has definitely never happened after only 3,000 miles of driving. I checked around and looked at some owner’s manuals* for other cars, and they give the same advice.

When the sources of information are examined, it seems logically obvious that placing trust in the people who made the car and know its needs best is the way to go, but it’s all too easy to be seduced by conventional wisdom that’s been drilled into us for years and/or the advice of knowledgeable-yet-biased experts and fail to seek out and heed the best possible information available. I encourage you all, at least for important matters, to always try to find the best information out there. If you’re ever unsure of how to do that, the library has your back.


*If you can’t find the physical copy of your owner’s manual, you can likely find a digital copy by visiting your car manufacturer’s website, or by typing “[Year] [Make] [Model] owner’s manual” into a search engine.

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