10/5/16

The Online Age of Misinformation

In an age where reading is becoming rare, the propagation of misinformation is becoming rampant. I notice this in my everyday life, particularly on topics relating to my field; health and science. People assert this or believe that. And it’s no thanks to the internet. While the internet has opened a wealth of great information to people around the world, it has also given a stage to untrained “experts” who are able to capture the attention of the public. There is a website on virtually any topic you can think of. Have a viewpoint? There’s a website dedicated entirely to that viewpoint. With the click of a button you can read on, uninterruptedly reinforcing your beliefs. But should this really be the way we carry on educating ourselves after high school or college? I think not. This clearly runs the risk of breeding ignorance and propagating bigotry. Yet this seems to be the way much self-education carries on today.


So whatever happened to validity and accuracy of information? With so much garbage floating around on the internet, and everyone serving as an “expert,” it’s become more important than ever to wear your garbage filter and think critically about what you read and hear. From so-called nutritionist to self-proclaimed journalists, there are online voices of all kinds building followers and spreading opinion and belief in place of fact. And all too often, the trusting public reads and hears these messages only to paraphrase them as facts the next day. There are no issues where identify misinformation is more difficult than those relating to science (including health!). This is an artifact of the inherent complexity of science compared to other issues. Deciphering fact from fiction when it comes to health and science usually requires years of scientific training. So where does that leave most people? All too often believing what they happen to encounter…aka, what they read online!

Assuming you’re not about to enroll in a science program, how do you distinguish the good from garbage on your favorites topics? First, try expanding beyond the internet since websites aren’t branded with accuracy ratings. Assuming you’re hell-bent on keeping your laptop open, good sources do exist. In general, government sources (websites ending in “.gov”) are quite reliable for scientific information and are usually easy to understand. If you’re worried about political bias, this is always possible. But it’s minimal compared to the biases of many business and citizen websites, which can also get quite wild and scientifically inaccurate in their assertions. Generally speaking, the science on U.S. government websites is sound and transparent. A brief list and description of reliable government and other websites relevant to my blog topics is below.
*Be cautious of the USDA Food Pyramid as it is known to be scientifically behind in terms of its dietary advice!

Other good sources of information include the websites of major universities such as Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, and others. An example is Harvard’s website The Nutrition Source, which is an excellent source of current evidence-based dietary advice. Major universities pride themselves in cutting edge research and present things in an objective, evidence-based manner, highlighting research from numerous outstanding scientists of varying perspectives. Finally, to get credible scientific information, try the Google Scholar search engine rather than plain old Google! Google Scholar restricts your search to scientific studies. While these are usually complex, you can at least read the "abstract" sections which summarize each study. In contrast, a regular Google search will yield articles written by any old Joe, expert or not.

An example of when internet-based “facts” run amok is the so called issue of “chemtrails,” an issue borne by pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists concerned more with online story telling than critical research. It is also an issue that I hope to have successfully debunked in a series of previous blogs (Blog 1, Blog 2, Blog 3).

In summary, be cautious with what you read and hear online. Don’t let a single short read become your new perspective or source of facts. Read from multiple sources and multiple authors. If you don’t have time to read heavily or become an expert, apply critical thinking and seek trustworthy sources when you do read rather than mere Google results. If you find something interesting on Google, quality check it by searching the topic elsewhere on select trustworthy sites. You can otherwise descend the slippery slope of reading self-selected misinformation, reinforcing inaccurate beliefs rather than sound information. Think critically and search skillfully. Don’t let your self-education become un-education!

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                                                                    Shahir Masri
                                                                    Doctor of Science
                                                                    Environmental Health Science

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