Updated: May 12, 2022
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” – Abraham Lincoln
We live in an age of information – anything you could ever want to know, at your fingertips, instantly. Need a good recipe for salmon? Google can give you 311 million results for that, in just over half a second. Care to know the airspeed of an unladen swallow? Not only are there engineers who can give you a serious answer for that, but there are videos on YouTube to explain just how it works.
The possibilities are almost literally endless.
So when it comes to information you actually need to rely on – like COVID-19 best practices, or even screenshots of things experts in different fields post to Twitter (because that’s now a thing) how can you be sure that the infograph your Aunt Betty posted on Facebook is accurate?
This nifty little graphic put together by Compound Interest gives a quick rundown of red flags that you want to look out for in the things you see posted on Facebook, Twitter, or even news articles. So as to not steal their thunder, I will cover some different points, or different parts of the points they covered. But just in case you think I’m too verbose, their flyer sums it up pretty neatly.
If you’re still with me, let’s take a look at some things I’ve noticed that you want to keep an eye out for.
#1 – Watch out for science that makes absolute claims
I have a whole other blog post that goes into what science is and what it isn’t, but suffice it to say, science is based on observation. Observation can tell you what happened in this instance, but loses reliability real quick when it tries to tell you that what happened in this instance will happen in every instance.
Let’s say you want to answer the question, “does a day at the beach make people happier?” You might grab, say, 100 people, and give them a little questionnaire that tells us about their happiness levels. You then tell these 100 people to go spend a day at the beach. At the end of the day, you give them this happiness questionnaire again. If you plug the results of that first questionnaire and the second questionnaire into a computer program and do a little statistics magic, you might find that their happiness levels increased enough that you can say that the difference wasn’t just based on chance – that it seems like the day at the beach actually made these people happier.
In this case, this instance showed that a day at the beach made these people happier. Can you say that, based on these results, a day at the beach will definitely make you happier? Or that if Cousin Joe seems a little down, a day at the beach is the cure?
Good science will give you conclusions with the right amount of probability to them. “52% of Americans who answered our poll stated that they agree with the statement ‘Big Foot is real,’” is likely a more accurate statement than, “Over half of Americans believe in Big Foot.” Unless there is a lot more research out there on Big Foot than I know about, a singular question answered one time is not good enough to tell me something that definitive.
#2 – Just because an “expert” says it, doesn’t make it true
At the risk of shooting myself in the foot, I’m going to include this one. Actually, no, this one is well-warranted. Even my disclaimer at the end of all of my posts talk about this.
Thanks to social media and Google & Co., anybody can claim to be an expert and endorse a position. Especially in the middle of a pandemic, truth-holders abound, and it can be difficult to know who to believe.
So what do you do?
Go to the source. If a person makes a claim – especially if it’s a bold claim, or one that doesn’t seem to agree with everyone else – and doesn’t back it up with anything more than their credentials, demand more information. Or at least don’t accept what they’re saying as gospel truth until there’s some evidence you can look at. That can be an academic study, or, better yet, a series of studies; or a reputable web source like a .edu or a .gov, where often the information needs to be accurate to be published on the site.
For an example of what this is supposed to look like, look at this article by Harvard Health Publishing on health benefits of coffee. The fact that he is an MD and that he is writing for Harvard notwithstanding, look at what he does in the article.
There are references to at least three academic studies with links, and (albeit uncited) academic head nods to several other studies. He isn’t telling you to believe him and his words, he’s telling you to believe the science. You can go read the science yourself! (And a fun side note about academic scientific studies: before a researcher ever gets to his own experiment, he always talks about the science that came before, in what’s called a “literature review.” It basically sets up his study so he can show he’s not coming from left field with his hypothesis).
Congratulations, coffee drinkers: it’s healthy (mostly)!
In sum: The more evidence and less opinion there is, the better. The more opinion and less evidence there is, beware!
#3 – Be careful with articles from news/entertainment sites that talk about research
Not all science pieces on a news site are bad. Some of them actually pretty decent. But it can be tempting to sensationalize a scientific study to make it sound more interesting. Sometimes it starts with the headline, saying something snazzy like, “Ice cream is healthy, new study says.” Is ice cream really healthy now? Can we take it out of the dessert section and put it next to the eggs?
Look past the title. What is the article saying? Is it making an absolute claim (like #1 warns against) or is it an opinion piece from someone in the science division of the news site (#2’s warning)? Is the article saying that ice cream is now a health food, or that eating ice cream first thing in the morning gives you an energy boost because sugar?
An unfortunate side effect of academia is that it often sounds a little dry (no offense, scientists!), and often, blogs (like this one), forums, and news sites attempt to revive engagement with it by rewording it in a way that’s a little more digestible. Sometimes, however, it goes a little too far, and the original message of the study is lost. Other times, the article you’re reading is actually an opinion piece and someone is reacting to a study they read; there have been more than a few times I’ve started reading an article, only to realize part-way through that it wasn’t someone’s report of facts or a research study, it was their own personal thoughts about said topics.
The Bottom Line
Anybody can say anything they want on the internet these days, and the amount of false information floating around can make it difficult to know if we’re reading a true story or a conspiracy theory. However, it is not impossible to figure out which it is – there is hope! It takes a little more work than maybe our parents did when they were younger, but you don’t have to be steeped in science to know how to verify someone’s claims. I hope this resource helped you feel a little more confident about making sense of some of the ways information can be examined for accuracy.
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If you feel that you are struggling with any kind of emotional or behavioral health problems and are in need of therapy services please do not hesitate to contact the PSC and schedule an appointment. Stay tuned for a new post next week!