Navigating a world of misinformation.
We’ve all been there. A question arises, we want a quick and easy answer. So we Google it.
But how do you know which result is most reliable? Do you choose a site that just looks most familiar? Do you ever just skim different articles until you find something that resonates with your own opinion?
Today, I want to explain some of the important things to keep in mind when searching for answers. Whether it’s about a health issue, an environmental issue, or just something completely random – you should be aware of the many ways you can consume incorrect or misleading information online.
Why is this important? Well, aside from the fact that you’ll be fuelling the cycle of misinformation if you share it with anyone, it’s really not that helpful in finding the answer to your question. You see, the chances are, loosely written articles online don’t have a lot of substance. This is because without references, real studies, or context – they’re only providing you with headlines strung together in a somewhat acceptable fashion. You want the real answer? You need to accept that sometimes, there isn’t one.
Try using Google Scholar.
It’s not entirely user-friendly, as in, you’ll need a fairly good understanding of the topic if you want to filter through the results. But you’ll only be reading scholarly literature, with links to full text including authors, study information and dates.
Scrutinise your usual sources.
Maybe you always read a particular site, listen to someone’s podcast, or have a fav Instagram account. That’s totally okay! But when using these sources for advice, information, or guidance – keep an eye out for where the evidence arose. Have they linked their claims to a source? Who is the source? When was the information published? If you practice looking for this, you’ll start to notice that there is very few references to where the claims are supported.
Pull your sources apart.
Sounds rough, but it’s really just about questioning everything. After all, some would say that’s one of the founding principles of Science 🙂
A few things to consider:
- What was the study about? What did they hypothesise?
- Where was the study conducted? Was a country similar to yours? (Or global, or local?)
- How many people were involved in the study? How confident was the researcher in their conclusion?
Often, they will conclude that more research is needed. That’s okay, but it’s important to note.
- What was the actual outcome? Sounds silly, but often the exact words or outcomes from a study can be misinterpreted,
Unless you do research for a living, it might be difficult to fully understand a peer reviewed journal entry – they tend to be very technical. But if you’re really interested in being able to source accurate information, it’s worth trying your best, and reading what you can.
Finally, be careful when sweeping claims are made.
You’ve probably seen a few headlines like ‘carbs cause cancer’, or ‘Chocolate is good for you’. These are cringe-worthy for any respectable researcher, because they are so clearly missing the point of research. The idea of a peer reviewed article, is to prove or disprove a theory. It’s rarely the case that you could conduct a study, and conclude that your findings are relevant for every person, ever. There are too many variables! Peel back the news layers, and find the original source of the information. It might tell you something a lot more reasonable, and for that matter, useful.
I had a look at the general results on a google search for ‘best brain foods’.
This article by Healthline is actually quite good; they’ve referenced all of their points with links to reliable sources such as PubMed.
This article by BBC is reasonably good too, they’ve occasionally linked to studies throughout. Although, pay close attention to their use of the word ‘may’, not ‘definitely boosts…’.
So, stay aware of what you’re reading or listening to, and don’t forget to check that it’s a reliable source.
In case you’re wondering:
Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar competences as the producers of the work. It functions as a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field.