Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Apparently, a very popular streaming movie service is up for sale. Apparently, a well-known “alternative health” company owned by an actor (and, yes, I am trying very hard not to give names because I don’t want to legitimize this) has paid for a series on their products. While the series spokesperson has claimed it’s meant as “entertainment”, the British government has denounced it saying that it spreads dangerous false propaganda.
We are in an era of information. I’ve heard it said that all knowledge is available on the web (it is not) and that there is nothing more to learn (there is). But there is a distinct difference between information and knowledge. As a scientist, finding legitimate resources is critical to my line of work. I thought perhaps it would be worthwhile to go through a few pointers on how to tell if a source is legitimate or not.
• Is the source recognized and trusted? Scientific journals publish “refereed” papers. This means that each paper within them are reviewed typically by at least three experts in the field who all have to agree on the reliability of the paper. Such a level of review is not found in general papers, or if it is, the “experts” generally have questionable credentials. Having their own business for so many years really doesn’t count as reliable credentials the way an advanced degree from an accredited institution does. To earn my doctorate, I had to stand in front of a committee of five experts with doctorates and defend my research. They could ask anything they wished, for as long as they wished, and it was up to them to decide if I’ve earned my degree. In media reliability, there are multiple sources that are assessing the reliability of news sources. These should be considered.
• Does the source have an agenda? The example I use in class is chocolate dipped bacon. When looking for reviews on the tasty treat (which I myself love), is the source site trying to sell the product? If so, then of course the review will be glowing. I have a friend that routinely posts from a website that is anti-vax and alternate medicine. The author of that site sells alternative healing products. I understand the anti-vax movement (although I disagree with it). Large pharma is too greedy and has had too many examples of questionable (at best) practices, but alternate medicine is also a big business today.
• Is the site or research funded by a source with conflicting interests? Anybody who recalls the tobacco research, it’s a perfect example. The National Health Service research was publishing reports warning of the dangers of smoking, linking it to cancer (a given today), but each time a publication linking smoking to cancer was published, an alternative publication claiming no link exists would quickly be published from another “reliable source”. Unfortunately, these research studies were paid for by the tobacco industry.
• Is the information verified in multiple sources? Most days (I try to do it every day) I read three different news sources; CNN, NPR and BBC. CNN historically has leaned slightly right. This may have changed lately because of the President’s venom towards this news source, but either way, it is considered generally reliable. NPR news leans slightly left, but is also considered generally reliable, but both of these sources are generally at least slightly biased. They do a good job of keeping opinion out of their articles, but the authors are human and therefore there must be bias. The BBC, on the other hand, is from another country. Generally, I read this to get an idea of how we are viewed around the world. Between the three sources, I can usually extract the raw story out of it. Places like Reuters is supposed to be “primary source” for news, and as such it should be highly reliable as well.
I guess the point is that we have to be careful of the mass of information that is coming towards us. Much of the “information” is biased, providing opinion or underhandedly endorsing a product, or a way of life. In the 2016 election, Russia has been found to have interfered with the election by flooding the net with false stories. Today, there are still people that believe the Hillary was selling children out of the basement of a pizzeria, even though the restaurant in question doesn’t even have a basement. Legislation to prevent this from happening again has failed (more than once) in Congress, so we can expect a similar attack this year.
Perhaps most importantly is to use your mind. Some of these stories are so fantastical that I find it difficult to believe that anybody actually takes them seriously, but sadly they do, including some “news” sources. The “news” sources that repeat these stories are remarkably biased and generally accepted as little more than mouth pieces for their cause.
It’s a new year, with an incredibly important election at stake. Vote, but be sure to be informed when you vote, and ensure that the source of information is trustworthy.