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One of the many interesting sessions I attended at ScienceOnline 2010 (#scio10) covered the questions of trust and critical thinking.

Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help but think of a mash-up (like on Glee!) between this session the one on Fact checking.

Granted, I know I’m a nitpicky scientist with an obsession for minutiae but I kept hearing statements during the session that I either wondered about or I knew were completely wrong.

Here’s our first mashup tweet from docfreeride from David Dobbs:

Writing 1st book, description of bit character in mid/late 60s… after book came out, found out she was 48. D’oh #scio10


Central to this discussion of facts and trust was the almighty Google. The session presenters said several times that the top results from Google searches were untrustworthy.

This assertion led to some really whacky and (I think) unworkable ideas, like regulating information on Google and little badges to certify trusted bloggers.

An interesting discussion ensued.

Are Google searches really skewed towards misinformation?

One presenter described searching for information on vaccines and finding most of the top results were sites with misleading information. Later on, I heard her and one other presenter say something that I knew was incorrect. (I really don’t blame them for this, but we’ll get to that later.)

So, I had to do the experiment. When I got a home, I did a Google search myself using the word “vaccines

i-d70555bc39a1fa76ffe2fb76652f7e90-vaccine.png

Figure 1. My top Google results

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I didn’t see any misleading sites until number 10 (it was too far down to see in the image), where I found something called the Vaccine website.

The top sites were the CDC and Wikipedia. Good enough. Next we had A-1 database. That site is from PATH, a wonderful organization, based in Seattle, that I trust. Then, we have news results and pediatricians and the world health organization (WHO). Sure, I may have used a different search term than the presenter, but I certainly had a different result.

What about going directly to reputable sites?

One alternative to certifying bloggers (good luck with that!) is to teach people how to evaluate information and maybe even give them some places where they can go directly to find information that’s reliable. (I hear the Pacific Tree Octopus is endangered, better get on that!).

Some people pointed out that there could be helpful people, maybe even professionals who could point people to reputable sites. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. Right! We call those people librarians! Maybe we need librarians on the web

I suggested people might go the National Library of Medicine for health information. Two panelists told me that the NLM has nothing, nothing at all for the general public.

Back to fact checking.

i-91addb911c25863313530d1c18d479d3-nlm page.png

Figure 2. The “not for public” home page at the NLM

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Let’s mash-up once again. @christineottery posted another brilliant statement from David Dobbs in the fact-checking talk:

“If your mother tells you she loves you, verify it” – Dobbs

Conclusion:
Even those of us who might usually be right can sometimes be wrong. A badge seems like an easy way out but someone would figure out how to misuse it. I don’t think there’s any good substitute for teaching people how to check facts. Or perhaps, consult a librarian.

Comments

  1. #1 A librarian
    January 19, 2010

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. We stand ready to serve anyone with fact-checking. After all, most of us got into this graduate degree field because we LOVE the hunt! Some slow Thursday afternoon, play ‘stump the librarian’ – you may be pleasantly surprised at the results of their searches. If you run into a librarian that reminds you of your 2nd grade librarian, and it isn’t a fond memory, by all means find another one – we have all types in this field. If you find someone that is not as willing to serve you as you would like, maybe they (like many humans) are having a bad day – find another librarian, and try the first one again some other day. We are supposed to save you time and make you money – let us prove that to you very soon.

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    January 19, 2010

    What you get for vaccines definitely does depend on how you Google them. You get a rather different list if you ask, “Should I vaccinate my baby?” So it’s good for the general topic, but not very good if you ask it for advice.

    But precision is part of being accurate too.

  3. #3 Pascale
    January 19, 2010

    When my patients ask, I tell them they can trust sites from NIH, CDC, the kidney foundation, and a few other reputable organizations. I suggest that if they find something they have questions about we can go over it with them. Most folks are open to that offer.

  4. yay for librarians – if only we could be embedded on the web! (maybe via Google sidewiki?)

    anyway, for reputable, patient-oriented medical info, try the NLM-NIH sponsored http://medlineplus.gov/ they just released a mobile version!

    it’s a great site, with links to lay-person-understandable material on various reputable sites, as well as an easy-to-understand encyclopedia.

  5. #5 Maria Droujkova
    January 19, 2010

    Trusting in authority (that includes badges) is against the scientific value of doubt and logic-based arguments. It’s also a logical fallacy described in ancient times.

    Claims that this or that fact is absolutely right leaves me somewhat speechless, coming from scientists or science writers. Do people realize that science is not yet DONE on topic X, for any X?

  6. #6 Melanie M.
    January 20, 2010

    Yes, I hope that those panelists know about NLM’s free consumer resource, http://www.medlineplus.gov. Surgery videos, Rx and over-the-counter drug info, in-depth info on over 800 health topics, medical encyclopedia and dictionary — en espanol and with some info in other languages, too. Just launched a mobile version, too! All free, no ads, etc. But, I do go on.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    January 20, 2010

    Thanks for the Medline references folks!

    I think the NLM needs to do a better job of marketing.

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