A ScienceOnline 2010 session mash-up review: Fact checking and trust

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"


Figure 1. My top Google results


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


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

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.

More like this

Session description: Much of the science that goes out to the general public through books, newspapers, blogs and many other sources is not professionally fact checked. As a result, much of the public's understanding of science is based on factual errors. This discussion will focus on what…
The complete list of blog/media coverage of ScienceOnline2010 is becoming huge (and also swiftly falling down and off the page), but I wanted to put up on top just a choice of blog posts that completely or partially cover the 'journalism and media track' of session at the meeting, as I found them…
Session description: Our panel of journalist-blogger hybrids - Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, Ed Yimmer Yong, and David Dobbs- will discuss and debate the future of science journalism in the online world. Are blogs and mainstream media the bitter rivals that stereotypes would have us believe, or do the…
Session description: What is a sellable idea? How do you develop one? Is your idea enough for a book, is there more you can do to develop it, or should it just be a magazine article or series of blog posts? This will be a hands-on nuts and bolts workshop: Come with ideas to pitch. Better yet, bring…

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.

By A librarian (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink

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.

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.

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.

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?

Yes, I hope that those panelists know about NLM's free consumer resource, 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.

By Melanie M. (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

Thanks for the Medline references folks!

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