Thursday, January 9, 2014

Evaluating Information

With the rise of social media the past decade, it is now more possible than ever to share information. Sure, we've been doing long before social media came out or even before email became widespread, but now it's easier than before. I have often said that as much as we live in the "Information Age", we also live in the "Disinformation" and "Misinformation" Age too. Yes, being able to spread information is quick and easy, but it's just as quick and easy to spread false information, whether intentional or not, too.

We all remember back when email was still new for most people who those forwards would work. They usually involved some kind of conspiracy theory or "secret" that someone didn't want you to know. Even today I occasionally get email forwards and almost all of them are false. They're really a form of electronic gossip.

On social media, I frequently notice many of my friends posting articles on topics they are either passionate about or interested in. The places I tend to see the most questionable information is with health and diet, though politics is another popular one, especially near elections. Many very well-intentioned people want to spread what appears to be good information, but are instead passing along information that is either partially or completely false, or is just based on outdated and/or anecdotal evidence.

What's interesting, and somewhat sad, is that when I or someone else brings to the poster's attention that the article likely has blatantly false or otherwise questionable information (with an explanation or link to show why we think that), it's often met with disdain or open hostility from the original poster or others who are following. It's too often a classic case of "don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up."

On sites like Facebook, these false or misleading information sources can be in the form of links to articles, blog posts, or images. Why do these persist? Because the average person assumes they're true without any kind of examination and then passes them along. The solution to this isn't restricting what we can post or send, but rather, educating people to know how to evaluate information so they don't pass along things that aren't true.

There are several websites available that are devoted to fact checking, such as and, both of which have Facebook pages. But you know what? You don't need either of those sites to spot a garbage article or post, though they are helpful. These are points I look at when evaluating information. Ask yourself these simple questions:

1. Do the claims sound outlandish or too good to be true?
  • If yes, it most likely is! It's garbage and not worth your time or anyone else's!
    • As old as it is, if it sounds too good to be true, it more than likely is.
  • If no, move on to the next question.
    • Even if you may not agree with some of the claims, if they seem at least plausible, perhaps they might be true!

2. Does this have any sources?
  • If no, then it most likely garbage and isn't worth your time or anyone else's!
    • Anything that is worthwhile, especially if it's a health or diet-related article, will take the time to include sources.
  • If yes, move on to the next question.

3. What kinds of sources does this have?
  • If from personal blogs or from any kind of special interest group, then it's most likely biased and/or garbage and isn't worth your time or anyone else's! 
    • Despite their best intentions, when advocacy groups are the only source, they are inherently biased since they clearly have an interest in what your opinion is. They're not presenting the information for you to make a balanced decision, they're presenting it so you choose their position. Always look for more neutral sources of data to draw conclusions from.
  • If from established news sources and peer-reviewed journals, move on to the next question. 
    • News outlets are hardly free from bias and false information, but there is at least some degree of editorial oversight. Peer-reviewed journals and publications are even better sources, especially for any type of health or diet-related article or statistics.

4. How are the sources used?
  • If they are present but don't appear to support any of the claims of the article or graphic, then guess what? It's GARBAGE and not worth your time or anyone else's! 
    • Many times an article will have a bunch of sources listed, but the sources don't actually support what is in the article. For instance, an article might state that "many people" had a particular reaction to a food but the actual source gives a specific number, like 15 of 200 in the study group. 
  • If they support the claims with legitimate research and documentation, you have a winner! 
    • Share it with your friends and family to spread GOOD information and to help them see what GOOD information looks like!

Now, there will always be articles that look genuine and appear to have good sources and even legitimate studies attached to them, but in reality, aren't. Not all studies are conclusive and many simply don't follow any kind of proper procedures (like the sample size, for instance) to get trustworthy results. Just because an article has sources, even many, doesn't mean anything. The sources have to be evaluated as much as the content. If you're ever not sure about an article or graphic, like it appears to be trustworthy and legit, but you can't say for sure, say so in your post or just don't post it.

Anyone who's connected to me on Facebook knows an article I posted a link to recently was one I thought was "garbage". It was entitled "Why the Amish Don't Get Sick" and was making its rounds on my Facebook feed from several well-meaning friends. While the article did have sources, it only had a few and some of the main points (particularly the claim that the Amish don't get vaccinated) didn't have any sources. Why not? Well, it's not true, for one, and is based on a misconception that the Amish simply avoid all modern medicine. They don't. In fact, many (if not the majority) of the Amish do get vaccinated. Just reading the article it was clear that the author was pushing a specific viewpoint, not just providing facts for a reader to make any kind of educated decision about.

Another interesting occurrence on that article was in reading the comments. Now, comments on an article should always be read with caution since anyone can say anything, but there were a significant amount of comments from people who claimed to live in or near Amish communities in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that refuted many of the claims of the article, not only on the vaccination issue but the very notion that the Amish "don't get sick" or even use completely natural farming methods (another tenet of the article which is simply not true). But really, the comments simply added to the already shaky "facts" the article was built on. In other words, I didn't need the comments to know that the article had some major problems; the comments merely confirmed my own analysis of the content. About the only truth in the article is that the Amish typically get more physical activity than a typical American just because of the manual labor they have to do on things that most of us have machines for. But stress free? All organic? No autism or cancer? Uh, no.

Another link I saw recently had to do with aspartame, which has been very controversial. The link was to what was purported to be a report from the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) about the dangers of aspartame. It cites several studies and other sources and appears legitimate, but there's one problem: it's not a report of the FDA. Yes, it can be found on the FDA website, but upon reading the very first lines of the document, it's clearly stated that the text is from an email to the FDA from a person named Mark D. Gold of the Aspartame Toxicity Information Center, sent January 12, 2003. In other words, this isn't beyond the realm of bias as it's from an advocacy group which wishes to have aspartame banned in the United States. It certainly isn't a damning report on aspartame from the FDA itself as many seem to believe it is. No, being a Federal agency, an email to the FDA is public record.

Now, I don't present this to discredit Mr. Gold or his organization or to promote aspartame (I don't typically drink diet sodas simply because of the taste), but rather to caution readers as they evaluate information. This is an exercise in evaluating information and also presenting it correctly. If someone wishes to present this, it needs to be presented as an email from Mark D. Gold of the Aspartame Toxicity Information Center, not a report from the FDA. I haven't been able to sit down and evaluate the content of his email either (how he used the studies, how legit the studies were, whether they actually support his claims, etc.); all I can tell you that aspartame is still legal in the US.

One final point in evaluating information is to watch out for anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is when we observe a certain behavior or occurrence either with our own eyes or reading about it. While anecdotal evidence can often be correct, it can just as often be totally wrong because we don't have all the facts or are just observing a very small group of people or things.

For instance, I saw a blog post dealing with diets in the early 20th century, 19th, and even 18th centuries. The basic premise was that people lived longer back then because of their diets. Unfortunately, the post failed the very first test about sources because, well, it doesn't have ANY to support scientific and diet claims. The only "evidence" offered is COMPLETELY anecdotal. Examples? To prove that people back then had less stress, the author uses a single journal entry from a relative in the early 20th century. A single journal entry. Really? From that we can determine without a doubt that people back then were under less stress than we are today? Huh? Never mind that people back then had to worry about all sorts of things we don't even think about today and that people deal with stress differently.

Another example of anecdotal evidence was showing some of the lifespans of the author's and her husbands ancestors. She uses two of her ancestors and two of her husbands. TWO! Since they both had relatives who lived into their 70s and 80s back into the early 19th century, well, obviously it was because of their diet AND the lifespans of everyone around them were just as long. Never mind how small a group that sample is coming from, any role genetics played there, or if other family members actually lived that long.

To top it off, there's even a generalization that the reason our life expectancy has increased (and continues to do so) is simply from improvements in infant mortality. Actual health experts have attributed several factors to life expectancy (see the Wikipedia article and the many sources it has!), among them better diet and of course, improved medical care. Yes, infant mortality plays a role in that average, but so does the fact that people, particularly children, aren't dying from things like a ruptured appendix that couldn't be detected in time, or cholera in the water supply, or even a simple bacterial infection that wasn't dealt with properly.  In other words, simply attributing the rise in life expectancy only to improvements in infant mortality is simplistic and inaccurate.

I could go on an entire post about some of these specific instances, but the bottom line is evaluate your information before you decide to pass it on to others. I certainly don't like passing on bad info and misleading others, even if I had all the greatest intentions in the world. Even if an article seems to fit your personal views on something, if it doesn't have decent sources, good heavens, don't pass it on unless you can verify reality. The more we as a general public demand out of our sources of information, the better they will get in terms of quality. If we want others to be persuaded by our opinions and interpretations, we need to make sure what we're spreading is actually substantiated. Spreading nonsense helps no one.

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