Graduable blog readers. Hello. I’ve got something on my mind this week that I’d like to share with you. Now, as you may or may not know, I am a fairly consistent user of social media. I am by no means the best at it, but I believe that I am proficient and that I navigate it well. I use all the usual outlets that one would expect someone of my skill set and interests to use (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc). The two networks I provided links to just now are the ones I use for the public and professional side of my online identity, not to mention this blog. I use Facebook primarily for staying in touch with friends and family and having a space to say some woefully dumb things.
I have noticed the alarming trend recently in that people I personally know are becoming embroiled in online public and semi-public arguments about wide-ranging topics and citing sources that are by and large simply unreliable and unverified. Most of the time I am simply dis- or uninterested in the arguments being had and then it became apparent to me that it did not matter the topic(s) that were being argued, I am pretty good at verifying sources. In fact, it’s a large part of my job.
I am by no means an expert on every topic; I’ll be lucky to be able to claim expertise on my sub-specialized field by the time I finish my PhD. Some inevitably think I am over educated or elitist or worse, but the thing is that I’ve picked up a variety of skills that allow me to separate bullshit from trustworthy information. I’ll give you an example: I am not a doctor nor do I know much of anything about medicine. That’s my wife’s area, not mine. However, I am keenly interested in topics about health and the body and I don’t like to take chances when it comes to my own health. There was a doctor I stumbled across online once who was giving “free” advice that was contrary to conventional medical opinion. He was promoting some sort of whole body cleansing lifestyle for any number of ailments. This fellow had written “articles” about various toxins in your body and how to get rid of them, so-called super foods, treatments your doctor doesn’t want you to know about, etc. Pretty standard stuff. I’m not an expert in any of the things he wrote about. After all, I did not go to medical school. What made me question this gentleman’s claims was his insistence in the fact that he and he alone was the one doctor who actually cared about his patients’ health and that your doctor was likely a money-hungry pill pusher. Also, he continually claimed that his findings had been published in top medical journals.
His first point, that your doctor is a quack working for big pharma. Fair enough, I thought. Lots of docs are wined and dined by big pharmaceutical companies. Good thing I hadn’t failed to notice the giant button on the top of every page of this doctor’s website announcing that, not only did he have the cure for everything, but you could buy it directly from him. Yes, I hear you gasping now. The good doctor, while not working for big pharma, had built his own mini-empire of sorts coincidentally stocked with all the supplements and natural cures written about in his online “articles”. Which brings me to his second big claim that drew instant questioning from me. His publications.
I have to say, this particular website was well stocked not only with nutritional supplements but also a wide-ranging bibliography of publications by the author in medical journals that even I recognized. The links were there for anyone to see, so I did a bit of digging. It didn’t take me long to find out that not one of his “articles” was an article at all. The overwhelming majority that were in reputable journals like the New England Journal of Medicine were the publishing equivalent of a letter to the editor. Mostly responses and refutations of actual research articles. And, to my skeptic’s delight, the online versions of these journals had posted rebuttals of the good doctor’s rebuttals by others. There were also publications in online only journals of natural and alternative medicine which I , of course, did not recognize, but from what I read there didn’t seem to be a high level of peer-reviewing or editing in any of these publications, so they can be written off with a high degree of likelihood as mostly bogus.
Now, this has been all to get to a broader point.
I’m smarter than a lot of people. I have spent a great deal of time learning how to question things. When I see things that don’t look right or raise questions to do with the quality of the information presented, it is in my nature to look further into them. This goes not just for medical things, but the ubiquitous urban legends and conspiracy theories that not only exist but thrive online and in our actual world. A lot of the time it takes less than five minutes to find out whether or not something is not what it purports to be. We all have the tools available to us, we just have to know how to use them. Of course, there are topics out there that require much more specialized knowledge and a great deal of time to figure out. There are also other things that cannot be proved or disproved easily because of the complex nature of the debate (say, the current gun debate in the US, for example). Debate, however, is what we ought to all be open to, online and IRL.*
My end point in all of this is not to show how smart I am or to take some sort of twisted pride in proving people wrong. What I would like is the opportunity for everyone to present something (anything) and not get upset when that thing is questioned in a polite and reasoned manner. I suppose this is the difference between arguing from reason/evidence and arguing from belief. Just because I believe hard enough that the water the homeopathic practitioner sold to me as a cure for fibro myalgia doesn’t mean it can’t be otherwise. In fact, it can and very likely could be. In my experience, things that are proven to work well through rigorous testing and trustworthy evidence don’t require a hard sell and opposition is pretty handily dealt with.
PS- I know I have picked on medical things above. I have done this because they are the best example I could conjure of things presented as fact routinely either by word of mouth or online. Data, of course, not being the plural of anecdote. This post was in part prompted by an article on How Stuff Works that gave a fairly good primer on how to spot bogus things written online.
*Apologies to anyone over the age of 45. IRL is internet speak for ‘in real life’.