Alison Bernstein

Not sure if you can trust what you’re reading online? SciMoms co-founder Alison Bernstein shares a few tips for evaluating articles about your health.

By Alison Bernstein

Photo courtesy Michigan State University

Who do you turn to for information when you have questions about food, health or advertised products Increasingly, people are turning to online resources.

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. It is easier and faster than ever to search for answers to our questions. The flipside is that there’s just as much misinformation, particularly about food and health. Learning how to identify reliable information is a critical skill.

To determine whether an article you’re reading is trustworthy, there are two steps: Assess the quality of the source, and then assess the quality of the information.

There are many different sources of information, and understanding who is providing it can help you assess whether or not they’re reputable.

Scientific or medical societies: These are the most reliable sources for scientific information. Information on these websites typically represents the consensus of scientific evidence and opinions of experts. These include organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Academy of Sciences and American Medical Association. Unfortunately, there are also groups that mimic these societies and falsely represent the scientific evidence.

Scientific journals: These are the primary way scientists share their findings with other scientists. These are highly technical and are not written for non-experts. Even as a scientist, it can be difficult to understand the details and implications of scientific papers outside of your area of expertise.

News outlets: Some news outlets have better reputations in specific fields of health and science than others, but judging these sources takes time and requires becoming familiar with specific authors. The more you read, the more you recognize the outlets with reputations for accuracy in science reporting. Watch out for spoof news sites that have URLs close to legitimate websites and news outlets that no one has ever heard of.

Nonprofit websites: These include a range of sources that are highly variable depending on the mission of each organization. It is important to consider who is on the board, who funds the organization and what their mission is. It’s a red flag if you can’t figure out who funds the organization without digging into IRS documents, particularly since many for-profit companies have reputable-sounding nonprofit foundations.

Single authors: No matter the source, it is important to look at the author and his or her expertise. One way to do this is to check authors’ other articles to see if they have a history of accurate reporting, if they have a body of work on scientific topics and if they have any particular expertise — through formal education or extensive reporting on a topic. Obviously, authors can be accurate in one area and not in another, but a history of inaccuracy is a reason to approach content with an extra degree of skepticism.

Software engineers working on project

Software engineers working on project and programming in company

The next step is to assess the quality of the information provided. As a non-expert, there are ways to figure out if the information is accurate. Here are a few questions to ask:

Are other sources reporting similar findings? Looking at other sources of information on the topic is always helpful. If the article you’re reading goes against what other reputable sources are recommending, then approach that article with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Is there a consensus on the topic? Is the article challenging the consensus? Consensus statements from the relevant scientific and medical societies can be found online. If an article is challenging the consensus, it’s important to consider who the author is and their evidence. Consensus can change, but it takes a considerable weight of evidence from experts in the field to overturn a consensus. Most advancements in scientific knowledge are incremental, not paradigm shifting.

What sources are they citing? Look for articles that link to scientific papers or reports from scientific and medical societies and talk to experts with relevant expertise. It’s a red flag if an article fails to link to the scientific paper under discussion or provide enough information for a reader to find that paper. Articles that only link to other articles on that site should raise gigantic red flags.

Is information based on a body of data or one study? Single studies are rarely actionable for individuals. Be skeptical of overinterpretation. A good report of a single study should explain the results in the context of the entire field, refer to other confirmatory or contradictory studies, and talk to scientists in the same field who are not authors of the study.

Is the article a copy of a press release? This is shockingly common. You can compare the content that you’re reading to EurekaAlert!, a resource for scientific press releases. These articles often raise other red flags because they often fail to talk to other scientists and fail to cite other studies.

Does the article provide a solution that sounds too good to be true? Science is complicated. There are few easy solutions and answers. Silver bullet solutions are extremely unlikely to be true. Unlike life hacks to organize your pantry, shedding pounds and curing cancer don’t have quick fixes.

Social MediaLiteracy

Social media poses a challenge because the information you see is catered to your likes. Social media algorithms can quickly push you into a silo and limit the information you see to information you already agree with. Beware of the following social media traps:

  • Savvy social media accounts take advantage of the algorithm with feel-good graphics and then sneak in dangerous information that can cause real harm.
  • Our behavior on social media — sharing and interacting with a post— affects how things are shared. So, share responsibly! Some social media campaigns like #DontCryWolfe and #NaturalNonsense call attention to inaccurate information and the need to share responsibly.
  • Likes and retweets are not a metric of accuracy. Just because something is shared a lot or gets lots of engagement, doesn’t make it true.
  • Good advice does not make for viral content. Few people will share an article about eating more fruits and vegetables, even though it’s important for our health.   

Alison Bernstein is a neuroscientist studying Parkinson’s disease, epigenetics and neurotoxicology at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

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