Back in the 1990s, United States Senator and later Vice President Al Gore was fond of calling the internet “the information superhighway.” While the nickname has not stuck, the description remains accurate. The vastness, versatility and availability of information on the internet is unmatched. Yet, it can be daunting — and misleading.
While scientific information is easier to access, so is information that appears to be scientific, but which would not hold up to the rigors of science, particularly peer review and reproducibility. Therefore, knowing how to evaluate scientific information presented in different modes and by different sources is an extremely valuable skill. The Vaccine Education Center recently released a downloadable PDF that includes tips for evaluating scientific information as well as media reports and websites containing scientific information. A related webpage also includes additional resources.
Below are some examples of the types of information you will find in the materials mentioned above:
Spot misleading news
Take the time to evaluate a media report by asking:
- Who is presenting the news?
- Does the reporter or organization gain something from presenting this news in this fashion?
- Is the organization responsible?
- Are the sources experts?
- If two people from opposing sides are quoted, do they have equal expertise and experience?
Identify accurate info
Because the internet is essentially ungoverned, anyone can establish a website, and depending on their level of expertise, make it appear credible. While search engines and social media companies are beginning to filter out some of these types of sites, it has never been more important to examine the websites on which you rely. In addition to the webpage and PDF published by the VEC, the U.S. National Library of Medicine has a video that helps users evaluate health information on the Internet. The 16-minute presentation gives users tips for evaluating the reliability and potential biases of a website and its host, as well a practical demonstration of these methods.
Evaluate scientific studies
The results of scientific studies are often reported as news. Listen to how a news report describes the study to determine whether its conclusions are valid:
- Were there controls?
- Is it a new finding or have the results been reproduced?
- Where was it published?
- How large was the study?
While the best way to gauge the results of a study would be to read the scientific paper, most of us do not have the time or background to do so. However, knowing the characteristics of a high-quality scientific study can help identify media reports that do not provide enough information to understand the findings of the study.
Remember to use these tips — the rearview mirrors and turn signals, if you will — next time you’re cruising the “information superhighway” or consuming scientific news.