Dodging misinformation

In my previous post I mentioned a heuristic which we can use to help judge the reliability of what we read: Has a fact been derived from a single grand vision, or from many different ideas?

That idea is that a fact derived from the convergence of many different ideas is more likely to be reliable and robust than one derived from a single grand vision (which might turn out to be a single grand delusion).

What are some other heuristics that we can use when trying to dodge misinformation? There are plenty of good suggestions at Google Answers, on a question entitled Quality of Information. The question itself is delightful to read, because it’s so beautifully written.

Here is a synthesis of ideas offered by pinkfreud-ga (who posted the answer), plus commenters journalist-ga, j-philipp-ga, aceresearcher-ga, luciaphile-ga and voila-ga (all of whom were Google Answers Researchers).

  • The context of a website can cast doubt on the authority of its content. Can you trust information placed on a site whose purpose seems to be not the spread of knowledge, but the spread of animated graphics, uninvited MIDI music and intrusive pop-ups? (it's a joke)
  • Likewise, the purported authorship of a website can cast doubt on the authority of its content. Would you rely on a source identified only as armadillogirl?
  • Poor spelling can be a warning (Kemlo’s posts excepted, of course). If someone hasn’t taken the time to check the spelling of their text, are they likely to have taken the time to check its correctness? It’s like your local takeaway: there’s no hygiene reason why the outside of their windows must be clean, but if they have cleaned their windows then they have probably also cleaned in more important places too.
  • Does the website have an identifiable agenda? Even if it’s unrelated to the information that you are interested in, an agenda increases the possibility that the information is not been assembled in a rigorous and balanced way.
  • Is the site hosted at a location that is generally used for the dissemination of information? It’s prejudice I know, but a MySpace site may not be as reliable as an .edu site.

This might all sound a bit discouraging, but there are also some positive indicators:

  • Are sources cited?
  • Has time and care been taken to lay out the site?
  • Does the site appear to be motivated by the desire to spread knowledge?
  • Is the site regularly kept up-to-date?

Some types of content should raise warning flags. This kind of content is not always untrustworthy, but you do need to cross-check:

  • Quotes and their origins. Misinformation gets repeated as gospel. You need to check the original source if it is at all possible.
  • Something unbelievable yet somehow compelling. This is the stuff of which urban legends are made. If it was so unbelievable yet true, it would be more widely mentioned and discussed than on niche websites.
  • A “fact” that could hurt the reputation of a person or a company. It’s quite likely that it’s nothing more than malicious fiction.
  • Someone wants to sell something. Maybe use their website if you want to buy what they are sellng. Don’t rely on the website for anything else.
  • Someone is seeking help of some sort by a mass appeal. Way less than one percent of these are going to be genuine. If you want to help, cross-check with other sources. A genuine appeal will be verifiable.
  • Someone is warning that your health (or that of your PC) is in peril. As if they would really know which files you should delete on my computer, or where you should send your bank account details to, to fix this fake “problem”.
  • Something is claimed to be true but cannot be explained by science. Well maybe it is true, but if neither they nor you can prove it, then all bets are off. Believe in it if you like, but don’t pass it on as a fact.
  • Knowledge is claimed to be suppressed by a conspiracy. It’s tempting to dismiss all of these claims as being made by nut-cases, but history shows that some of the conspiracy theories turn out to be true. The problem is that usually no-one knows which ones are true until the government archives are released fifty years later. If you want to establish claims of a conspiracy as fact, you need to look for evidence elsewhere, and not simply accept the word of the conspiracy site.
  • An extremely good or bad claim. So you’ve apparently won the lottery, or have a rare disease and will die tomorrow? It might be worth looking for evidence elsewhere.

J_philipp-ga warns us about statistics in general: There’s a saying that statistics are like bikinis. (“What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”) Unless a website has a good reason to make a statistic out of the information, look further and use the original data instead.

Finally, pinkfreud-ga gives us a thought to ponder:

Brownie points for good humor and wit (genuinely funny people are, in my experience, more careful with facts and tend to be more trustworthy than are humorless wretches).

I never thought of it that way before, but I agree, and I like it that way.

One Response to “Dodging misinformation”

  1. bowler says:

    As a librarian and an avid Internet researcher I agree with all those points. I usually stress the point about the type of website the information is coming from. For example, if you are looking for information about a drug, a .com website that sells the drug may be a bit biased and inflate the claims of the drug while the FDA, Mayo Clinic or PDR website will be a bit more reliable because they are more trusted sources. The spread of misinformation happens in the print world also, albeit at a much slower rate. Books like “Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About” and others like it are examples of this.

    Thanks for the post.