There's a lot of bad information out there online. This guide can help you avoid the crap and become a savvier citizen of our digital age.
Editor's note: The following essay has been adapted from Howard Rheingold's new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, which offers Rheingold's insights on how to find quality information on the web, and then how to piece that information together "intelligently, humanely, and above all mindfully." The book was published in April by MIT Press.
Use the following methods and tools to protect yourself from toxic bad info. Use them and then pass them along to others. Promote the notion that more info literacy is a practical answer to the growing info pollution. Be the change you want to see.
Although the Web undermines authority (by enabling anybody to publish), authority is still useful as one clue to credibility in a detective hunt that accounts for many other clues. Claims to authority, however, need to be questioned. I might add credibility to my assessment if a source is a verified professor at a known institution of higher learning, an authentic MD or PhD, but I would not subtract it from people without credentials whose expertise seems authentic. If you are going to grant credibility to people whose expertise is based on being a professor of something, make sure that assertion is accurate. Don't stop at simply verifying that the claim to be a professor is valid if you are looking for scientific credibility. The next step is to use the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index that derives a score from the scholar's publications, citations by other scholars, grants, honors, and awards. If you want to get even more serious, download a free copy of Publish or Perish software, which analyzes scientific citations from Google Scholar according to multiple criteria. Or use the h-index to calculate how many times other scientists have cited a particular source. Again, don't trust just one source; triangulate.
Think of tools such as search engines, the productivity index, and hoax debunking sites as forensic instruments like Sherlock Holmes's magnifying glass or the crime scene investigator's fingerprint kit. For people who bet their health on online medical information, their economic well-being on online financial gossip, or their political liberty on the rumored news they get from Twitter, blogs, or YouTube, the stakes in this detective game are high. For example, you could triangulate by googling the author's name, entering the author's name in the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, and using the literacy resources at FactCheckED.org to triangulate a source. FactCheckED.org's sister site, FactCheck.org, researches claims by all political factions. How much stronger would democracies be if citizens checked the political section of the New York Times Company's "About Urban Legends" site or the U.S. Department of State's "Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation" site before passing along a link or an email about, respectively, a political figure or conspiracy theory?
Crap-detection skills and the lack of them are a life-and-death matter for more people every day.
Crap-detection skills and the lack of them are a life-and-death matter for more people every day. The good news about the pace of medical research is also the bad news: few medical specialists can keep up with the rate of new discoveries. That means that it's possible for the collective intelligence of a committed community -- and there is no one as committed as people who are suffering from a disease -- to stay ahead of all but the most dedicated individual specialists. Nevertheless, along with the latest word on cutting-edge drug trials are unsubstantiated claims, rumors, and outright quackery. Well-intentioned yet dangerously misinformed people, quacks who sincerely believe that their ineffective cures will save the world, and straight-out charlatans who unblushingly fleece the ailing abound online. It's not just that uninformed consumers of bad medical information can harm themselves; people who link and forward without checking closely are part of the problem. When it comes to medical information, just as when it comes to information that affects political liberty, believing or forwarding bad info can be unhealthy or fatal.
How much work is it to check three links before believing or passing along online health information? Simply googling the name of the person who tried to sell do-it-yourself eye surgery kits, for example, immediately raises questions for those who are considering aiming lasers at their own retinas. Patients who want to learn more about their disease and treatment are not totally at the mercy of the oceans of rubbish. Tools for navigating research reports and treatment options exist. For scientific articles, ScienceDirect has guest access. The Health on the Net Foundation has been a steady source of finding reliable, credible health information online. It even has a browser plug-in that enables you to check health information on any Web site against its database. An astute medical student wrote a quality-check guide to medical information online. The Medical Library Association published "A User's Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web." Start with these gateways if you are new to seeking online medical information.
What person doesn't search online about their disease after they are diagnosed? According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "[Sixty-six percent] of Internet users look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem." In a Time magazine article, Zachary F. Meisel, an emergency physician and clinical scholar, describes the situation:
To debate whether patients should or should not Google their symptoms (which a surprising number of doctors seem to enjoy engaging in) is an absurd exercise. Patients already are doing it, it is now a fact of normal patient behavior, and it will only increase as Internet technology becomes ever more ubiquitous. The average Joe has more health information at his fingertips--both credible and charlatan--than all the medical libraries ever built put together. So the real question is, What can professionals do to translate this phenomenon into better health for their patients and the public?
Meisel suggests that health care professionals encourage their patients to educate themselves about their diseases, and "guide their patients to Internet sites that exclusively present current, peer-reviewed and evidence-based health information." I'm cheered that in an international newsmagazine, a medical professional has publicly advised doctors to teach their patients the kind of crap detection that licensed practitioners learn to do early in their medical careers. Meisel, for instance, points to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website that provides specific guidebooks for different diseases, directing patients with particular diseases to officially vetted research reports that compare different healthcare interventions.
The website Search Engine Watch, an industry source I consider knowledgeable, published a good article by Dean Stephens titled "Turning to Social Media and Search Engines for Smart Health Answers." In regard to getting answers, Stephens recommends MedHelp.org and JustAnswer.com for "detailed information specific to your question from health professionals," and favorably mentions Sharecare.com and Healthline.com. The Pew Internet and American Life Project claims that while medical professionals and Web searches are sources of some types of information for cancer patients, "when it comes to practical advice for coping with day-to-day health situations, people are as likely to turn to peers as they are to professionals."