A Guide to Kinda Looking Smart on the Internet: How to Find and Evaluate Online Information

A Guide to Kinda Looking Smart on the Internet: How to Find and Evaluate Online Information

Written by Knigel Holmes
Photo credit: Katey | CC

We frequently talk about scientific issues because they are important to us. Each day we encounter hundreds of news articles and blog posts talking about science. For many of us, scientists cannot seem to make up their minds and everything is controversial. If we take a look at any one of the polarized issues in public science debates such as vaccines, GMOs, or climate change, two sides both present an abundance of scientific literature. If we look at both sides of the literature, we see that there are reputable professionals on each side and the research on both sides seems just as thorough as the other. We all need to talk about science although we may not be scientists ourselves. Science affects us all. However, one of the most frustrating issues for many of us is trying to find the information we need then figuring out if that information is reliable and credible. If people with an extensive science background cannot agree on scientific issues, how can the public distinguish the good information from the bad? Finding and evaluating information online is frustrating, but some of these following tools should make the detective work a little easier. Through investigation, and by challenging our own assumptions, we can often find that there really aren’t two sides to every story.

How can we tell if an article is credible or full of baloney?

How can we tell if a study is good?

Where can we find research and full studies?

When reading media, we should be cautious of weasel words such as “studies suggest” and look for the actual studies being talked about. Considerate websites will link directly to the study or cite it at the end of the article. Usually, we have to hunt for it. With Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search, we can find the abstract, or short blurb, about the study. If we are lucky, these search engines may include the full study. A lot of research is blocked behind paywalls, but there are a few places where we can request full articles:

A few other places to find scientific literature:
  • The Cochrane Collaboration “is an international network of more than 31,000 dedicated people from over 120 countries. We work together to help healthcare practitioners, policy-makers, patients, their advocates and carers, make well-informed decisions about health care, by preparing, updating, and promoting the accessibility of Cochrane Reviews – over 5,000 so far, published online in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, part of The Cochrane Library. We also prepare the largest collection of records of randomised controlled trials in the world, called CENTRAL, published as part of The Cochrane Library.”
  • PubMed “comprises more than 23 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites.”
  • JSTOR “is a digital library of more than 1,500 academic journals, books, and primary sources. JSTOR helps people discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching platform, and preserves this content for future generations.”
  • PLOS | Public Library of Science “is a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization founded to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication.”
  • arXiv.org “is a highly-automated electronic archive and distribution server for research articles. Covered areas include physics, mathematics, computer science, nonlinear sciences, quantitative biology and statistics. arXiv is maintained and operated by the Cornell University Library with guidance from the arXiv Scientific Advisory Board and the arXiv Sustainability Advisory Group, and with the help of numerous subject moderators.”
  • Web of Science “provides you access to the most reliable, integrated, multidisciplinary research connected through linked content citation metrics from multiple sources within a single interface. And since Web of Science adheres to a strict evaluation process, you can be assured only the most influential, relevant, and credible information is included – allowing you to uncover your next big idea faster.”
  • Faculty of 1000 “is the publisher of four unique services that support and inform the work of life scientists and clinicians.”
  • Mendeley “is a free reference manager and academic social network that can help you organize your research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest research.”
  • ResearchGate “is the professional network for scientists and researchers.”
  • Highly Cited Research from Thomson Reuters

Who can we ask for help?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing what a study says or finding research confusing. Even experts discuss studies amongst themselves to get a better understanding. The best way to understand science is to talk to people about research. Scientific investigation is a community project, so ask questions in many places. A good place to ask science questions is /r/AskScience. Moderators are strict, so use the search bar first. Likely, on any controversial issue, several community members will have discussed the issue. Reddit has several other communities which apply skepticism to scientific claims. Before accepting the conclusions of a scientific claim, test the article or study on /r/skeptic. Also try on /r/IsItBullshit, /r/StudyScrutiny, and /r/DebunkThis. Other very useful communities where we can ask questions:

Who is reliable and who should we distrust?

There are several websites and publishers to avoid or approach with caution. Here are some resources to help know who’s who:

What are some good science and skepticism websites?

  • Science-Based Medicine is dedicated to evaluating medical treatments and products of interest to the public in a scientific light, and promoting the highest standards and traditions of science in health care. Online information about alternative medicine is overwhelmingly credulous and uncritical, and even mainstream media and some medical schools have bought into the hype and failed to ask the hard questions
  • Bad Science
  • Skeptoid
  • Sense about Science works “in partnership with scientific bodies, research publishers, policy makers, the public and the media, to change public discussions about science and evidence.”
  • Ask for Evidence USA
  • Science Watch
  • Science News
  • Science 2.0
  • Debunkatron is an amazing index of resources useful in debunking misinformation and thinking critically.
  • The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.
  • A Skeptical Raptor’s native environment is the jungles of the internet, where junk science, pseudoscience, myths, logical fallacies, and outright lies survive unchecked. The Raptor has evolved over several million years to hunt down these anti-science prey, attempting to remove them from the internet gene pool. Remember, a Raptor is missing some table manners, so the prey may not be treated very nicely

Where can we learn more on critical thinking?

How can we use search engines better?

How does peer review work?

Where can we find some software tools?

  • SkepTools
  • Web of Trust
  • Skeptical Software Tools ‘See how to debunk viral photos in seconds using image search
  • Freeze Page: Enter a web address to freeze any page as it looks right now.
  • rbutr: tells you when the webpage you are currently viewing has been disputed elsewhere on the internet.
  • Do Not Link: link without improving “their” search engine position

How can I share what I’ve learned?

GMO Skepti-Forum on Facebook has an ongoing thread where this collection began: Mehron asks How do you decide what constitutes a reliable source of information? How can a layperson tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?