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?
- Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit offers tools for general media
- Michael Shermer explains the Baloney Detection Kit in this video
- Rational Wiki purposes include: 1. Analyzing and refuting pseudoscience and the anti-science movement. 2. Documenting the full range of crank ideas. 3. Explorations of authoritarianism and fundamentalism. 4. Analysis and criticism of how these subjects are handled in the media. This wiki is an excellent resource for the skeptical inquirer and has a very wide range of subjects. If curious about the credibility of a person or organisation, Rational Wiki is a good place to start
- Snopes is excellent for debunking urban legends, so check them out before passing around a new meme
- TED has useful criteria for curating speakers that also applies to speakers and writers on the Internet
- The Skeptical Raptor gives a few tips on Identifying science denialism and pseudoscience
- What is Pseudoscience?
- A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science
- Richard Feynman’s ‘Cargo Cult Science’
- Richard Feynman’s ‘What is Science?’
- Opening Minds with Minimal Fatalities: An Argument for Skepticism
- Debunking Denialism: Investigative Skepticism Versus the Mass Media
- Lifehacker: How to Find Evidence to Support Any Argument
- Site Reviews: Judging the quality of a website
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: Online Tools for Skeptical Fact Checking
How can we tell if a study is good?
- Science writer Kyle Hill gives some criteria in his article: What is a Good Study?: Guidelines for Evaluating Scientific Studies
- Skeptical Raptor explains how to Judge the quality of science sources
- Understanding the basics of The Scientific Method is necessary for distinguishing good science
- Warning Signs in Experimental Design and Interpretation
- Science-Based Medicine on Interpreting the Medical Literature
- Science or Not? These red flags are indicators of either bad science or unscientific nonsense
- Science or Not? Hallmarks of Science
- Science or Not? Single Study Syndrome
- How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists
- Nature: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims
- Debunking Denialism: How to Spot a Pseudoscientific Paper
- Terry Daynard’s Blog: How Can You Tell What “Good” Science Really Says?
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:
- Pirate University
- #ICanHazPDF on Twitter
- Livejournal’s Requests for Scholarly 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:
- Quackwatch provides an overview of how to determine if an organisation is reliable or dubious. Included are several lists of organisations and their categories.
- Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers
- A guide to detecting bogus scientific journals
- Beall’s List: Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers
- Quackwatch: Nonrecommended Periodicals
- Rational Wiki explains why Natural News is one of the most notoriously bad websites for disinformation
- Biofortified: Making sense of lists of studies
- List of Fake Publishers
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
- 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?
- Coursera: Critical Thinking in Global Challenges
- QualiaSoup video: Critical Thinking
- TechNyouvids video: Critical Thinking Part 1: A Valuable Argument
- Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (PDF)
- Open University: Critical Thinking (PDF)
- Skepticism 101: Critical & Scientific Thinking in the High School Classroom
- The Debunking Handbook
- Science and the media videos
- A Practical Guide To Critical Thinking By Greg R. Haskins
- Changing Minds
How can we use search engines better?
How does peer review work?
- Peer Review – Where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning!
- Nature has 22 articles discussing the strengths and limitations of peer review
Where can we find some software tools?
- 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
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