Facts, Fiction and Fake News

18/01/2021

We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded with information. So how do you sort the fact from the fiction?

Listen to the experts

Have you ever Googled your symptoms and convinced yourself you have a terrible disease, and then visited the doctor to discover that actually it was something very minor? Often, when we do this, we tend to ignore symptoms we don't have. A GP knows which symptoms are the ones that define the serious condition, and which ones are less typical. Equally, GPs start from the evidence - they will do tests, examine you for symptoms, and move to a conclusion based on the evidence. Often people start from a conclusion, and try to find evidence that fits. This is where we land up with false conclusions and information. 

Those who are experts in their field usually have a track record of study and practice, and adhere to the codes and rules of their chosen profession. Journalists working for reputable news agencies are expected to report the news accurately, and to present both sides of any issue. If they don't uphold these standards then the paper can be sued for libel. Disagreeing with them doesn't make the facts they present 'fake news.' Part of the issue with the internet is that anyone can write anything and put it out for public consumption. Just because it is online does not make it a fact.

Scientists usually have a Phd in their area of study. Many of them have more than one. They study, do experiments, and analyse what they find. Then when they have reached a conclusion, their peers will review it and look for errors in their methods or conclusions. Their work is published so it can be scrutinised by others. They constantly refine what they know, and re-evaluate when new information appears. In the UK, it appears that those who are BAME have been disproportionately affected by Covid19. There is evidence that shows this. What we don't know is why, and scientists will work to find out whether this is genetic, or socio-economic, or due to other factors. They also will admit when they don't know the answer, but they will find out. This means that when the scientists speak, we should listen. 

So why do they disagree? We are learning more all the time, and new information will shape conclusions - it would be far worse if they ignored new information and did not change course as a result. Sometimes the results of studies - statistics - can be interpreted in more than one way, or it isn't clear which factors are driving them. Politicians might postpone a lockdown because they consider the economy, public views, jobs, as well as the medical evidence. Doctors will have a view based predominantly on the medicine. In these instances, we look for consensus - what do the bulk of the experts say? 

A classic example is that of Andrew Wakefield's research which 'found a correlation' between the MMR vaccine and Autism. That study has subsequently been widely debunked by experts, on the basis that it was significantly flawed, and subsequent more detailed research has proven his conclusions false. You can read more about this here.  However, some parents still won't vaccinate their children. False information can be incredibly damaging.

Whenever you search for information, look who wrote it, and see whether they are an expert in that area. (In case you are wondering, I have a Masters in Information Science, and managed libraries for a long time, and I currently work on research projects - information is very much my area of expertise.)

Look at the evidence - all of it!

Part of any research project or study is to do to extensive and exhaustive research on what else has been done or written on the subject. Academic papers, thesis and research documents include a summary of existing information, before they begin with their own research. They will have an idea (hypothesis) and through their research they will establish whether it is accurate or not, and refine it depending on the results of the research. When we look at part of the information, we can easily reach the wrong conclusions, such as when we convince ourselves we have a serious illness by ignoring significant symptoms. When you have collected the evidence, weigh it, examine it, then reach a conclusion. 

You may have your favourite route for going to work, the supermarket etc, that you have arrived at over time, probably because of it's length, ease of access, personal preferences etc. If however, you hear on the news that there is an accident causing delays on that route, then you change direction if possible. New evidence often means changing a course of action. 

Conspiracy theories are built on partial information, which is developed to seem factual, and often uses inaccurate information - a great example is here. One of the ones doing the rounds at present is that the Covid19 vaccine will implant a tracking device. A great way to see these debunked, and a wider view, is to look at Snopes. Here's what they have to say about Bill Gates and the vaccination. These are particularly rampant on social media, so do be careful what you share.

How recent is your information? Websites have been around for decades and some are not updated regularly. Make sure that you read current information. If you're interested, the first website was published in 1992

Find more than one source - check the 'facts'

To reach a sound conclusion, it's really important to check the facts with multiple sources. Experts won't draw conclusions from only one article - they will read widely and then draw conclusions. If the only research on vaccines you read was Andrew Wakefield's study, you'd never inoculate your children. However, if you look at the overwhelming evidence against his ideas, you would ensure they are vaccinated. 

As an information professional, I used to teach students the '3 source rule' find three different sources that say the same thing, before accepting it as fact. How do you know when an expert has done this? It's simple - they have a list of sources they have read (a Bibliography) and refer to the work of others. When you read an internet article, look for references to the work of others that support the article.  (I use hyperlinks to other sites to do this.)

Google has a tendency to shape the results it presents  with others similar to your previous searches. This is unhelpful in a search for accurate information, as it may result in you only finding results that support your own views. To avoid this, use other search engines as well, such as Bing, DuckDuckGo (which does not track you) Yahoo or Dogpile

Challenge the facts

So, why don't the experts agree?  Well, sometimes the facts or combinations of facts can be interpreted in more than one way. Experts will be the first to admit they are not infallible, so a second opinion is important. The second opinion should come from another expert though, not Joe Blogs down the street.  Sometimes we don't have all the information we need. Galileo challenged the church, saying the earth revolved around the sun. At that time it was hard to prove who was right, but as technology has advanced, we have been able to prove his theories.  

The UK government press briefings are a masterclass in information management - the include an overall message, detailed statistics, where we are told how they are collected, and then an analysis of those statistics, questions and answers. We are living in unprecidented times, and new information is emerging daily. Only time will tell how well governments managed the crisis. But, if you are deciding whether or not to have the vaccine, then you need to look at the most current information available, from the experts in dealing with epidemics. 

Don't simply accept everything you read, see and hear. Look at other sources, use a bit of common sense (like not injecting bleach into your veins to combat Covid19!) do your research, consider who you are listening to - are they an expert or not? I'd rather be in a plane flown by a pilot than one flown by someone who has played pilot computer games! Sometimes innaccuracies can have very little impact. Sometimes the difference between facts and fiction can be life and death. 

Check your facts.

Denice Penrose

Jan 2021