How to recognize a reliable source of information

I was waiting for the kettle to boil the other day and saw that someone had posted a meme on Facebook saying: “Bill Gates Foundation tested a polio vax in India between 2000 and 2017 and paralysed 496,000 children. Fact!”

It wasn’t so much the wild claim that bothered me. It was that someone thought that putting the word ‘Fact!’ at the end of a made-up statistic made it one.

The discussion that followed it was predictably toxic (some day we’ll learn the science for why everyone is so much nastier in online arguments than real life) and pretty soon the links starting flying like ninja stars.

Hiyah! An article from the New York Times!

Hiyah! A quote from Gandhi!

I still remember the birth of the internet and the naive hopes that came now that everyone had instant access to the library of the world – soon no one would believe lies and propaganda any more! We would all be equally educated and informed!

Instead the world is becoming more polarised than ever and misinformation travels at a far greater pace than the truth.

What went wrong?

It used to be pretty easy to tell apart websites that presented serious information from those that didn’t. The kind of site that claimed the government was run by aliens would usually have a page with 5 different kinds of fonts in 7 different colours. Most of the text would be in capital letters and often more than one exclamation mark at THE END OF THE SENTENCE!!!!!!

Misinformation has since then learned the art of design, however, and now even those who think the world is being overtaken by reptiles from another dimension can put together a website that looks pretty respectable.

And not many people foresaw that anyone with a phone would end up becoming a publisher in their own right. Catchy memes on Whatsapp, provocative videos on Youtube, polemic posts on Facebook – these can all reach many millions more than conventional media.

With so much information floating around it’s understandable that many people don’t know what to believe.

So how can you recognize a quality source of scientific information?

When it comes to anything to do with science a good bet is to ask…scientists. Note that I use the plural: scientists.

There are 10-15 million scientists in the world today and that includes a good number of fanatics, opportunists and good old-fashioned nutcases. There are scientists who think the world was made in 6 days. Just as there were scientists who backed the Nazi policy of a master race in the 1930’s.

So yes, you might find someone wearing a white lab coat with letters after their name backing any conspiracy theory you care to think of.

But in general the scientific community has consensus on most things.

Take something like human-driven climate change: you can go on Youtube right now and find documentaries supporting both sides of the argument. So are scientists split 50/50 on the topic?

No way! The overwhelming majority of climate scientists (some estimates put it at 97%) agree that humans are responsible.

In general the best way to get reliable information is to get it from somewhere reliable. What makes a source reliable? Two things: expertise and reputation.

Expertise means checking if the person writing the article or making the video actually knows what they’re talking about. There’s no reason to put your trust in an engineer who’s talking about viruses, for instance. Bridges? Sure! But not disease.

Reputation is the reason why science journalists don’t just make everything up. If they did they would eventually be found out and no one would employ them again. It would make people lose trust in the publication as well and so editors do their best to make sure the material is accurate.

But mistakes happen, people are lazy and sometimes there isn’t consensus on a subject. So it’s worth doing a search and seeing what the general picture is before you make up your own mind.

So here’s a brief checklist when someone posts something in their social media feed:

1. Who wrote it? Where is it published? Does the other material on the website inspire confidence?

2. Are there links to the actual sources of information?

3. Is it saying something really radical? Like someone claiming that Michael Jackson is actually alive and well. An extraordinary claim needs extraordinary evidence.

4. Do you want it to be true? Does this article confirm what you already believe? If so you need to try even harder than usual to be objective.

Ultimately everyone has to decide for themselves who and what to trust. But knowing how to recognize a reliable source is a 21st century survival skill.


Further reading: – how to recognize a good source – how to spot fake news