An enormous disparity exists between what scientists know to be true, and what the general public chooses to believe. This disparity exists largely because of the internet, and it is perpetuated by those who readily read and disperse blogs and unfactual websites. Allow me to begin by using an example to illustrate the absurdity of the situation. I have little knowledge about archeology. I’ve seen some History Channel specials, and I can quote all of the Indiana Jones movies by heart, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Now, suppose that I did some reading online, then came up to you and said, “I have absolutely no credentials in archeology, I’ve never done any field work, I’ve never had any training, I’ve never gone to a professional meeting, I’ve never published a paper, I haven’t read more than 10 peer-reviewed papers, but I figured out something that the entire archeological community is wrong about! In fact, I think that they are all in on an elaborate conspiracy to cover this up in order to get more funding.” Would you listen to me about my discovery? I highly doubt it. You’d probably laugh in my face, and with good reason! It would be the epitome of arrogance for me to claim to know more than the entire archeological community. I cannot think of a more audacious claim, yet this is exactly what happens every day on the internet. People with absolutely no credentials or experience claim to know more than the entire scientific community, and people believe them! If you wouldn’t believe me about my archeological epiphany, then you shouldn’t believe them when they claim that the entire scientific community is wrong about vaccines, global climate change, evolution, etc.?
The simple fact is this, we live in a world where information is more easily available than ever before. One needs only to press a few buttons on their phone to have the summation of all human knowledge at their fingertips. This blessing is, however, also a curse. The internet is not filtered. There are no quality control of peer-review mechanisms. As a result, for every factual website, there are 20 unfactual websites (my personal estimate). Any eloquent idiot can write a blog and deceive thousands of people, and most readers aren’t discerning enough to tell which websites are good and which websites are faulty. The internet is replete with blatantly false articles that are extremely well written, include impressive looking graphs, and cite peer-reviewed scientific papers. To the masses who are untrained in the sciences, these blogs/websites seem very convincing. People rarely bother to fact check them and see whether or not the sources are reliable, or if the papers that are being cited actually support the author’s claims, or if the author even has any credentials in the field that he is claiming to be an expert in.
That last point is one of the biggest issues: blogs’ authors generally aren’t scientists. Scientific articles are written in the jargon of science, and unless you understand the intricacies of experimental design and the meaning of terms like “P value,” “type 1 error,” “standard deviation,” “ANOVA,” “Bonferroni correction,” “null hypothesis,” etc. there is simply no way that you truly can understand a scientific publication and make a valid evaluation of its results (note: this is not a statement of “scientists are better than everyone else,” rather this is a statement of, “science is complicated and requires years of careful study, and it’s absurd to think that someone who hasn’t received that training will understand it in adequate detail”). Time and time again, when I am debating someone who denies global warming or is anti-vaccine, they send me a link to some blog that cites a bunch of peer-reviewed papers that, according to the blog’s author, demonstrate that global warming isn’t true or vaccines don’t work. When I read the original papers, however, it becomes abundantly clear that the author of the blog doesn’t understand science/statistics and either misunderstood the papers’ or intentionally distorted their results.
Blogs/private websites basically boil down to this, someone who is not a scientist and doesn’t know how to interpret scientific results went ahead and tried to interpret scientific results, and now expects you to accept their interpretation. The amazing thing is, of course, that millions of people actually do believe something just because several blogs claimed that its true! Not only do they believe it, they post the link to their Facebook account, encouraging their friends to read this, “excellent blog on why we shouldn’t use vaccines” or “why evolution isn’t true” or “why climate change is just a natural cycle.” They are often willing to put themselves and everyone around them at risk all because of what they read on the internet!
The take home message here is basically this, do not trust the internet!!!. If a “scientific” blog/website is not written by someone who is credentialed in that field, don’t even both to read it. Your time would be better spent elsewhere. Second, even if they have credentials, view it cautiously, especially if they are making a claim that is contrary to the general consensus of scientists. There is an old saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If they are right, then you should have no problem finding information published by well established, reputable, scientific organizations (e.g. NOAA, CDC, USGS, etc.) that agrees with them (note: NaturalNews.com, Merecola.com, and Whale.to are not reputable sources). If you cannot find peer-reviewed, reputable sources that agree with your blogger, then ignore him/her. As I have said many times, it doesn’t matter what crackpot notion you choose to believe, you can find someone with an advanced degree that agrees with you. You can find M.D.s that argue that smoking doesn’t cause cancer, and Ph.D.s in physics that argue that the sun moves around the earth, but you would be crazy to believe them. Even so, finding one or two “scientists” that agree with you that the entire scientific community is wrong does not constitute a valid reason to reject scientific evidence, and it would be crazy for you to believe these people. Having an advanced degree does not inherently make you a scientist. If you want to honestly research a topic, start by avoiding any site that has a “.com” address, and stick to the reputable sources.
Note: it may seem hypocritical to write a blog about why you shouldn’t trust blogs, so I want to clarify a few points. First, I actually am a published scientist who participates in the peer-review system, which means that I have been trained on how to read and assess scientific papers. Second, despite my qualifications, I AM NOT suggesting that anyone blindly believe any information on my blog. I strongly encourage everyone to fact check everything here (as you should with all websites). All that I am saying, is that when you fact check, you have to do it against original sources of peer-reviewed information, not other blogs. Finally, many of my posts (such as this one) are logical arguments not expositions of scientific facts. You don’t fact check logical arguments, you analyze them on their own merits. Again, you should carefully consider them rather than blindly believing them, but there is no way, even in concept, to fact check a post such as this one.