Science Questions with Surprising Answers
Answers provided by
Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How can I find accurate science information on the internet?

Category: Society      Published: March 18, 2013

chemotherapy items
Public Domain Image, source: National Cancer Institute.

This is more of a cultural question than a science question. As such, the best I can give you is my educated opinion. Let us look first at the general issue of acquiring accurate information, and then apply it to the internet.

An appeal to authority is a logical fallacy. In other words, statements such as, "Dr. Smith says this idea is accurate, therefore this idea is accurate," cannot be guaranteed to be true all the time. Appealing to authority is therefore a weak method to determine the truth of an idea, and a weak argument to use in debate. The truth is more consistently arrived at through controlled and repeated experiments, as well as by applying rigid rules of logic and deduction. Unfortunately, an appeal to authority is often the only option available. Most of us don't have the time, training, or equipment to find the truth out for ourselves experimentally. For instance, personally determining whether most of the earth's oxygen comes from trees or from microscopic ocean plants is beyond the resources of most of us. We are often forced to rely on the word of somebody else. But there are still steps we can take when appealing to authority in order to optimize the rate at which we arrive at true information.

1. Personally conduct controlled experiments.
The gold standard for establishing accurate information in science is repeatable, controlled experiments. Experimental results trump personal views almost every time. The beauty of science is that you don't have to trust another person's word that steel is ferromagnetic. You can test it yourself using your fridge and a fridge magnet. Believing another person's experimental results is not the same as doing the experiment yourself. The other person could have done the experiment wrong, or misread the result, or lied to you. If at all possible, conduct experiments yourself to find out the truth.

Do you know why the Wright brothers were the first ones to successfully fly an airplane? It was not because they were the first to try, nor because they were the only ones with the engineering expertise. At that time in history, the U. S. government had published incorrect aerodynamic coefficients. As a result, all the teams trying to build airplanes were using the incorrect numbers and, as a result, were building flightless airplanes. After many failures using the government's coefficients, the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel and personally measured the correct aerodynamic coefficients. The Wright brothers were the first to fly because they personally performed controlled experiments instead of relying on other people's experiments. Researchers in laboratories are quite familiar with this principle. The first thing a researcher does when he starts a new project and sets up a new experimental system is to try to reproduce the published results of others. If the researcher can't reproduce the results, either the new equipment is not calibrated properly, or the published experiments are faulty. The answer is found by repeating the experiment.

Don't be tempted to skip this step because you don't have access to an expensive laboratory. There are many concepts you can determine for yourself right at home, such as whether baking soda burns in a fire or whether the tip of your tongue can only taste sweet flavors. This concept of personal investigation goes beyond basic science. If you want to know whether toothpaste takes off pen stains, try it! If you need to find the area of a circle with a radius of 10 inches, calculate it yourself instead of looking it up. The best way to see if a car has a smooth ride is to test-drive it yourself. The best way to see if a new shirt fits is to try it on. For this reason, the internet will never completely replace shopping. There's no need to trust others if you are able to make an evaluation yourself. The internet is not the only source of all knowledge. It is just a backup resource when in-person evaluation is impractical.

Your experiments should be as scientifically sound as possible. You can ensure this by controlling extraneous variables, quantifying the result, blinding the test subjects, repeating the experiment, and averaging over many repeats. For example, swallowing an herbal supplement and then telling yourself, "I feel stronger, therefore the pill made me stronger," is not very scientific. Such an approach will not be very successful in leading you to the truth. On the other hand, if you ingest a certain herbal supplement every morning, take your blood pressure every night for a month, calculate a running average of the numbers, and find your blood pressure steadily decreasing, then you would have a more convincing case that the herb is doing something. Be warned, however, that many experiments can be deadly. Investigating whether chlorine bleach cures an upset stomach could end up killing you. Even many over-the-counter herbal pills can put you in the hospital if taken too often or too long. If your experiment involves swallowing, dangerous chemicals, fuel, electricity, or heavy machinery, it's best to first check to see if anyone else has tried the experiment and lived to tell about it before trying it yourself.

Often you don't have the expertise, equipment, or time to find an answer through your own experimentation. In that case, you must turn to others for answers, and we move on to the next steps.

2. If only non-expert opinion exists on the subject, go with your own opinion.
Your next-door neighbor may be very animated and convincing, but unless he has a degree in physics and has done controlled experiments repeated by others, his views on time travel have the same worth as your own views. A time machine built according to his designs will work just as well as one built according to your own design (neither will probably work). Reading a lot of imaginative science fiction novels does not make him an expert. Reading popular science magazines and lay science books does not make him an expert. Tinkering in his basement also does not make him an expert. People become experts in a given field by getting a degree in that field, engaging with the corresponding professional community, and doing their own controlled experiments. Degrees matter because science is hard. It takes the pressure of homework, exams, and grades to push a student through the hard parts of science. Without a degree, a person may think they know a lot about a subject but in fact know very little because they have skipped the hard work needed for deep understanding. (Contrary to what you may have heard, Einstein had a PhD.)

bowl of oranges
No matter how strongly your aunt believes that orange juice cures warts, her belief is most likely false unless she is a professional pathologist and has several scholarly publications on hand to back up her claim. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

No matter how fervently your aunt believes that orange juice cures warts, or how many news reports she thinks she has read verifying this belief, going with your own opinion will lead you to the truth just as quickly as listening to hers. You are both equally non-expert, so you might as well go with your own uninformed intuition rather than her uninformed intuition. There are many voices on the internet, most of them non-expert. While discussion boards, blogs, and online comments can be fun, entertaining, cathartic, and even stimulating, be careful to not value the statements of others above your own opinions if they are not experts in the corresponding field. Note that the best options are still personal experimentation and turning to experts. You should only turn to your own uninformed notions when experts aren't available and personal experimentation is not an option.

3. Find an authority who is an expert on the specific subject at hand.
It should be clear at this point that truth is best obtained by turning to real experts, and not by turning to self-proclaimed experts, or non-experts. But being an expert is not enough. The authority should be an expert in the specific field that they are commenting on in order for their opinion to have weight. Being an expert in one field does not make you an expert in all fields. This mistake is made more often than you may realize because many people love to view their heroes as all-knowing beings. Being successful at boxing does not make a boxer an expert on the quality of kitchen appliances. And yet, the grills that a famous boxer recommends in advertisements are successful. Similarly, a pop singer may have a fine voice, but that does not qualify him to advise you on which nail polish works the best. Politicians may know a thing or two about elections, politics, and the law, but that in no way makes them a credible voice on climate science. This mistake even happens in the professional scientific community. For example, the renowned theoretical physicist Roger Penrose has written numerous books on neuro-biology, a subject he knows nothing about. Such books have no more weight than sheer speculation. Similarly, Linus Pauling won the Nobel prize for his work on the physics and chemistry of atomic bonds, but that does not make him an expert on nutrition. Pauling successfully launched the unscientific mega-vitamin health movement when in reality he knows very little about the subject. Being smart in one field does not make you know everything about every field. If your dentist tries to advise you on hair care, or your optometrist recommends certain shoe inserts, be warned that they have wandered into territory where their opinion is no better than your own.

4. Make sure the expert is unbiased.
Once you have found a genuine expert on the subject at hand, you still have to be careful that his words have merit. Bias tends to consciously or subconsciously propel experts away from the truth. When their motivation for speaking becomes something other than making the truth known, truth tends to suffer. The most obvious form of bias is a conflict of interest. A scientist hired by a cigarette company will make statements about the effects of smoking that the company wants him to say, and not those that are the most truthful. Any famous person who is hired to endorse a product is biased towards the product by his paycheck. His comments in a commercial are not his honest opinion of the quality of the product he is trying to sell, but are just the result of money talking. A famous boxer that is peddling grills is doubly unreliable as a voice on the quality of kitchen appliances; he is a non-expert, and he is biased by his paycheck. An expert can be biased even if he goes unpaid. A scientist studying the efficacy of a product that is made by a company in which he owns stock will care less about the truth. Scientists who are trying to sell you pills, workshop tickets, treatment plans, or books at the same time they are explaining a scientific principle are biased.

Once you find a genuine, unbiased expert, go ahead and listen to what he has to say, but don't automatically believe everything he says. Statements that he makes which are direct reports of experimental results or come straight from science textbooks are the most likely to be true. Statements that sound more like hypothesizing, personal opinion, or speculation are less likely to be true. Sentences such as "our results showed that doubling the length of the laser did not change its output power" are more reliable than sentences such as "the laser will revolutionize the robotics industry."

vaccine bottles
The consensus among doctors is that vaccines do not cause autism. Believing the opinion of one discredited doctor instead of the consensus and shunning vaccines is hazardous to your family's health. Public Domain Image, source: FDA.

5. Check to make sure the expert's opinion matches the consensus of most experts, or at least seek out a second opinion.
Even after making sure you have found a credible, unbiased expert, his words could still be in error. Experts are humans and humans make mistakes. With over six billion people on the planet, you can find many experts that are making false claims. That is why peer review is so crucial in science. The best way to minimize being misled by one expert is to seek out many experts. The very best path is to seek out the consensus of all scientists. For example, only one discredited scientist in a world filled with scientists claims that autism is caused by vaccines. The rest of the actual scientists in the world agree that autism is not caused by vaccines. Consensus does not mean that the doctors vote on their favorite idea and the one with the most votes wins. Consensus in science means that the idea with the most experiments to back it up is the most accepted one. If one researcher does an experiment and finds the result to be 700 Volts, but a dozen other independent researchers repeat the exact same experiment and find the result to be around 5000 Volts, then 5000 Volts is most likely to be the correct answer.

In areas that are more specific, it is not always possible to collect a consensus because there are not enough researchers able to work on that specific problem. In such cases, it is still worthwhile to get a second and third expert opinion. In the world of journalism, this is summed up by the motto "use multiple sources". For instance, there is a consensus among medical doctors that diabetes is caused by abnormal blood sugar regulation. Because of this consensus, it is highly likely that this statement is true. On the other hand, there is not a consensus among medical doctors whether you personally have diabetes. Gaining such a consensus would require every doctor in the world to personally meet with you, perform a physical exam, and review your lab work. Such an approach is obviously impractical. Where a consensus is not attainable, the next best thing is a second opinion. The whole world may not be able to personally examine your health, but two or three different doctors certainly can. Doctors who value scientific truth more than their ego will even seek out a second opinion when considering a weighty diagnosis. This principle goes far beyond your health. You should read several different books and articles by independent sources on the same topic before considering a scientific statement valid.

With the five steps to finding scientific truth now established, let us apply them to the internet.

Searching for Accurate Scientific Information on the Internet

1. Personally conduct controlled experiments.
See if you can answer the question yourself before turning to the internet.

2. If only non-expert opinion exists on the subject, go with your own opinion.
When you come across a website making scientific claims, check to see if the author is an expert. Use an independent website to check the author's credentials instead of trusting what the author himself claims. If the author is not an expert, then do not give very much weight to his comments. Again, an expert is someone who has a mainstream degree in the field he is commenting about and is actively engaged in research in this field.

Note that sometimes a non-expert will carefully aggregate the claims of experts. In that case, the non-expert is not really making the claims, the experts are, so the claims have the high weight they deserve. But don't just trust the non-expert to quote the experts properly. You should go to the original source to verify the claims. For instance, science news websites contain the wisdom of experts, as gathered and summarized by non-experts. For this reason, science news websites may be highly reliable sources of science information, if you verify their claims by going to the original sources that they reference. Make sure that the documents that the science news article references are indeed by experts and indeed say what they are purported to say. Similarly, blogs that simply contain personal reflection essays by non-experts are highly unreliable. In contrast, blog articles written by experts and containing links to scholarly publications to back up their claims are far more reliable.

In general, avoid places where non-experts tend to congregate if you want reliable scientific information, such as listed below. These places may be worth visiting for social enjoyment, entertainment, catharsis, or cutting edge news, but don't treat them as reliable sources of scientific facts.

For accurate science information on the internet, avoid:

3. Find an authority who is an expert on the specific subject at hand.
The safest way to end up with a web page written by an expert in that specific subject is to go first to the following types of websites:

4. Make sure the expert is unbiased
When seeking for reliable scientific information on the internet, avoid websites that use their information to try to sell you something. For example, if you want to learn about how the adrenal glands work, an internet search leads you to various sites. One of the sites looks professional and seems to contain sound scientific explanations about the adrenal gland. But a closer look reveals that just about every page and paragraph on this website is trying to sell you pills, oils, or books. These sales pitches should immediately tell you that the expert is biased and therefore his scientific information is unreliable. Even though the author of this website claims to be a doctor with all sorts of credentials, he is not motivated to tell you scientific truth. Rather, he is motivated to tell you anything he can think up that will persuade you to buy his product. This bias does not mean that every scientist salesman is evil, or is consciously telling lies, or is pushing products that are worthless. It just means that they can not be relied upon to provide accurate scientific information, because of their conscious or subconscious bias. Unfortunately, such websites can be dangerously persuasive, spreading misinformation as well as poverty and misery to those we fall prey to their "remedies" and falsehoods.

5. Check to make sure the expert's opinion matches the consensus of most experts, or at least seek out a second opinion.
Consensus opinion is most readily found on the internet by following the tips below:

In summary, the best way to find accurate scientific information on the internet is to: avoid non-expert opinions such as found in general discussion boards, forums, article comments, and popular media; find an expert in the appropriate field by using government, university, and academic journal websites; make sure the expert is unbiased and is not trying to sell you anything; and lastly, check that the statements of the expert match the consensus of other experts. If all this sounds like too much work, then you will have to get comfortable with half-truths. In life, finding the whole truth requires hard work, but can be very rewarding.

Topics: expert opinion, experts, internet, reliable data, reliable internet sources, research, science facts, science information