Let’s admit it, we occasionally find ourselves quoting a study or something we saw on the internet as truth without doing much or any background research to find out if the validity holds. I’m guilty of this, and as a scientist and a writer I should probably be the first to admit it. So—what do we do about it? In other words, how do we curb our opinions and statements to better represent the truth?
I believe that everyone, no matter age or education level (let’s ignore babies for this post), has the ability to discern fact from fiction and to be a critical thinker. When it comes to being a critical thinker online, where there is a plethora of disinformation, it’s important to have some ground rules for yourself. Today I am going to share my personal ground rules, but first let’s go over certain words that are used in both common and scientific language, but that have separate meanings (e.g. theory), and how they are used to “de-bunk” science
Trust me, you have a conspiracy hypothesis.
As an English major gone Biologist, the use of the word “theory” is a source of great frustration. Theory, like many other words, has a separate meaning when used in common language versus used in scientific work.
Common use of theory: used when one has an idea or is guessing at something “my theory is…”, while often these are based on simple observations or opinion, and not on experimental data (as is done in science). I used the word conspiracy for the heading because I’m sure most people have heard of conspiracy theories. These “theories” are examples of non-scientific ideas: ones that cannot be tested repeatedly and upheld or dismissed based on experimental data. Simply, in this context, a theory is a guess.
Scientific use of theory: “A well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and confirmed through observation and experimentation” . Took the words right out of my mouth, but in simpler terms the word theory used in scientific terms means an idea that was tested repeatedly and by multiple, independent parties and consistently upheld by the results. So, in this context, a theory is much more than a guess. A theory may be altered overtime with new supporting evidence, but it always has a strong basis of truth attached to it.
Side Note: The theory of evolution is often attacked as being “just a theory”, but it has stood the test of time and repeated experimentation. Here are some other theories that have done the same: the theory of plate tectonics, the theories of special relativity and general relativity (Einstein ring a bell?), and Heliocentrism: the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. The beautiful thing about science, and also the thing that makes it vulnerable to nay-sayers, is that nothing can be completely proven (i.e. there must always be room for growth and change)—meaning that we, as humans, are part of this world and universe and as such, we cannot see how the it all works from the outside.
An analogy of this: you are living in a house without the blueprints. You don’t know how the house was made, but by observing and testing various components of it you come up with a theory of how it was built. As you continue to collect more information, this theory may change, but without the blueprints you will never know for certain that you are right.
So there must always be room for doubt in science, but that also means room for new knowledge and growth.
Hypothesis vs. Theory vs. Law
Briefly, I wanted to define the other terms used in science as well.
Hypothesis: you can think of a hypothesis as an educated guess (which is what most people mean when they say they have a theory). When one observes something in nature, they make a hypothesis. Example: you are walking along and notice that a moth has the same coloring as the tree it is on, so thinking about camouflage you make the following hypothesis: “the moth has the same coloring as the tree in order to hide from predators”. Now you can begin to test this hypothesis by using the scientific method. (http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/scientific_method.html)
Law: this term can be the most confusing, but I think this is a good explanation: a law is “the description of an observed phenomenon. It doesn’t explain why the phenomenon exists or what causes it” . In relation to this, a theory would be the explanation of the phenomenon. Newton’s Laws of Physics are probably the most well-known laws, which describe the world around us.
How to Navigate Through the Internet
The internet can be a wonderful place for connecting to others, sharing stories, and finding useful information, but it can also be an overwhelming place full of propaganda and false information. So here are my tips for navigating to useful and correct info.
- Collect information from multiple sources. This is my number one tip, and even after following the next two I encourage everyone to always keep this in mind. Getting a consensus from independent sources is a way of ensuring that there is an agreement that the information is true. I usually check at least 4-5 different sources, which are not related to one another, before I feel comfortable believing the information.
- Avoid getting information from sources that would benefit from the info being true. This can be pretty hard, and sometimes the information is right but I would take it with a grain of salt. Some examples of this would be sites that promote ideas which backup their existence. (e.g. a site that promotes the use of a certain drug, but that site is connected to the pharmaceutical industry). The main reason to not trust the information is that it is most likely biased. The best type of info, and really the only type of information that I think anyone should want, is objective. If you are having trouble finding sites that don’t have some sort of connection to the information that is being provided, go back to tip 1 and find several independent sources.
- Look for studies that include evidence supporting the information. There are studies on almost everything out there, from nutritional needs to socio-economic issues. Finding studies, especially primary literature (http://www.lib.umd.edu/tl/guides/primary-sources) can be extremely useful for figuring out a question or gaining insight into an issue since studies provide evidence that supports a conclusion, or idea, and do not simply state an opinion.
Here are my favorite sources for finding articles:
- https://scholar.google.com/ (multidisciplinary)
- https://doaj.org/ (multidisciplinary)
- http://www.jurn.org/#gsc.tab=0 (multidisciplinary)
- https://www.econbiz.de/ (economics)
- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed (biology/medicine)
- http://eric.ed.gov/ (education)
So there you have it folks! The internet can be a daunting and confusing place, but with the right tools and frame of mind you can use it as a source for valuable and trustworthy information.
Final (Cheesy) Note
If we can have a society and a world that is better at critical thinking, forming opinions based on evidence, and fact-checking on their own then I think that we can promote a brighter future in all areas: environmental, educational, economic, social, etc.
And one of the major components of being a critical thinker is having the ability to admit that we are only human and that we can be mistaken or mislead, so that when new evidence presents itself we have the ability to form our opinions on what is true and not on what we want to be true.
Final, Final Note
Right before I posted this I came across this article from IFLScience and I thought it would a great piece to share since it very much falls under the same theme. The article is titled “How Misinformation Spreads on the Internet”. Enjoy! http://www.iflscience.com/technology/facebook-echo-chambers-help-spread-and-reinforce-misinformation
Thank you for reading and, as always, keep questioning!