Direct access to the Internet makes it easy for us to acquire not only knowledge but also false information. How do we filter online content from reliable sources?
Source criticism is the assessment of how reliable and valid information is. Before the Internet became a thing, information and knowledge were usually obtained from books. If you wanted to learn about sea turtles or relativity theory you would most likely consult a printed encyclopedia.
Knowledge was born and stored in books
It was much easier to filter information before the world wide web came to be. There is a natural source criticism built in to books. It takes time, money and patience to publish a book. When a book on, say, black holes was published in the 1990ies you could be fairly sure that the content was valid, especially when taking the author and publisher into account. If the author is a physicist and the publisher is well-established in the scientific community, you would most likely be on the right track.
Today we obtain much of our knowledge from the Internet. Majority of searches are done via Google (1, 2, 3) and how we approach the search results is crucial for which information we end up getting.
Using search engines to filter information is not enough
When we blindly go for the top searches on Google this becomes our method for evaluating the source of information. If many people before us have clicked the link, we evaluate it as a valid source and the end result is, that the masses instead of the experts decide which information we consider valid.
Fake information can hide behind a language and layout, that is easily mistaken to originate from an authority or expert. Scientific information can be manipulated and presented in a way that falsely conducts authority and reliability. This makes it difficult for us to distinguish scientific rigor with non-scientific nonsense – especially when it comes to more narrow fields like some that are found within natural science.
Additionally, it leads to not only frustration but also potential funding cuts among researchers, if the public gives too much attention to false information. After all, university research is a public matter and relies on public and political acceptance.
Science communicators can filter information
Science communication is the ability to explain scientific matter to non-scientists. People who work with science communication typically have a background in science and can help filter the information. It is crucial for science communicators on a continuous basis to actively evaluate sources and convey science as this makes it much easier for the public to find a proper source of information.
In other words: We need science communicators to direct the public attention to science and convey the stories that are waiting be told from the lab and the desk.
If you feel inspired to get into science communication here is my advice for scientists on how to start a blog and how to create an online appearance for their scientific profile. Remember you can always contact me for more advice on how to communicate research and science.