Swamped with pseudoscience: How to discern real research from quackery

Determining what to believe is not an easy task. We are overloaded with information on the internet on just about every subject imaginable.

Determining what to believe is not an easy task. We are overloaded with information on the internet on just about every subject imaginable. A lot of that information is inaccurate and sorting out what is wheat and what is chaff is a real challenge for us non-experts.

This is particularly true when the information we find is contradictory. Recently I tried to get a handle on the appropriate amount of protein intake for a person trying to gain lean muscle mass. I expected that it would be a question on which there would be some amount of consensus.

Was I ever wrong.

The answers were all over the map. According to some sources a person of my weight and activity level should be getting about 300 grams of protein every day – an amount attainable only by consuming powdered supplements in copious amounts well beyond what’s recommended on the container.

Nonsense, said other sources. You only need about 100 grams per day which can be easily obtained through dietary sources without much effort. Anything beyond that is a waste. In fact, according to some sources, consuming too much can even be harmful to your health.

Thanks for the clarity, internet.

So how does one know what to believe on the web?

You’ll often hear we should get our information from peer reviewed studies rather than blogs and Youtube videos. I am not convinced that matters are so simple.

It is certainly true that all manner of pseudoscience and misinformation proliferates on social media where material can be easily posted by anyone with internet access and a keyboard.

But such sources can also provide quality information in a format that is understandable by people who aren’t experts in a field. For example, TED Talks – a series of speeches by knowledgeable people – are all available on Youtube, as are full episodes of many rigorously researched documentaries.

Meanwhile, blogs such as the Skepical Raptor and Science Based Medicine are written by qualified individuals who not only have consistently shown a dedication to the scientific method and sceptical inquiry but write in a style that is accessible to ordinary people. Surely it is not wise to dismiss everything that isn’t written in a reputable journal.

And speaking of reputable journals, asking lay people to read peer reviewed scientific research isn’t necessary a guarantee of a greater of level of understanding. We must beware the Dunning -Krueger effect – a cognitive bias that causes us humans to overestimate our own abilities.

Unfortunately, complex research is often misinterpreted and not properly understood. Specific statements from articles are routinely cherry picked and not seen within the greater context of a piece or even the exlicit caveats attached by the author. A misinformed individual misreading peer reviewed research will not only get a false impression of what they have read but will feel all the more confident about their opinions because they feel they have the stamp of scientific approval.

Moreover even scholarly research occasionally gets things wrong. A study may be an “outlier” that is inconsistent with the wider body of research on a subject. The methodology used or conclusions drawn by researchers in a particular piece may be questioned by other sources. Without a base of knowledge on research methodology and a particular subject area, relying on dense, complex, technical scholarly research replete with jargon may be no better than blogs and Youtube videos.

So if we can’t count on the medium to determine whether or not information is reliable and useful what are we to do?

I am still confident that “the truth is out there,” and – despite what some would have us believe – that the pursuit of knowledge is a largely objective process. I’m also confident that, while it is not always easy, even those of us without scientific training can comprehend the truth. There are a number of relatively easy short cuts for spotting untruthful and exaggerated claims.

For example, there was a clever meme I saw recently that pointed out that “the next time you hear that something killed cancer in a petri dish just remember that so will a handgun” – highlighting the danger of being over optimistic about extrapolating laboratory research done on tissues to direct medical application. At best such research is grounds for further research and cannot be taken by itself as proof that – for instance – marijuana cures cancer.

Try to wrap your head around the law of large numbers and how it warps our perceptions about coincidences. It is a big world out there and odds of very strange occurrences making their way to your computer screen via the internet are not nearly as remote as you might think. Be sceptical whenever you see conclusions drawn from anecdotes and wait for proper research.

And if a source has a history of peddling nonsense be highly sceptical of its reliability on anything. I think most reasonable people would scoff at someone advancing the fringe theory that HIV doesn’t cause causes AIDS and would back away slowly from someone propagating the notion that the government is poisoning us with “chemtrails” from aircraft. Yet for reasons that continue to confound me they flock by the millions to a popular website — naturalnews.com — for information on vaccines and cancer treatments despite the site’s willingness to publicize articles in support of both “theories”.

So read online with care. And if you figure out how much protein we should be consuming let me know.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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