Yes, I did miss my usual post date (Sunday). I had a recital to play in, and my parents visited my school to hear me play. It went well, and we went out to eat together afterwards. Unsurprisingly however, I got a post topic out of the experience. During that meal I became increasingly aware of my parents’ tendency to fail to evaluate sources. Worse, they seem to not even have a clue how to do that, or why it’s important.
My parents are in their 50s, and they get a lot of advertisements for medical or pseudo-medical products. They tend to come in the form of dietary supplements, although other products do occasionally appear. “This will boost your memory,” says one advertisement. “This will increase your energy,” promises another. Some dietary supplements do genuinely help your body, though sometimes what they do and how frequently you should take them may be exaggerated. Fish oil, for example, is definitely good for you. Vitamin C is a good vitamin to make sure you have. Multivitamins help ensure that you’re getting certain vitamins your diet might not cover. With that being said, sometimes the claims made in these supplement advertisements are questionable, and they almost never cite the source of their purported facts.
If I’m reading an article about a scientific study that concludes that a certain type of food in your diet is bad for you, I’d like to be told who did that study so that I can look it up myself and make sure the author isn’t misreporting it. That also proves that the author isn’t lying and there actually was a study done in the first place.
Over the summer, I remember picking up what looked like a miniature magazine on my parents’ table. It stated that osteoporosis is being treated in a way that actually worsens the condition. It went on to explain that a doctor found the solution and it’s some dietary supplement that everyone with osteoporosis should take. I was willing to believe the part about the current treatment being wrong based on the explanation they gave (which seemed pretty detailed), but when they started to list a supplement that could be purchased–surprise surprise–through them, I realized this source needed to be evaluated. Who was publishing it? I couldn’t even find a clear affiliation. What studies did it cite to back up its claims? None. Who even wrote the damn thing? No author listed. I did some Googling using key words and found literally nothing on what I had just read. I turned to my parents and said, “Please recycle this garbage.”
“I don’t know,” my mom said. “I want to read it. It looks interesting.”
“I know it does, but I can’t find anything to verify that it’s a valid source. It looks like an advertisement for a scam to me.”
My parents read it before recycling it.
Flash forward to yesterday, when my parents started telling me about medical “facts” they’d learned from a chain e-mail. Worse, upon further questioning they revealed that it was a chain e-mail that contained not a link to a website that cited valid sources, but a video advertisement. You know, the kind that you can’t hit pause on that a lot of older people like to pass around in e-mails? I once sat through one that claimed that the Bible contains everything you ever need to know about your finances, and by buying someone’s book, you can glean that information from it too.
Or, I quickly realized, you could Google “Bible AND Money” and see what you get if you really think it will be helpful to you. The best part is, you can do that for free.
When I start talking about evaluating sources with my parents, it’s as if I hit a wall. The ideas they’ve already bought into, such as, for example, my mom’s belief that chiropractic neurology is practically a cure-all and will stop her migraines–something she’s believed and tried for YEARS without success–are beyond scrutiny. These ideas–beliefs–are treated the same way they treat religion. Do not put your god to the test! Do not call your chiropractic neurologist out on his hoax treatments!
This isn’t a healthy way to treat information, especially medical information, which can have a huge effect on our lives and livelihoods. Incorrect medical advice can lead to a range of bad outcomes, from obsession over something that’s not actually important to a belief that leads to bad decisions that harm your health. I recently read an article about Dr. Oz stating that only about 4 out of 10 of the “facts” on his show are actually true. That’s horrible! Women my mother’s age (and some other demographics) tune into his show expecting sound medical advice! What they get instead is no better than an infomercial. (Want to evaluate that article I just gave you? Some Googling led me to the study it mentions. Want to go further? The study comes from the bmj, a peer-reviewed source. Here’s their “about” page: http://www.bmj.com/about-bmj.)
Back when it was harder for someone without credentials to publish anything, evaluating sources wasn’t as important a skill for readers. Once upon a time, if something was in print, it was probably true. But we live in a world where publishing is getting easier and easier thanks to technology and the internet. On the one hand, that’s a very good thing; it means that there’s more information available than ever before. On the other hand, it also means that more people who have no idea what they’re talking about are able to spread false information. Just look at the “Vaccines Cause Autism” idea, which has been thoroughly debunked many times. My mom was the first person who told me about it, and she presented it as a very real possibility. Today, I’m afraid to ask her whether or not she still thinks it’s true.
Please, for the love of life, evaluate your sources! I don’t want to read an article about how cotton clothing causes cancer because some scam artist liked the alliteration.
Have you encountered any scams or faulty information, or had an experience with friends or family who just don’t know how to evaluate sources? Feel free to leave a comment. As always, all opinions are welcome, just be respectful of everyone and think things through before posting.