Posted on December 19, 2023 in Technology

Where Did You Hear That?

The internet is a vast source of knowledge and firsthand accounts from people all over the world. In the modern age, you can look up nearly anything and get an answer. Convenient, right?

 It’s not.

Some things don’t have definitive answers. Some things are a conglomerate of answers. Some answers come from sources suffering the replicability crisis, and now, some answers are generated by AI and published regardless of whether the AI is correct or not. The internet is huge, and stuffed with information from an enormous variety of sources, but that doesn’t mean finding something useful for the question being asked is easy to find.

Research Rules

The guiding principles of finding accurate and reliable sources are no longer a constant. Tell people to look for studies? We’re in the middle of a replication crisis: if they find a study, it might be wrong, but nobody will know until years later when it gets retracted. It might blow another study out of the water only to be wrong. Even if it’s not strictly incorrect, just exaggerating, finding where the statistical mistakes happened within the paper is difficult even for the editors of the journals. Worse, a lot of studies are pay-walled now. You need to pay a journal to access them, or be part of a university network that gives access to its members. This becomes more common the more cutting-edge the study is. That means people maybe, sometimes get to read the abstract, but otherwise the free option is to just ignore that source. What if it’s the only source? The person looking for info has to find a book or an online article talking about the study. If they’re lucky, accessing the paper or book is free, and they’re accurately reporting the facts of the study. If that person is unlucky, they stumble into a poorly written article that uses the results of the poorly made study to push a poorly supported idea.

Tell people to look for quotes? Not only are some sources quoting things in a misleading way, or buying another person’s credibility to slap into their own project (Folding Ideas’ “That Time GeoCentrists Tricked A Bunch of Physicists” video has a segment showing how easy it is to buy stock footage of someone known for their reliability and then twist their words with clever editing) some are just outright lying.

Lying by implying that a historical figure has said something they didn’t by putting their picture behind the fake quote is so common that Googling the meme “Don’t Believe Everything You Read Online” and attributing it to someone that most everyone likes (although Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein are the most common) will give you pages upon pages of results with few repeats. The joke goes far because it’s true: it’s easy to lie about people in places they won’t see, either because the site is obscure or because the person said to have given the quote is already dead.  

Tell people to look at the experts? Right now, this is a nightmare all its own. Which experts? And who qualifies as an expert? How much education do they need to have received? How much of their own research must they have published, or how long must they have been in the business? How many mistakes are they allowed? TikTok goes through cycles where a user claiming to be an expert in something is later revealed to have limited experience and/or falsified their credentials. Experts have also been caught making content that they are technically allowed to be making, but are considered unethical (unsolicited advice for reshaping a face, coming from a plastic surgeon, for example). Morticians, artists, singers, DIYers, interior decorators, plastic surgeons, dieticians, etc. have all hit controversy this way.

Charismatic people who lack expertise but deliver what they’re saying with confidence spread further than the people with expertise. Just by the nature of obtaining expertise in the first place, there are fewer experts than people who want to be experts, or at least want to be seen as experts. Correcting misinformation once it’s gone viral is difficult. Just because something has been repeated widely does not make it correct.  

Even if that expert is genuinely an expert, they can say things that make them hard to take seriously. Neil DeGrasse Tyson used to be very well-regarded… as long as he was talking about the complexities of space and physics. Once he got onto Twitter and started tweeting things that were obvious, his reputation among the populace of Twitter and Reddit degraded. The same thing happened to Bill Nye, after Deflategate, and then again to Bill Nye after he partnered with Coke to make a video about recycling. He was, for a time, considered a sell-out. You can’t trust sell-outs.

What To Do?

What can you do, if you want to research responsibly?

Firstly, consider the source. Consider where it’s getting its information. Consider whether or not it has motivation to slant or skew things. Consider whether or not you’ve heard anything from this source before. Consider the critics, as well – are they also able to pass this bar? Are there hordes of people online pointing out the same flaw in the article independently, not as retweets or stitches? Are other verifiable experts in the field reacting as though this is absurd?

This won’t keep you from being fooled by every grifter, but at the very least, it may prevent you being fooled by sock puppet webpages running on ad clicks and TikTok “Dieticians” trying to tell you that any non-organic brand of oatmeal is literal poison. It will also help you spot AI-written articles – AI sounds very believable, but when you search for something it’s allegedly quoting or otherwise stating as fact, you’ll often find it’s hallucinating. Usually the quote doesn’t exist. The fact goes against logic! That recent AI mushroom guidebook suggesting you taste mushrooms to identify them, for example, is easily disproven by looking for a human expert – every living mycologist will tell you this is a horrible idea.

The old tricks and shortcuts for finding reliable information online are breaking down in the sheer deluge of media, articles, studies, and misinformation happening everywhere online. Information as a whole is getting tougher to find, not easier!