We are all scientists: How to find reliable sources online.

We are all scientists: How to find reliable sources online.
Photo credit: Marco Sartori via Flickr cc

How do we know what information is correct? I have taken class after class about various topics, but really, how do I know that what I am learning is right? What about when researchers (of all fields) are looking to discover something new?  No one is there to tell those on the edge of what is known that the next step they are about to take is in the right direction. As my first blog post, I would like to introduce myself to the Internet world by talking about the pursuit of knowledge.

Science, in Latin (or scientia), means knowledge. It wasn’t limited to the topic it is today. Many place science and inquiry into the same box and put it off to the side, because “it is different from everyday life”, “it’s not what I do” or “it’s not what I am good at.” We actually use science everyday (or should I say ‘acquire knowledge everyday’). For example, if a light isn’t working, we see if the bulb is broken. We then change the bulb and see if we fixed the problem….. We just tested a hypothesis (a term used to label a statement of ‘truth’ to be tested). Dr House, does this on House all the time: The patient has symptoms, Dr House and his team write on their white board a list of symptoms and they try to come up with the possible diseases (or hypotheses) that fit the symptoms (if more than one fits, they pick the most likely one). They then see if treating for that disease worked, therefore testing a hypothesis.

Basically, the scientific method: Something happens. We ask “why?” It could be because of ____ (aka. hypothesis). Let’s see if it is (aka. test). Result (aka. data).

This is the flow of ‘scientific thinking.’  This thinking should really be called ‘knowledge-getting process’ (a little like it did in latin). This ‘knowledge-getting process’ can also be referred to as ‘research’. It’s not just done in the topic of science, but in all disciplines (law, business, art, history, …) and even during our daily routines.

The process of adding to the body of knowledge in the least error-prone possible way, is through this scientific method. Not only that, but we need to have some sort of ‘double-checking’ done by others within and outside the field to confirm that the scientific (or knowledge-getting) process was done correctly. This ‘double-checking’ is called peer-review. Prior to adding a new stepping stone (gathered through the scientific thinking) to the stair-way of knowledge, other experts criticize, make suggestions, and confirm this new found truth. Undergoing this type of scrutiny prior to publishing insures that this new addition to our body of knowledge is most likely correct. This is important because once published, others will base their decisions and research on it.

In recent decades, the access to information has gotten easier. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up (I feel old saying this). We had to go to the library, know what book to look for, look it up, check it out, and avoid late fees by bringing it back in time… phew… what a process! The challenge then, was having access to the information, however now our challenge is sifting through the misinformation to get to the more reliable information.

Sources and search engines for reliable information can be found using the sites below. Information in these sites have undergone the scientific method and the grueling peer-review process prior to publishing in scientific journals. Some sites digest the information a little so as to make it more understandable (also included below):

  • Research agencies such as CDC, FDA, NIH, Mayo Clinic, Scripps, Saint Jude, can be used as search engines for health and disease related topics (WebMD is not run by a research institution).
  • Sites ending in ‘.gov’ are reliable: government facility like CDC, NIH (view recent and on-going clinical trials), NSFFDA, USDA (you can look up a drug and its side effects here), WHO that perform research and continual surveillance also give you the most up-to-date information on diseases nation and world-wide. This applies to other governments as well (eg. sites ending in ‘.uk’ or ‘.fr’).
  • Sites ending in ‘.edu’ are run by academic institutions that also perform research and publish findings on their sites.
  • Search engines that only give you peer-reviewed articles: Google Scholar, Web of Science, Access Medicine. There is also Pubmed but papers are listed by date of publication, not by relevance.
  • If  you just want to read about new findings you can go through Science/AAAS News and Nature News, which are run by peer-review journals that publish articles in all fields of science.

It is important that before considering something as ‘fact’ it needs to have gone through the scientific method (not limited to science) and the peer-review process involving experts in those fields. It is still not a guaranty (as there are never guaranties in life) but it makes it most likely that the information is reliable. In this information rich era, we need to make sure that the information we deem worthy is reliable so as to make properly informed decisions. We are all ‘knowledge-seekers,’ we just need to know where the knowledge comes from.

 

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Robert, I will make a note of that.

    Macrocompassion, couldn’t agree with you more. Like I mentioned in my last paragraph, there is never a guaranty (‘proof’ is only in math). The most reliable way to get to the ‘right’ answer are with scientific method and peer-review, in order to make the least amount of mistakes (if not, more mistakes are likely to be made like those that you mentioned, also not limited to the field of science). Great comment.

  2. There are a series of steps in acquiring scientific knowledge:

    1. Awareness–through our senses discover a matter that requires an explanation and for which an inductive expectation to it seems to work (the sun always rises).
    2. Build an hypothesis or theory to explain the phenomenon (the sun goes round the central earth).
    3. Apply a crucial test (other planets are seen to go round the sun not the earth, strange?)
    4. Improve the theory (a solar centered one, not earth centered).
    5. Construct a philosophy associated with this (the sun is a star and we are its subordinates).
    6. Synthesize related theories (the eclipses of the sun and moon are also explained here and their frequency is consistent).

    Without the continuous development of revised theory and testing the science becomes static and the degree of knowledge fixed.

    Thus scientific knowledge is never 100% true but is always provable, and this contrasts with belief which is 100% certain but is never amenable to proof.

  3. Great first post, I’d have to say. Hope to see more, and even on this topic. My own curiosity is centered on how people learn science best, which I think is tangential to what you’re discussing here.

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