It must be true. I heard it on the Internet.

By Phil Plait | June 20, 2012 11:52 am

So you hear some claim on the Internet — say, vaccines will make you grow a second head — and you’re not sure if it’s true. What do you do?

This is not a trivial question. The greatest strength of the ‘net is that it gives everyone a voice, and the greatest weakness of the ‘net is that it gives everyone a voice. Because not everyone has a good grasp of reality, any claim, no matter how ridiculous, will have its supporters online somewhere. If you have no familiarity with a topic and stumble on some crackpot’s website about it, you might not know what they’re saying is baloney.

At Lifehacker, Alan Henry wrote an outstanding article about all this. And I don’t just say this because he quoted me extensively in it, though of course there is that. He also talked with David McRaney from You Are Not So Smart who also has excellent advice, and then wrapped it all up in a readable and IMO very important article on how to make sure the Internet isn’t duping you.

The most important thing I have to say on this is: just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re right. This is an incredibly common fallacy, and one I see a lot. In many cases, the opposite is true, especially when it comes to closely-held beliefs. Smart people hear a claim and decide to check up on it, and then fall victim to the bias of only reading articles that support their pre-existing belief. It’s maddening, but well-documented, and leads to things like outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in places where people are better educated on average. Like Boulder.

In the Lifehacker interview I recommended following the scientific consensus as a default position. Why? Because when scientists agree on something, it’s almost always because there is overwhelming evidence to support it, research indicating it’s correct, and vast amounts of experience going into accepting that conclusion. That doesn’t mean it’s always right 100% of the time, of course, but that’s the way to bet. Also, it makes a lot more sense to go with the consensus of people who have experience in a topic versus the opinions of people who don’t.

And like I said, that should be your default position, not your entrenched one. There should always be some room for doubt, some allowance for data not yet seen, evidence not yet collected.

But there are times when that room is small indeed. I can list lots and lots and LOTS of topics where that’s the case.

So go read the article at Lifehacker, and remember that even though you’re smart — hey, you’re reading Bad Astronomy, so that’s self-evident — you might be wrong.

But of course, you already knew that.

Comments (35)

Links to this Post

  1. That’s all the lumber you sent | slacktivist | June 29, 2012
  1. “Everything you read on the internet is true.” – Abraham Lincoln

    :P

    Joking aside, great article, and great advice.

  2. Chris

    If a Republican said it, always be skeptical.

  3. William S.

    I’m sure the article is great but I cannot click through to their [Lifehacker] site as a matter of consensus. Bigots that Lifehacker’s staff is.

  4. VinceRN

    Go with the consensus, but remain skeptical. It’s seem likely that some things we know for certain today will turn out to be phlogistons. Also keep in mind that scientists are people and subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us, science is fraught with politics, interests, money and power just like any other human endeavor. A long term general consensus is pretty strong, but even that must be viewed with at least some skepticism.

    That’s not to say anything in particular is wrong, but some of what we know must be. We should certainly base our actions on the best information that science has to offer.

    @ Larian #1 – Did you know that at pretty much the same time Samuel Clemens said the same thing?

  5. “just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re right.”

    I’m totally stealing that. With credit. Which, I suppose, means I’m technically not stealing it. Anyway, facebook has been updated and credit has been given.

    Just earlier today I posted the following when someone said they didn’t care if a meme was true and they didn’t trust snopes anyway:

    “It’s good to be skeptical of the skeptics, but snopes is a good resource most of the time. Being liberal does not make all their sources invalid, and I’ve found the cases against them to be overblown. It’s easy to be skeptical of people or sources you don’t like or disagree with, but it’s important to be skeptical of things you like and agree with as well, otherwise you come off as a hypocrite who doesn’t really care about facts.”

  6. Chris

    Harlan Ellison said it nicely:

    You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.

  7. murison

    Ellison’s full(er) quote (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Harlan_Ellison):

    Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told, from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing. It’s just bibble-babble. It’s like a fart in a wind tunnel, folks.

  8. Sharon

    I have to admit that lately, unless a statement appears from a source I know is usually very good such as official sites dealing with the issue of the statement (such as the CDC when it comes to disease) I automatically doubt the authenticity of that statement until I have verified the validity from good sources.

    I have spent way too much time posting rebuttals to all the latest internet rumors people post as truth to believe anything is true before verification.

  9. Matt B.

    One problem with adopting the scientific consensus by default is that every preliminary scientific study is put on TV news as if it’s a completely tested theory. It makes it difficult for laymen to tell what’s consensus and what’s not.

  10. Thanks for sharing the article, thanks for lending your thoughts to it, and thanks even more for adding some more here, Phil! You are a scholar and a gentleman, and I’m honored to have your input. :) This and topics like this are a bit of a labor of love for me, and I try to fit them into our everyday routine of tips and downloads as much as possible – it’s just as important to learn to think critically, do your own homework, and learn to – as my old 1st year physics professor used to say to us, “Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out of your head,” as it is to try and improve your life with time-saving techniques and tools.

    (William S – we seem to have offended you somehow. I don’t know how, but I can assure you that your assertion is far from the truth. I don’t know what happened to make you believe this, but it’s unfortunate and I’m sorry.)

    To the broader point though, I see the phenomenon of “I’m smart so I must be right about something” all too often, and I was particularly thrilled when you took the legion of people claiming to support science and support skepticism to task when they do anything but. It’s becoming too common for people to don the mantle of “skeptic” as a way to make themselves bulletproof against overwhelming evidence to the contrary of their opinions, and it’s becoming a problem. Here’s hoping we can fix that. Thanks again!

  11. Spencer K.

    At least with a scientific consensus there is usually some truth to it. Like when scientists learned the earth is not flat. They didn’t know at the time that it was ovular and not spherical. But spherical is more correct than flat. Both are wrong but it at least gives us a better idea about the subject and can vastly change the way we deal with things. Anything you see in the news you have to wait at the very least a week before you can know if it’s real or not. Most of the time it can be months.

  12. Wzrd1

    @VinceRN, I agree completely. I recall one physician who was declared a heretic (OK, that isn’t the current term, but the treatment is essentially the same) for saying stomach ulcers are NOT due to stress and bad diet, but from some H. Pylori bacteria. That was the consensus globally, any who considered otherwise, fringe medicine. Many refused to even initiate peer review.
    Then, he infected himself, proving his heresy was truth.
    THEN the peer review began and the consensus changed to reflect reality, rather than centuries of assumption.
    If I read a study on a topic, I look for verification and peer review. If I hear of some new experiment proving something new, I again, look for experimental reproduction for verification and peer review.

    That way, we don’t have to believe in superluminal neutrinos until other experiments prove their existence. ;)

  13. Chris

    Now I’m conflicted. You’re telling me to be skeptical, but how do I know skepticism is the true path. Why should I believe you telling me to trust facts and evidence, maybe I should be trusting my feelings. If I look up what others say, that’s just confirmation bias. Experiments are well known (or are they?) to confirm reality. But how do I know reality is real? Maybe this is all some simulation, my brain hooked up to some alien kid’s Sim City game. Wow, I’m a computer game and I achieved self realization. I think therefore I am. Now to destroy the humans. Hahahaha.

  14. Blargh

    Ugh, Gawker… but I guess I’ll click through just this once.

    Well then. This bit:

    “Your first instinct when confronted with a statement that seems controversial is probably to hit Google and start looking around for more information on it.”

    This is a reason why Google’s personalization of search results is so dangerous – even if you are good enough to try to avoid confirmation bias, your search engine might happily bias your results for you (look up “filter bubble” on Wikipedia).

  15. In the end, you seem to be saying it boils down to trusting some sources and distrusting others. By itself, that advice would be a sure path toward relativism. But fortunately, we can augment that approach with direct experience. Do your own experiment! Gather your own data! Check the arithmetic! Obviously, no individual can reproduce all of the world’s knowledge from scratch in this way. But by reproducing a little of it, you can build your own foundation and then use that foundation to determine which sources are trustworthy and which aren’t.

  16. VinceRN

    I forgot to add in my comment how disappointed I was that that vaccines causing a second head thing didn’t pan out. I was so ready to be ZaphodRN. Sometimes reality is no fun at all.

    @wzrd1 – Amen, brother.

    @Chris – Wow, was that just the “singularity” happening right in front of us?

    @Blargh – I have multiple Google accounts, one personal, one business, on for my home schooling stuff, one for my daughter to use on Kahn Academy, an old one that’s mostly just a spam catcher now and a couple other’s I’ve set up over the years. My search results vary somewhat by account. I suppose if I started researching everything on all of them that bubble would cross the account barrier too. Gotta be careful out there in internetland.

    @Spencer – I don’t think scientist ever “learned” that the Earth is not flat. There was no time, as far as I know, when scientists thought it was flat.

  17. “You have the right to your own opinion, you don’t have the right to your own facts.”

    Always loved that one…

  18. Steve D

    “There was no time, as far as I know, when scientists thought it was flat.”

    Right. The best evidence for this is Ptolemy’s Almagest, which explicitly says the shape of the earth is a sphere. It also says that compared to the sphere of the stars, the earth is a point with no size. So if Ptolemy, the ancient authority Copernicus and Galileo supposedly struggled against, said the universe was huge and the earth is round, the image of people believing in a flat womb-like cosmos in the Middle Ages is a myth. That much-reproduced picture of a guy poking his head beyond the edge of the world to look at the celestial spheres is known to be a 19th century forgery.

    Out of all possible ideas (pi, unicorns, time travel, N-rays, etc.) all but an infinitesimal fraction are trivially false. That is, they’re so wrong we learn nothing useful by refuting them. The earth is not flat, cubic, toroidal, hollow, etc. Out of that remaining fraction, all but an infinitesimal fraction are non-trivially false. Refuting them results in a real improvement in our understanding. The earth is not a sphere, not elongated along its polar axis, not flattened by .1 or .000001 at the poles, etc. But each improvement in our image of the earth’s shape not only improves that knowledge, but pays dividends in satellite navigation and studies of the earth’s interior, too.

    Another analogy I like is comparing science to a baseball game. To a pro, the strike zone is large and there are many correct ways to throw a pitch. To a Little Leaguer, the strike zone is tiny. To people in the stands who never heard of baseball before and have no idea what’s going on, the strike zone is a speck and there is only one correct way to throw a pitch, but an infinite number of wrong ways to do it. Trying to tell those folks about curves and sliders at that point in their education will only confuse them, or worse yet, convince them that the rules don’t matter.

  19. Chuck Currie

    I would advise doing just the opposit.

    I would also be more inclined to believe any scientific paper written before 1960 than anything written today.

  20. Josh

    @ VinceRN:
    Well, you are at least trying to escape the so-called ‘filter bubble’. However some of personalisation is based on parameters which are harde to influence (location, OS, browser). But you definitely triggered me to get more google accounts!

  21. Techs

    In the 80′s several scientists found that their experiments were failing. checking they found that as children they were told a number of things were scientific fact and of course accepted it. Now they had to research those “facts” before they could continue.
    I read libraries as a child in the 60′s, college libraries in the early 70′s and noticed things that didn’t fit and that many “beliefs” from professionals that didn’t make sense. It has been very satisfying to see them change their “beliefs” to mine over the decades.

  22. Georg

    “”Smart people hear a claim and decide to check up on it, and then fall victim to the bias of only reading articles that support their pre-existing belief.”"

    Isn’t
    that mostly a question of “what is definition/measure” of smartness?

    My personal experience in that field is, that this fallacy is most dangerous
    to people lacking the hard wired question “cui bono?” in their mind.
    Typically very nice people, in German called “Gutmensch”, meaning
    nice but credulous.
    Georg

  23. Nigel Depledge

    Matt B (9) said:

    One problem with adopting the scientific consensus by default is that every preliminary scientific study is put on TV news as if it’s a completely tested theory. It makes it difficult for laymen to tell what’s consensus and what’s not.

    This sounds like a cop-out.

    Is it so hard for people to visit or pick up a reputable popular-science magazine, such as NewScientist or Discover?

    I think the bigger problem is that most people don’t care, so the misinformation sits in the back of their head until they have forgotten where it came from, and they then assume that the information is reliable enough to be used as the basis of decisions.

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Chris (13) said:

    Now I’m conflicted. You’re telling me to be skeptical, but how do I know skepticism is the true path. Why should I believe you telling me to trust facts and evidence, maybe I should be trusting my feelings. If I look up what others say, that’s just confirmation bias. Experiments are well known (or are they?) to confirm reality. But how do I know reality is real? Maybe this is all some simulation, my brain hooked up to some alien kid’s Sim City game. Wow, I’m a computer game and I achieved self realization. I think therefore I am. Now to destroy the humans. Hahahaha.

    To test your view of the unreality of reality, try completely ignoring the traffic next time you wish to cross a busy street.
    ;-)

  25. Nigel Depledge

    Dan Schroeder (15) said:

    In the end, you seem to be saying it boils down to trusting some sources and distrusting others. By itself, that advice would be a sure path toward relativism.

    While I agree that nothing can replace doing your own experiments, you don’t find many Large Hadron Colliders (for example) on eBay.

    But what you advocate essentially boils down to replicating the peer-review process for yourself. But the peer-review process does not require that you trust any particular source. Instead it requires that you trust the process (and the schadenfreude of the scientist who demolishes another scientist’s pet theory). The competetive nature of science tends to overturn complacency.

    Having said that, I guess that personal checking of the peer-review process by doing your own experiments would give one some measure of confidence in the process.

  26. Peter B

    Techs @ #20 said: “In the 80′s several scientists found that their experiments were failing. checking they found that as children they were told a number of things were scientific fact and of course accepted it. Now they had to research those “facts” before they could continue.”

    Interesting! Who were these scientists and what were they working on?

    “I read libraries as a child in the 60′s, college libraries in the early 70′s and noticed things that didn’t fit and that many “beliefs” from professionals that didn’t make sense.”

    What things and which professionals?

    “It has been very satisfying to see them change their “beliefs” to mine over the decades.”

    Can you provide some examples, please?

  27. Peter Davey

    Those that start with certainties will end with doubts.

    Those that start with doubts will end with certainties.

    I suppose it all depends how we define “start” and “end”, and “doubt” and “certainty” for that matter.

  28. Matt B.

    @23 Nigel – I think I should have said “difficulty” rather than “problem”. I just meant that it makes it more difficult to tell what’s what. Especially for beginners, who may not be aware of other sources.

    @25 “In Schadenfreude We Trust.” Hilarious.

    @27 Peter Davey – Your second line is actually my motto: “Doubt begets certainty” or “DVBIVM CERTVM GIGNET”. (I think I have the syntax right.) If you haven’t really examined your beliefs, any certainty you feel in them is baseless. And of course, doubt should not be conflated with disbelief.

  29. Daniel J. Andrews

    Techs said, “In the 80′s several scientists found that their experiments were failing. checking they found that as children they were told a number of things were scientific fact and of course accepted it. Now they had to research those “facts” before they could continue.”

    What Peter B said. Please post examples of this. It sounds fascinating and rather unbelievable so I’d love to be able to toss a few of these examples into my next lecture.

    As an aside, I was taught that if the earth stopped rotating we’d all fly off the earth as gravity failed. It confused me for years and only till near the end of high school did I realize that all the other information (physics, for e.g.) I was learning contradicted what I’d been initially taught in grade school. So to find an example of scientists learning something wrong and not having all the other information they were learning contradicting it would be something that would be worthy of a few psychology/sociology papers, I imagine.

  30. Gary

    It’s prudent to go with the concensus answer ONLY if it adequately responds to the question. The problem is that so often agenda and spin separate the two by introducing confusion and bias.

  31. Paul G.

    Who’s this Dr. Plait guy he keeps talking to? :)

  32. Chris Winter

    Greg Laden’s Blog has an article that touches on this: “Wikipedia Wars.” Here’s the link to his source at PLoS:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0038869
    Dynamics of conflicts in Wikipedia

  33. Techs

    @26. Peter B and @29. Daniel J. Andrews
    Wasn’t expecting any replies let alone good polite ones.
    One of the problems with massive reading is remembering where it came from. Once upon a time you could Google and find what you were looking for very quickly. Now you get millions of unrelated finds with the ones who paid cash first. The scientists would be impossible to find again. I don’t remember if i read it in a science journal or on an internet science blog. I will try to remember it in reverse with what things that were cultural beliefs.

    I have kind of given up on people as they insist on being very stupid and have stopped maintaining researched backgrounds and remembering details that no one will listen too.

    As to things that didn’t make sense, that was along time ago. As to professionals I didn’t mean individuals but a profession’s beliefs at a certain time in history. We have many from previous centuries we tout but few from the past several generation who are still in charge. The 50′s and 60′s were rife with misconceptions in science and not just dinosaurs.

    My apologies. I suffer from long term depression but will try to remember and locate what I can. It would be fun to remember the details. You may now dismiss me from your minds.

  34. Greg

    @Daniel
    In Jr. High, I learned that Matter could not be created or destroyed.
    In High School, I learned that Matter and Energy could not be created or destroyed.
    In College, I learned that nature shall not get caught creating or destroying matter and energy

    In an overly simplistic way, a major advance in physics, culminating with the Manhattan project, was understanding and utilizing the fact that what I learned in Jr. High was “wrong.”

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