Be careful who you ask.

In this age of Dr. Google, every Tom, Dick, and Harriet with a keyboard and a wifi connection thinks he/she can make informed health decisions, even if they contradict traditionally trustworthy sources- like the family doctor or the Centers for Disease Control.

I myself use Google extensively to find information on health and parenting topics.  However, I think I have a key stroke up on Tom, Dick, and Harriet, because I’m not Dr. Google, but Momma, PhD.  My doctorate is in Molecular Biology.  I spent far too long as an underpaid grad student studying breast cancer, and as an underpaid post-doc studying liver tissue engineering to fall prey to unscrupulous info on Google.

I’ve written in the past about how the media do a poor job vetting sources of scientific information or accurately interpreting that information for their readers.  There was this hubbub about radiation from Fukushima causing increased infant mortality in the US.  And this post about sensational headlines claiming crying it out/sleep training will cause long-term psychological damage- citing a blog post, but citing it as though it were peer reviewed, substantiated science.

So, when PhD in Parenting announced their “Carnival of Toddlers” I thought, what a great opportunity to talk about where/how to find reliable information on the internet.

A few of Mabel’s sources.

First up- how do you know a website/source is trustworthy?  Well.  It can be hard.  I often rely on the source.  Some random website with lots of ads- probably not a reliable source.  However, curated sites, like the NIH (National Institutes of Health), the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), PubMed (US National Library of Medicine), state health department websites, generally only contain peer-reviewed scientific information.  That means that the data presented or used to make the recommendations was vetted by other scientists and found to be rigorous and sound.

Other reliable sources can be long-lived organizations, like La Leche League or the World Health Organization– groups that do not kowtow to advertisers or editorial pressures or rely on sensationalism to get readers.

I REALLY avoid rumor-mill parenting sites like Strollerderby (or any of the Babble sites) or Shine (on Yahoo)- basically any clearing house for parenting content that’s generated by multiple lay people and doesn’t contain any references.  Articles/blog posts I do find on those sites- I ALWAYS look for the source of the info and go DIRECTLY to that source, so I can judge for myself if the information is trust worthy.  I’m picking on Babble and Shine because, as I mentioned here, they don’t vet their sources and deceivingly present other blog posts as scientific research articles.

Other sites with lots of user generated content are also unreliable.  Sites like The Knot or The Bump basically repackage the same old wives tales on how to get pregnant, how to predict your babies gender, etc. with ‘experts’ chiming in- even if those old wives tales have no scientific basis or have been disproven scientifically.  These types of filler content are notorious for their lack of references, and if you check the credentials of the ‘experts’ you’ll often find they don’t have any- other than being employed by the website.

References or citations are an excellent way of judging the reliability of information- just make sure that they aren’t lazily referring to another website, and instead to primary scientific literature.

I know it can be daunting or neigh impossible for lay people to read and get an in depth understanding of primary scientific research papers- thus many people rely on others to interpret the science for them.  I’ve done some of that interpretation myself here on this blog.  However, I cite my sources, and I cite primary literature.  This is crucial, because while my blog posts are only reviewed by me, the references I cite were peer reviewed by multiple scientists/experts in that field and found to withstand rigorous questioning.  So, you aren’t relying solely on an internet stranger, you are relying on a scientific community invested in maintaining the credibility of their body of work.

Then, there’s the tried and true- TRUST YOUR GUT.  Sounds too good to be true?  Probably is- you won’t lose the baby weight without changing your diet.  Sounds like sensationalism to get you to click through?  Probably is- there isn’t a deadly danger lurking in your fridge/your neighborhood/your Neti Pot as the nightly news may contend.  Sound like a fanatic?  Probably is- anyone with all the answers is automatically suspect.

Of course, I must stress, no matter how confident you are in your internet source of information, no source abrogates the need for your own doctor and medical caregivers.  I do my homework before and after taking my daughter to the doctor (or going myself), but I chose a practitioner I can trust for a reason.  I want to know that there’s a medically trained doctor with 20 years of experience treating patients to watch out for me and my family.  I know he/she won’t shy away from my questions, can back up their recommendations, etc.

My mother’s best piece of advice was- “Be careful who you take advice from.”

So, my last, ironic piece of advice:  Be careful who you take advice from.

Hope this helps.

Do you have a go-to place for info that you trust?  Share it in the comments and tell me why you trust it.

Edited to add:  This great post by Emily Willingham on Double X Science was written to help readers tell real science from fake science:  Real science vs. fake science: How can you tell them apart?


Filed under #scimom, Mother, Scientist

6 responses to “Be careful who you ask.

  1. Suzy

    Wow, I’ve read a few of the recent posts here and this is a terrific blog! Your writing is so clear and down to earth, and yet expressing complex and interesting ideas. I’m a teacher who frequently has to help students learn how to find reliable sources on the internet, and I will have to borrow some of your ideas for explaining this. Guiding students to use trusted source material goes hand in hand with teaching them about proper citations and plagiarism, too. Some of them seem amazed when I say it is fine to use sources from the internet, and “cut and paste” quotes into your paper, as long as you carefully attribute the source and then offer your own explanations of the information. The latter part is the heretofore elusive part, for many!

    I’m also surprised at the number of people I come across who think they can understand medical issues by doing a few quick internet searches, or even by reading a few medical-journal articles on the subject. The internet is no substitute for an expert’s knowledge and practical experience. Your pediatrician knows how to put the information you found, even on the trusted websites, into the proper context, and how to apply it to your particular child’s case. This doesn’t mean a doctor’s word has to be taken as law, but odds are high that her understanding is better, and if you doubt it, she probably can explain why with greater relevance for your situation than you will find on any internet site. The internet is a great tool for informing myself so that I can ask better questions of the doctor, and better understand what she’s saying. In some cases it might lead me to seek another doctor’s opinion, but that’s still not leaving my own layperson’s knowledge as the substitute for years of expertise.

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