‘Fake News’? Consider the source

By Bob Roth

TBT (Turn Back Time) to Thursday night television in the late 1980s. A time before on demand, Netflix, Hulu, and binge watching were part of the vernacular. When it was time for L.A. Law, your heart skipped a beat. If you missed the episode, you missed it. I guess you could catch the reruns during the summer. I am really not sure. I almost never missed.

From Perry Mason to Law & Order, Americans love legal dramas. With rapt attention, we watch as the plot unfolds with a judge, jury, and the attorneys for both sides, who must decide what to admit into the court. Considerations are made as to the source of the information, its credibility, whether or not a witness possesses the necessary expertise to make certain judgments, and the plausibility of an argument. We love the methodology and critical thinking skills that bring us to the edge of our seat at each show’s climax. I am asking you, my readers, as I ask myself: Why we don’t employ similar critical thinking skills in the Digital Age?

The immediate access to information has created a new problem that few of us are trained to solve – how to discern what is true and what is not, and to identify biases and half truths. What matters today in the Internet era is not what knowledge you possess, but whether you know where to look it up and then how to verify whether the answer is reasonable.

Like most Baby Boomers, the bookends of how I gathered information spans from the encyclopedia to the smart phone. Conventional encyclopedias employ editors who are recognized leaders in their respective fields. The editors in turn identify and hire world-renowned experts in various domains to write the topic entries. It is a meritocracy in which those who demonstrably know more about a topic are placed in a position to share their knowledge. Compare this to the Wikipedia model, where a neurosurgeon has as much to say about an entry on brain aneurysms as a high school dropout.

Who remembers when we went to the library to do research? We asked for help from a librarian. In many universities, a librarian holds an advanced degree. A good librarian is a scholar’s scholar, familiar with the difference between a rigorously reviewed journal and publications that may appear credible but are paid advertisements. A good librarian is up to date on controversies in many different fields that arise due to lapses in scholarship or credibility, and can instruct you on where to look for impartial perspectives.

An unintended consequence of search engines is restricting the flow of information. That is, after you search for a particular thing, the search engines keep track of which of the results you ended up clicking on so that they can place those higher up in the results list, saving you time the next time you do a similar search. Imagine now that the search engines have not just a few days’ or weeks’ worth of your searches, but years of searches. Your search results have been iteratively refined to become ever more personal. The net result is that you are more likely to be given results that support your worldview and less likely to encounter results that challenge your views. While you may seek to maintain an open mind and consider alternate opinions, the search engines will be narrowing down what you actually see.

I have witnessed the frustration of families as they navigate the unfamiliar terrain of caring for their aging loved ones, completely overwhelmed and confused by conflicting information. Please resist the temptation to Google with abandon. Ask your doctors and professionals for their trusted sources and websites.

My recommendation for the most comprehensive medical source I know is MedlinePlus.

MedlinePlus is the National Institutes of Health’s website. It is produced by the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library. MedlinePlus supplies information about diseases, conditions, and wellness issues in a language you can understand. MedlinePlus outlines the following guidelines when evaluating the quality of health information on web sites:

The internet is like the Wild West, lawless and self-governed. There is no central authority that controls how websites or blogs are named. Think of the ease at which you toss the junk mail that physically comes to your home mailbox. Assisting aging adults, you know that along the way, we will encounter the same junk either in an email or while surfing the net. It is sometimes difficult to spot a fictitious identity or phony credentials. It is the responsibility of each internet user to be on guard.