Who to Trust in an Age of Misinformation

In today’s environment, where a vast amount of information is available at your fingertips, finding credible information online can be a matter of life and death. From health-related websites and government resources to social media and group forums, knowing who to trust can seem almost impossible. Searching online to find information on symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for your health concerns can be difficult, but there are steps you can take to make the process easier.

When visiting a website, it’s important to find out who operates the site and what their agenda really is. Also, find out if the information has a listed author with contact details and credentials? Are there references to the author’s health information sources, and do other websites & sources concur with the information? Is the information up to date? Does the site sell a product or service, and how does this affect their articles and research? Are they trying to cause fear or anxiety to coerce you into purchasing a product? Also, look for the site’s terms & conditions and privacy policy. Legitimate sites will have both of these in place. Finding answers to all of these questions will bring you one step closer to accurately gauging a website’s credibility.

When researching a particular topic, you may come across a wide variety of scientific papers, journals, and studies. So, how can you tell when an academic paper or health study is credible? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to assess whether or not you should trust a source.

First, is the information current? For primary resources, like many academic articles and papers, check to make sure the work was published no later than ten years ago. For secondary resources, like many newspapers and magazines, this time frame is reduced to three years.  Who is the author, and what are their credentials? Ideally, the work should be written by a health professional or an expert in their field. Check their background for anything that could potentially strengthen or weaken their credibility. Is the information accurate, or does it conflict with information found in other reputable sources? Are there any conflicts of interest?  Who is behind the research, and funding the project? Who is the publisher, and is the research being pursued for financial gain?  If it is a news article, are the sources cited? Is the information from the sources accurately represented? If it is an academic paper or article, is it peer reviewed? In other words, was it evaluated and approved by other experts in the field? Can you find any rebuttals or counterarguments to the study? Do these rebuttals or counterarguments come from reputable sources? Is there an agenda behind the information being provided?

Remember, there are always malevolent players in any industry, and healthcare is no exception. There’s good science and there’s bad science.

With this in mind, let’s now go over how to read an academic paper.

Academic health papers are often written about the most up-to-date findings regarding health conditions and treatments. They can be a very useful tool for patients seeking information about the best, most modern treatments; however, they are often dense with technical language that can make trying to read and understand difficult and daunting.

Here is how an academic paper is typically formatted.

The abstract is usually found at the beginning of the paper and provides a summary of the research and its findings.

The introduction contains background information for the topic at hand. This includes any previous relevant studies or findings. The introduction is also where the researcher or researchers will state the intended purpose of their study, if any.

The materials and methods section describes how the study was conducted and the research methodologies used.

The results section details the results of the study. Usually, this section will include graphs, tables, and charts that represent data that were collected during the study.

The discussion section is where the researcher or researchers explain the findings or discoveries that were made during the study, Generally, this is also where the strengths and weaknesses of the study are weighed. Ideas for future studies may also be included here.

The final component of the paper is the acknowledgements section, which includes information regarding contributors to the research, such as individuals who worked on the study or provided the funding to make the study possible. References to sources are often included here.

The types of studies that researchers can choose to base their papers around can also be as complex and varied as the papers themselves. Knowing what type of study you’re looking at is a valuable skill to have.

Studies typically fall under two categories: observational and experimental.

Observational studies usually focus on collecting descriptive information and are used when researchers are trying to observe a phenomenon without intervening. These studies cannot determine causal relationships, nor can they explain what exactly is causing a particular circumstance. They can only determine if there is a correlation (or association) between two factors.

Experimental studies involve some type of intervention done by the researchers. This could take the form of, for example, introducing people to a varying dosage of a new drug and observing the effects, or having people change their normal lifestyle habits for assigned periods of time. Unlike observational studies, where the goal is to gain descriptive knowledge, experimental studies seek to explain why a particular phenomenon occurs. Because of this, these studies can be used to determine causal relationships.

Despite your best intentions, it’s not always possible to access or understand scientific research. You should always be skeptical of any health or medical advice. If you have doubts about a particular product or treatment, don’t be afraid to trust your instinct. Your instinct is a deeply grounded knowledge base developed from your own personal and prior experiences. Choosing treatments, procedures and what goes into your body is your right and should never be coerced.

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