What Can You Believe on the Web?
While the web is the most amazing and accessible source of information ever developed, its free and open style means that a great deal of what is on the web is questionable at best and can even be downright lies. Unlike printed materials, which were usually vetted by someone somewhere, and whose very appearance could give an indication of its credibility, there is something on the web to fool everyone.
When you look at a site, always looks for the credentials of the person or persons presenting the information. In the US, too often we depend upon celebrity opinions: Actresses advocating against childhood vaccination; professors of engineering denying the holocaust.
Students say that someone put up a site “to provide information.” Well, that’s sometimes true: government agencies are charged with disseminating information, or nonprofits may consider that to be part of their mission. However, most of the time sites are created in order to convince you of a particular point of view, or to entice you to their site so they can profit from the ads on it, or to sell you something (corporations often put up websites that masquerade as objective consumer information). When a drug company presents drug information on a website, it’s to sell their product, not because they’re concerned about providing information. Google makes nice friendly tutorials because they want you to like Google. Always think about the reason the site was created.
We’ve all got biases. When the American Medical Association makes statements, you know that they are speaking for the well being of physicians (whose memberships support the organization), and not necessarily for the well being of their patients. The American Chemical Society has chemical information as its purpose. This means that it not only sets standards for education in chemistry but also provides information necessary for the very large and very profitable chemical industry.
Look around the website. See what you can find about their mission. Observe the use of ads. Notice people connected with the website (the board, contributors, etc.) Is there an online store, and what is it selling?
Be aware of opinions presented as facts, and statements such as “Studies show….” What studies? Whose studies? Dependable websites indicate where the information came from, and the best will cite their sources.
Don’t take the website at face value. Check on credentials: for example, Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes, one in chemistry for his work on the molecular bond and the peace prize for his work in organizing scientists against nuclear arms. He is considered one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Later in his life, he became convinced that Vitamin C could prevent the common cold. Unfortunately, no one’s ever been able to demonstrate that effectively, but people still believe in Vitamin C because a Nobel laureate said it’s so, even if his Nobel recognition had nothing to do with Vitamin C. Facts and reputations can and should be checked.
McVeigh with questions about the contents of this page.
University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
Last Updated September 2015