Post No.: 0621
We should understand that the web isn’t regulated by or for the truth. A web search can bring up dodgy health advice, legal advice and other falsehoods that affect our beliefs, values and lives. The Internet contains lots of brilliant and informative stuff but there’s also plenty of nonsense because anyone with an opinion can express it online. It’s then often the case of the blind leading the blind, which perpetuates misconceptions, conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
So always cross-reference informational sources. You can do this by looking at multiple independent sources rather than relying on just the first results that pop up after a search. So open up several tabs from the same search query with pages that don’t seem to be copying each other, and put more trust in sources that are reputable (e.g. universities, public health organisations) and that don’t have conflicts of interest (e.g. not sources that are trying to sell you a related product).
The web basically doesn’t have a ‘survival of the fittest, natural selection’ mechanism at its core that’s based on the truthfulness or accuracy of given pieces of information.
It’s often said that anything on the Internet can last there as long as the Internet itself lasts – hence miscomprehensions, BS, lies, errors and inaccuracies can potentially last indefinitely there. And for every truth, there can be multiple different ‘versions of the truth’, or lies, hence there are likely to be more different lies than truths on the web.
This means that all the rubbish potentially never dies and just accumulates on the web, waiting to be found via a confirmation-biased search or accidentally stumbled upon (e.g. old wives tails, superstitions, urban myths, propaganda). All that bilge can be picked up and perpetuated by forumites and popular TV/radio talk show hosts, etc., thus reinforcing and amplifying the twaddle even further. And because most people believe and follow the crowd, they tend to believe whatever story is most believed by others (within their own ingroups and echo chambers).
Moreover, search engine algorithms partly rely on ranking webpages that are popular (based on factors like backlinks) more highly on their search engine results pages (SERPs), which means that if a source of misinformation is popular, it’ll more likely be preferentially presented to even more people.
These search engine algorithms do continually evolve though, and popularity is hardly the only factor – but unless backlinks cease to become a factor, then a search engine is basically relying on the presumption that a popular webpage could’ve only become popular if it is authoritative and truthful. Regardless, Google relies on a range of imperfect heuristics to rank webpages that aren’t directly related to how truthful, informative or even relevant they are (e.g. their page load speed (which can depend on having money for faster web hosting services), security, mobile friendliness, domain age, keyword density, bounce rate). This means that search engine optimisation (SEO) is something that’s to be gamed by content creators – not that there’s an easy, rapid and cost-effective alternative way to rank webpages i.e. we cannot get epistemic communities assessing every single page on the web that exists (there are billions of webpages currently, and many constantly change). And even here – who should qualify as an ‘expert’ anyway? And should who says something ever be more important than what is precisely being said, for even experts can disagree with each other or occasionally make mistakes?
Human assessors manually review some search queries (out of the perhaps trillions of possible search queries) to see if their search engines appear to work well, but although they’ll check to see if any poor results are finding their way onto the first pages, they likely won’t know if any good results aren’t finding their way there. This is because not every webpage is even findable via a search engine i.e. not every webpage will be indexed by them – again based on imperfect heuristics that determine such decisions. This presents a monumental conundrum that concerns how to quantify qualitative information?
The difficulty in accurately and simply ranking the ‘expertise, authority and trustworthiness’ or ‘reliability’ of information applies to offline and well as online information. But something we must be aware of with online search engines is that many results also appear due to who has paid the most money to secure their position. There are paid search results (as opposed to organic results) such as via Microsoft Advertising or Google Ads, which allow you to display your website listing at the top of search results. The incredible amount of advertising and marketing on the web means that those with the deepest pockets can secure more exposure for what they want to spread or sell, and of course the truth shouldn’t, or simply doesn’t, depend on who has the deepest pockets.
Stories that scare or provoke tend to grab more viewership. People may take op-eds as factual or unbiased. Science is often badly reported in the media for the sake of grabbing attention to ultimately sell subscriptions or advertisement space, and marketeers hype things up to ultimately sell goods or services i.e. when profit is the priority, the unalloyed truth can be a casualty.
Well-followed media sources frequently publish oversimplified and dumbed-down, extreme or one-sided (black-or-white) narratives because they’re sensationalist – when often (although not always) the truest picture is grey. Comedy news programmes vary in quality but are nevertheless more about entertainment than news, about laughs more than facts, and therefore involve even less fact-checking than regular news sources. Some disreputable sources even admit to fabricating entire stories that people unfortunately lap up and spread to one and another via gossip as if the truth. We cannot always believe what we see or hear.
Attention-grabbing headlines can make the currently inconclusive seem conclusive, the complex seem simplistic, the specific seem general. Many readers don’t even read much further than the often deliberately deceptive or ambiguous clickbait headlines. The contents of the articles themselves might liberally and correctly use terms like ‘could’, ‘might’, ‘up to’, ‘early indications’, ‘assumptions were made’, ‘in one study’ or ‘more research is required’ – but casual readers frequently ignore these terms and will interpret whatever they want to interpret, either to confirm their existing worldviews and/or so that they can believe that they’ve learnt something smart and cutting-edge, but which is inconclusive.
We habitually confuse opinions with facts, whether our own, a media contributor’s, expert’s or anyone else’s. Wiki sites are generally highly trustworthy but aren’t always so – here it can depend on who last modified an entry. A lot of ‘fun facts’ that you may discover from popular information sources are neither facts nor fun because they’re wrong and therefore misleading! Even ostensibly scientific sources can occasionally get things wrong. Web search results are getting better in this area when they were utterly atrocious at one time, but the damage may have already been done in general because a lot of popular beliefs keep persisting amongst the general public despite clear evidence debunking them…
These include the harms of monosodium glutamate (having too much of anything is harmful but there’s nothing particularly harmful about MSG). Bottled water being purer than tap water (at least in countries where tap water is heavily regulated). Frozen fish is always inferior to ‘fresh’. Organic food is free of pesticides and is more nutritious. The notion that celery is a negative-calorie food. The link between sugar and hyperactivity or ‘sugar highs’. The oversimplistic ‘5-second rule’ for food that touches the ground. Marmite being either ‘love it or hate it’. Twinkies are special cakes that can last forever. Oysters or chocolate are universal aphrodisiacs.
Common misconceptions are that wild monkeys eat farmed bananas. Milk is generally good for cats. Elephants love peanuts. Cheese is the most irresistible food for mice. Goldfish have extremely short memories. Bulls get angry at the sight of the colour red. Lemmings commit suicide en masse. A duck’s quack doesn’t echo. Magpies love to steal shiny objects. The mouths of dogs are cleaner than that of humans (woof woof!) Just multiply by seven to work out a dog’s equivalent age to a human’s.
Many still believe that we only use 10% of our brains or we’re simplistically either left or right-brained. Twins have extrasensory perception between each other. You can tell if someone is lying by which way they’re gazing. Hand, foot, nose or flaccid genital size correlates with erect genital size. Napoléon Bonaparte was short for his time (when Horatio Nelson was in fact even shorter. Note also that when short people are assertive, they’re sometimes accused of having a ‘Napoleon complex’ but if tall people are assertive, they’re simply called confident. So it’s likely that women aren’t just sometimes discriminated against for their gender but also because they’re shorter on average too e.g. they’re more easily ignored in business. However, women frequently prejudice against men based on their height thus are a part of that culture too if so).
There are the persistent beliefs that stress causes ‘grey’ hair (well certainly de-pigmentation through stress is far less common than through natural ageing) or baldness (stress can, for some, cause hair to fall out or be pulled out in clumps but male pattern baldness is due to hereditary reasons). Being cold alone can give you a cold virus. You starve a fever but feed a cold. Leprosy leads to limbs falling off.
Lightning never strikes the same place twice. Glass at room temperature is a high viscosity liquid. Blowing over a curved piece of paper demonstrates Bernoulli’s principle. Earth’s natural diamonds were made from coal. Polaroid pictures need to be shaken. Viking helmets had horns.
…Most of these examples may be inconsequential but there are also many serious beliefs, like anti-vaccination conspiracies or the denial of (the causes of) climate change, that tenaciously won’t die on the web.
It’s also oversimplified to believe that everything we post on the web will necessarily last forever. If it’s posted on a platform like Instagram or Twitter then it potentially can unless every single server they use burns down, which is highly unlikely. But things on people’s individual websites can depend on whether the owner keeps the web domain and hosting from expiring (which can again depend on money), and whether the content has been copied and published elsewhere.
In short, the web is an amazing and invaluable resource, and much of what we find there is dependable. Fluffystealthkitten and I rely on it like most others. Yet we must be cognizant that search engine algorithms aren’t geared towards bringing the ‘most truthful’ webpages to the top. Like fallible human minds themselves, they rely on numerous imperfect heuristics that are geared more for efficiency, like inferences based on popularity or presentation. Some positions are even paid for. This can mean that the wealthiest with agendas rather than the most impartial sources get preferred for the top and first pages of results.
We’ve got to question what are touted as facts because not everything that’s labelled as ‘facts’ are facts. Accepting nothing prima facie (at first appearance) is a huge part of being a critical thinker. I recommend that we should try to learn more deeply, not superficially or in a piecemeal manner, about the relevant subjects we’re interested in understanding. For me, this means studying entire academic courses rather than acquiring an ad hoc ‘web search education’. Post No.: 0292 espouses this stance. It’s also about critical thinking, logic, maths and evidence-based science rather than being a passive absorber.
You can share more examples of popular, persistent but dubious ‘fun facts’ via the Twitter comment button below if you’d like.
Woof! I’ve probably fallen for some daft myths myself? There’s a huge chance for the amount I’ve written about in this blog but, hey, I’m ready to not get too defensive if politely explained that I have.