By Kristin Osika (V)

In almost every aspect of our lives, data plays a central role in decision-making. Categorical rankings determine our college list, polls sway our political leanings, and the latest COVID-19 studies determine whether or not we deem it safe to venture outside of the house. With modern technology facilitating the mammoth collection and communication of data, facts are at our fingertips: social media, news networks, and search engines provide easy, efficient access to necessary information, and, as a result, we have the opportunity to learn and know more about the world and each other than ever before. 

While this superabundance of data has innumerable benefits, it can also blind us from the real truth. In favor of convenience, we sometimes fail to question the source from where we gather our information and the integrity that lies within it. Accordingly, with the rise of our data-focused culture, there has been an increase in misinformation, which is arguably the most topical in science, given the ongoing pandemic. Because authentic scientific research papers can be exceedingly difficult for the layperson to comprehend, we almost solely rely on secondary sources for coherent interpretations, especially for information about COVID-19. Think about the most recent statistic you heard about the pandemic. Do you know the original source of that statistic? Chances are, you heard it on the news or read it in an infographic on social media; these are the places where most of us receive our information. When we are inundated with graphs, tables, percentages, comparisons, and daunting figures, to make sense of this “information overload,” we turn to the most coherent and visually-appealing interpretation. It’s only natural. 

Unfortunately, the data presented to us might not always be accurate. Both the creator and consumer of research-based informational sources can perpetuate misinformation. In a time of widespread uncertainty and unease, the validated, scientific truth can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, and creators are aware of this. Even unconsciously, some might misrepresent data to conform to a specific agenda, incite or quell fears, promote or degrade a product. It is surprisingly easy to portray accurate, scientific data out of context and thus push forward an idea that may not be grounded in fact. As consumers, we contribute to this problem through selective exposure: we rely on individual data sources to provide us with information consistent with our beliefs. This behavior feeds into our natural bias and cements our reluctance to trace agreeable data back to the source to critically examine it in its authentic form. Thus a vicious cycle ensues, one which can easily propagate falsities to the general public. 

Given the increasing amount of misinformation that is circulating the media, how should we know what to believe? To answer this question, we need to return to science. When viewed with a critical eye, authentic research conducted according to the scientific method provides an infallible source of information. Frequently, even a quick scan of a paper’s abstract or results can provide all the information you need. While primary sources provide the most direct information, certain secondary sources are often much more efficient. Though it may seem facile, the inclusion of legitimate citations is critical to a secondary source’s veracity, as long as they are used in a manner that reflects the ideas proven in the works cited. The author’s credentials and mode of publication (journal, website, news organization, etc.) can also provide important insight into source reliability.

Bias, specific agendas, and convenience saturate our media and may impede our understanding of the truth; however, not all publications perpetuate misinformation. If we continuously question our sources and maintain a healthy degree of skepticism, we can discern fact from fallacy and arrive at the truth.