By Kristin Osika (V)

In almost every aspect of our lives, data plays a central role in decision-making. Categorical rankings determine our college lists, polls sway our political leanings, and the latest COVID-19 case statistics determine whether or not we deem it safe to venture outside of the house. With modern technology facilitating the 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 truth. In favor of convenience, we sometimes fail to question the integrity of the source we gather our information from. Accordingly, with the rise of our data-focused culture, there has been an increase in misinformation, which, given the ongoing pandemic, is arguably the most topical in science. Because authentic scientific research papers can be exceedingly difficult for the average person to comprehend, we rely almost solely on secondary sources for coherent interpretations, especially for information about COVID-19. Think about the most recent statistic you’ve heard about the pandemic. Do you know the source of that statistic? Chances are, you heard it on the news, read it in an infographic on social media, or heard it from a murmur in the hallways. These are the places almost all of us receive our information. When we are inundated with graphs, tables, percentages, comparisons, and daunting figures, we turn to the most coherent, visually-appealing interpretation, in order to make sense of the “information overload.” It’s only natural.

Unfortunately, the data presented to us may not always be accurate; both the creator and consumer of research-based 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 creators on platforms, such as Instagram or Facebook, might misrepresent data to conform to a specific political agenda, incite or quell fears about current events, or promote or degrade a product or lifestyle. It is surprisingly easy to portray accurate, scientific data out of context and thus push forward an idea that may not be based in fact.

Given the increasing amount of misinformation circulating in the media, how do we know what to believe? To answer this question, we need to return to science. When viewed with a critical eye, authentic research provides an infallible information source.

While primary sources provide the most direct information, specific secondary sources can also be helpful and significantly more efficient to read. Several indicators can determine how reliable a secondary source is: 

Source Citations. The inclusion of proper citations is critical to a secondary source’s integrity, as long as the references accurately support the ideas espoused in the source’s body. 

Author credentials. Ask yourself: who is the person communicating this information? Do they have expertise? Are they educated on the subject matter? Authors who have spent significant time researching and studying a topic are much more likely to convey accurate information to the reader than those without such expertise, who may instead be providing an opinionated narrative.

Mode of publication. Well-established journals, news networks, and websites are more likely to be reliable than random blog sites or social media posts; often, the former have thorough review processes that vet articles for clarity and accuracy before releasing them to the public. 

Bias, specific agendas, and convenience saturate our media and can impede our understanding of the truth; however, not all publications perpetuate misinformation. Like FYI Sci, several evidence-based information sources can provide you with current, accurate, and easy-to-understand reviews of primary literature, as long as they meet each of the indicators above. Though our world may be apt for the spread of misinformation, if we continuously question our sources and maintain a healthy degree of skepticism, we can discern fact from fallacy to arrive at the truth.