The Immunologist Offers 4 Tips for Evaluating Health Information on the Internet – Twin Cities

As a mother who truly worries about my child’s health, and as an educator and scientist who appreciates hard facts, I understand how difficult it can be to make choices that affect your family’s health. This has become even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic; the decisions we make affect not only us, but also those around us in our communities.

Being skeptical and learning as much as we can before making important decisions is a good thing. Researching information about our health and well-being can be complicated. Today’s world is full of conflicting information online, in the media, and among peers and family members—it’s hard to know which sources are accurate and reliable.

Conflicting information during the pandemic also comes from scientists and medical experts. That doesn’t look right! why is it so

It is important to know that science is always evolving.

At the start of the pandemic, scientists knew just as much as the general public. Until we started collecting and analyzing clinical data and doing experiments with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, we had very little information about how the virus works and how it spreads. The more we learned, the more information we had to make recommendations for the health and well-being of our communities. I know it was (and still is) frustrating. I was right there with you. Mask or no mask? Should I wipe out the groceries, let them sit untouched for a day, or load them into my cupboards right away? We didn’t know.

What we do know is that the more we learn about the virus, the more information we have to make and update our recommendations. Sometimes new information makes us reconsider a previous recommendation. This is further complicated as variants emerge that act and function slightly differently from the original virus.

You can think of variants as children. Although children have the same genetic information as their parents – it’s a bit of a mix with some unique changes – this often results in a person who looks and acts differently. It’s the same with viruses. This means that we, as scientists, are always chasing the latest variant of the virus to learn as much as we can to update our recommendations to the general public based on the latest clinical and scientific data.

We all want to do what is right and make the best decisions possible. With all the conflicting messages we see in the media, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and maybe even lead down the path of inaccurate and sometimes harmful information. The Internet and the endless amount of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, etc.) have made finding reliable information a challenge. Anyone who wants to share their message with the world has the ability to do so. This means that experts and non-experts alike have found an equal voice in the wild world of the internet and social media.

This is where I come in; I will use my experience as a scientist and my experience as a science communicator and educator to help you distinguish between fact and fake news.

What can you do to make sense of conflicting information?

How can you find information that comes from trusted sources and experts who share their expertise to empower you to make decisions based on facts and truth?

Here are four quick tips I always use to help me decipher fact from fake news:

1. Check my emotions. Did what I just read or watched make me feel strong emotions?

2. Check the author. Is the author an expert in the field? Does the author have experience and/or training in the field they are writing about?

3. Check the source. Is this a reputable source? Is it a source that doctors and scientists would use to obtain and/or share information?

4. Check the references. Does the article or video share the source of the information?

My motivation is to share these tips comes from a Pioneer Press letter to the editor published Aug. 28, titled “Continuing Debate Over Childhood Vaccines.”

As a doctor of immunology for over 20 years, I can tell you that there is no debate in the medical community about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. We agree that vaccines are one of the world’s greatest medical advances and have saved millions, if not billions, of lives. The letter’s author shared a YouTube channel by a person who is not a medical expert and, contrary to the opinion, is not “respected by people on all sides of the COVID issue.”

How did I know that?

Let’s use this YouTube video recommendation (which I won’t list here for the reasons above) as an example and go through my list of four quick tips together.

1. Check my emotions. How did this YouTube video make me feel?

The video is definitely designed to evoke a strong emotion. It is designed to evoke fear and anger; the author reported disclosing information that the medical facility did not want the public to know. The desired result was to instill fear and anger against the medical establishment, but to trust it as it was (allegedly) letting us in on a secret.

2. Check the author. Who is this person? What makes him an expert?

After some digging, I found out that he is not a doctor or a biologist. He also has no training in immunology, vaccine biology, or infectious diseases. He calls himself a doctor because he has a doctorate in the study of open educational resources. Having a PhD makes it legitimate to call yourself a “doctor” (as I know from personal experience), but his experience and training is not in the area this video is focused on – COVID and vaccines. The bottom line is that he is not an expert in the area that was the focus of the YouTube video.

3. Check the source. Is this a reputable source of information? Is this a source that scientific experts would use to find factual information?

No. YouTube is not a source that doctors or scientists use to gather factual information. The most legitimate sources of information about infectious diseases and the drugs used to treat them come from scientific articles published in scientific journals, medical textbooks, and reputable academic and medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Although YouTube can be a source of factual information, most of the time when scientific information is revealed on YouTube, it comes from people who are not experts and do not have the scientific data to publish their news in a reputable source.

Can YouTube be a source of factual information? Absolutely! Scientists and medical professionals use YouTube as a communication tool to spread the word about exciting new developments in the treatment of diseases and research that has been published in scientific journals. Plus there are fascinating YouTube videos created by music professors discussing the elements of music theory, mechanics explaining how brake systems work, chefs talking about the latest and most innovative cooking techniques, and much more! YouTube is an audiovisual library filled with hours of informative and entertaining videos. To find out if the YouTube video you’re watching is factual, go back to Tip #1 (check the emotion) and Tip #2 (check the author).

4. Check the references. Are there references listed? If so, what are they and are they respected and valid?

First item of business here, if there are no references listed, that’s a red flag. For our investigation, this video does use a reference known as “preprint”. In science, preprints are versions of articles that report the results of scientific discoveries that have just occurred but have not yet been validated and reviewed by other scientific experts through a process called peer review.

Peer review is a big deal in science. This is the process by which scientific experts in the same field as the author of the article, but who are not part of the study, scrutinize the data and determine whether the findings in the article are accurate and valid. Peer checking is a process in science by which we determine whether scientific findings are fact or fake news. Preliminary prints have not yet undergone this intensive scrutiny and should not be taken as fact. It’s kind of like telling all your friends about a huge fish you caught without having any witnesses with you on the fishing trip. It could be true, but it could also be fake news.

In the early days of COVID, pre-prints were valuable to the medical community. The peer review process takes time, and when we needed to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, preprints allowed us to do so. Those of us trained in science could distinguish the good data from the bad through method analysis and statistical analysis in preprints. We know from years of study which preprints had information that might be valid. We also know that preprints must go through peer review and only those that proceed to publication in a scientific journal will have priority as fact. Those who did not will be classified as fake news.

Looking at the four quick tips together, we found that:

1. The video evoked strong emotion (even for a Minnesota resident)

2. The author is not an expert on COVID, vaccines or pandemics

3. The source is YouTube, which is not an accepted platform for communicating scientific information

4. The reference is a preprint version that may be a source of information but has not yet undergone a careful peer review process and should not be taken as fact

Using the 4 quick tips, the result of our investigation suggests that this is not a valid source of information and we should not accept this particular YouTube video as accurate.

As a scientist and educator, I encourage you to remain curious and skeptical when it comes to your health and decisions that will affect your life and the lives of your loved ones and the larger community.

Knowledge is power. As you do your own research to learn as much as possible before making important decisions about your health and your family’s health, keep the four quick tips listed above in mind. Distinguish fact from fake news by remembering that credible information rarely comes from sources that evoke strong emotion, people who are not experts in the field they are writing about, in a YouTube video, and without references from credible sources.

For more information on how to become a pro at deciphering fact from fake news, I encourage you to visit the News Literacy Project website (https://newslit.org/about/).

For more information on how vaccines work with the immune system to train our bodies to fight infectious diseases, see my “Immunology 101” blog series on the Immunize Colorado Team Vaccine (immunizecolorado.org/understanding-the-immune-system -how-vaccines -protect-us/).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *