Don’t trust everything you learn on the Internet!

Whose information can we trust?

How do we know what information is trustworthy, and what information isn’t? 30 years ago this wasn’t a huge problem, or at least it was but there was nothing we could do about it. We had an information shortage. If you wanted in-depth knowledge on a subject you needed to find an expert, read original research, read a book, or study it in school. None of these are bad options, but they were expensive and difficult to get to. There was a period where if you wondered “huh, what happens if I don’t get enough Vitamin D?” you couldn’t simply Google it. Hell we probably never thought about Vitamin D.

Now we’re in the opposite situation. We have too much information, and a lot of that information is more fiction/opinions than actual fact. The number of blogs, podcasts, internet periodicals, and magazines far outweigh the number of nonfiction books, reliable experts, research papers, and rigorous coursework we have access to.

Worse, we have an ease of use problem. We’re lazy. We’ve been spoiled by TV news. We want our information in small bite sized clips that we can digest quickly. An article on PubMed is scary. A Cosmo article on 5 foods to get slim in 5 days is easy. Good information isn’t just hard to find, it’s intimidating. Finding it and absorbing it is a skill we have to cultivate.

The Obvious Outs

I don’t think there’s a “real” list of reliable sources, so instead I’m going to start with the clearly unreliable ones.

Television as a source of news and information is obviously out. Most news Broadcasts are funded by particularly minded people, and as such are biased in the information the find relevant, not the actual “uncolored” facts The only real exception with TV is documentaries, or multi-part series documentaries.

I’ll suggest that any recurring news source is out as well. Health is not a field changing so quickly as to warrant a monthly 100+ page magazine, and I’m sure this month’s 12 steps to a toned butt isn’t going to be that different from last month’s.

Most blogs are out too. There are a few out there that are excellent sources of well-vetted information, but those are almost always from primary sources. The Internet is, unfortunately, full of blogspam.

Treating a source of entertainment as a source of reliable information is just stupid & dangerous. The two rarely go together. Assuming we’re getting good information simply because it’s a popular medium is faulty logic.

What About Peers, School, and Parents?

For the first 5-6 years of our lives, our primary source of information is our parents. They’re deciding what we’re eating, wearing, how much we’re moving, so we have to pray that they had the foresight to recognize they know nothing about these things and need to do a ton of research. Being alive doesn’t mean we’re qualified to advise others on how to live.

Eventually we enter Kindergarten and gain more sources of knowledge. We’re getting advice and knowledge from school as well as home, but is it any better? Parents don’t need to pass a test to raise a kid. Teachers at least need to be qualified to get a job. Let’s assume they’re a bit more reliable, despite books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. I said a “bit more reliable,” not perfect.

We will feel disproportionately more passionate about, and more qualified to give advice on, things that we’re familiar with (like being alive), regardless of how well we actually understand them. If we don’t think critically about the person we’re receiving advice from, then we get barraged with misinformation overload.

A gym teacher is not the best source of information on how to run better. A history teacher is not the best source of knowledge for history. A science teacher is not the best source of knowledge for science. 20+ years ago they were all we had, but we don’t live in that world anymore.

Likewise, unless your parents or friends have Ph.Ds in Human Physiology you shouldn’t be taking their advice on nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc. They’re only regurgitating their interpretations of information they read or heard elsewhere, and you have no idea if that source was a Johns Hopkins research article or the latest issue of Women’s Health. If you’ve ever played the game “telephone” you know how much gets lost in the process of passing something along.

Okay, But Surely Professionals are Trustworthy…
Not necessarily. What kind of training does your personal trainer have? Did they study physiology at a high-ranked university or did they just get an online certification? What about your doctor? Were they an A student at Johns Hopkins or a C student at… well I don’t know the names of any bad medical schools but you get the idea.

So Who Do We Trust?

Pre-Internet, I assume the methods I’ve just bashed were our best way of getting rapid information. Since finding books and sorting through them was tedious, we relied on friends, colleagues, and teachers as our source of information. That wasn’t done out of best practice, that was done out of necessity. It was all the information we had. Now we have more. Now there’s no reason to rely on “cheap” information… we have the greatest repository of information in the world available to us. And almost all of it’s free.

Classrooms are problematic because they move at a predetermined pace and must move slow enough for the slowest person. They also provide terrible motivation because the “goal” you’re shooting for is a high grade on a test.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Have a SMART goal. If you don’t have a specific goal for why you want to learn something, then you’ll be much less likely to stick to it and you won’t be as curious about it. Learning for the sake of learning gets boring quickly since you have no way to track your progress.
  2. Find some outliers and experts in the space. For language, maybe people who speak 6+ languages. Do they have books? Blogs? In this case yes, there’s a whole business around this, and their books are really good.
  3. Read the books and the blogs. What are the commonalities? Though I don’t have any research to back this up, I’d argue that in many cases it makes more sense not to use textbooks… textbooks are based on a defective system of learning and are incredibly boring. You could use them as a secondary resource though. Something being unique (in one resource but not the others) doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that you can be less sure of its effectiveness. Try the unique aspects and see how well they work for you. If they work, keep them. If they don’t, toss them.
  4. Create your own method. Build a baseline from what’s similar, then adapt it to fit your needs. Don’t just blindly follow one person’s system. Break down the goal to its composite parts, and as you learn the individual parts you’ll see yourself progressing towards that goal.
  5. Get started. As you find holes in your knowledge, go find the people who have already filled them. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel.