Separating fact from fiction

Paul McKenzie, N.C. Cooperative Extension
Jun. 15, 2014 @ 10:11 AM

Recently a dear friend of mine posted an article on her social media page which claimed that a certain agricultural chemical was wreaking havoc on human health. It was quite a fantastic claim, one I immediately knew was false. But in practice, separating fact from fiction and proven from highly speculative can be difficult.

I’ve been known to spend more than a few minutes tracking down the original source of such claims. Many would not have the patience to follow the trail (or more likely have much more interesting ways to spend their time!).

I always start by assessing the credibility of the website where the article appears. Respected news organizations normally get high marks. Blog sites, on the other hand, are always subject to skepticism. A blog, in case you were unaware, is website you create where you can pretend to be an expert on the topic of your choice (I have one myself). To create a blog, just upload an attractive profile photo and start writing articles that contain lots of fantastic claims.

Organizations with an obvious agenda are even more highly suspect. I would never trust the website of “Sisters Notice Onions cause Typhoid” (aka SNOT) for information about the health impacts of an onion-based diet. Nor would I expect the website of the Onion Growers of Estonia (O.Gr.E) to be completely unbiased. This was the first test my friend’s link failed (it was a site that sold “health products,” one of which is known to cause skin cancer).

The next step is to look in the article for a reference to a scientific article or study, and then track down said article. Unfortunately, scientific articles are hard to read,and sometimes only accessible through paid subscription services (if all else fails, try the library!).

But if you can find it and wade your way through the technical language and 50-cent words, you may find that the article with the fantastic claims has misrepresented or exaggerated the actual results.

There is also a trend where new journals are being created which charge researchers a fee to include their work and conduct little if any review of the work submitted. Such journals are banking (literally) on the tremendous pressure scientists face to get published. This is a significant issue in the field of scientific inquiry.

In the case of my friend’s article, it appears to have come from just such a journal. I also found discussions of the research on the websites of reputable news organizations raising questions of credibility.

The websites of Cooperative Extension services from across the United States are a great source of reliable information on many topics related to food, nutrition and agriculture. Providing unbiased, research-based information is what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years. Try adding “site:edu” after your search terms in your favorite search engine website (e.g. “onion based diet site:edu”). Even better, go straight to extension.org, which links you directly to the national Extension system.

Now I’m not suggesting that agriculture should get a pass on questions of health and the environment. But it’s one thing to use social media to share inspirational quotes and cat videos (love those too!). It’s quite another to share fear-mongering articles without some basic fact-checking. The risk of spreading baseless claims is too great.