How to spot misinformation

Empower yourself to critically evaluate scientific information in your daily life.

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Scientific research and associated studies are a resource to understand the world we live in by providing us with an objective reality. When research is conducted and communicated properly, scientific findings will not have bias or a motive other than to inform the public or other researchers and industry. However, when conducted inappropriately, data can be reported in a way that twists the findings to fit a stance. Twisting data to fit a stance may look like a report that only shares data that supports a specific theory without full evidence. Furthermore, manipulating data and results can mean not reporting all the findings in a study so that the results better fit a specific narrative.

Sometimes data in a report can be shaped to falsely equate a correlation to causation. Two phenomena may be correlated (related to each other) but not necessarily caused by the other. An example of a correlation is stating “people who smoke have high levels of lung cancer” and an example of a causation statement is “smoking leads to developing lung cancer.” Scientific data will present correlations and discuss possible causes and connections but avoid determining causations from correlations.

Misinformation online through social media and news sources is widespread. A 2021 systematic review study (which reviewed 69 other published studies) found that as many as 87 percent of health-related social media posts contained some amount of misinformation. Another 2018 study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that misinformation and false rumors online reach more people and spread faster than accurate news articles.

Below are three ways to help evaluate new information as you come across it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO):

1. Assess the who, where, when, how, and why of “research” results

    • Who: Look at who wrote the article. What is their background and expertise, and does it support the topic they’re writing or talking about? Do they have possible biases and motivations? When research is involved, did the author conduct it themselves or are they just relaying the results?
    • Where: Where was the research conducted? Universities and Academic Hospitals are required to adhere to rigorous standards of research, whereas surveys and studies conducted privately by companies and organizations are not. Make sure the research is conducted by an unbiased source.
    • When: When was the research conducted? Our scientific understanding is always evolving as we learn more, so studies conducted 10 years ago may no longer be up to date.
    • How: What methods were used that led to the particular results? Were proper research methods used? Was there an independent review or peer-review of the methods and data before it was published to ensure validity?
    • Why: Consider reasons a person or organization publish this information. Are the conclusions being drawn asserting causations from correlations?

2. Look at the publishing source

    • Is the article coming from a reputable and unbiased source? Does this source describe their own process of verifying the claims they are reporting? Is it being paid for by a politician, company, or another source that may be biased and without a legal obligation to tell the truth?
    • Generally, websites from a University (.edu), Government Agency (.gov), or scholarly organization are reliable sources as they go through a review process before publishing. It is best to stay away from blogs, Wikipedia, and .com sites that may express personal opinions and biases.

3. Look at the language being used

    • Bold language like “always” and “never” are often an indicator of bias and are rarely used in properly conducted scientific research papers. If you see this language, or inflammatory words and phrases designed to incite strong emotion on a topic, be more critical of the claims being made.
    • Are quotes from an “anonymous source?” Scientific claims should be made in a way that allows the reader to go back and check sources, authors, and methods. If you are unable to verify the source of information, it is likely not an unbiased one and you should tread lightly with the information they claim.
    • If an article says “according to science” or “studies show” there should be a link in the article that takes you to those primary sources of data. If you are unable to verify if the research was conducted through proper scientific methods and peer-reviewed, you should be wary of the claims made.

If you would like to learn more about vaccines, check out Michigan State University Extension’s partnership with the Michigan Vaccine Project to find links to event schedules, podcasts, publications, webinars, and videos relating to vaccine education.

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