Some of the Problems and Pitfalls of Using the Internet for Research

The Internet is a wonderful place, but we are still in babes in the woods when it comes to understanding how it has changed society, and the repercussions of its effects will be evolving for decades to come. To put is more simply, we are still shaking the worms out of the can. Now, as a zoologist, I like worms and I know how beneficial worms are to the environment, aerating the soil and breaking down organic substances; however, I also know you can’t herd worms. Once the slippery little suckers are loose underground, you really have no idea where they have gone. One of those worms is Internet research.

It seems like everything you ever wanted to know is on the Internet … but information isn’t the same thing as facts or truth. There are hidden pitfalls to research on the Internet, which is why students are asked to supply credible sources for any web-based research they do. So, have you ever asked yourself why are educators worried about information found on the Internet? Because – alas – so much of the information on the Internet is false, and it is sometimes very difficult to pick out the kernel of truth from among the chaff of lies.

Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is the (understandable) tendency to search for information that confirms your beliefs or hypotheses. This is a simple human trait, but it can create a terrible morass on the Internet, particularly if you are looking for facts about a controversial topic. People tend to ‘cherry pick’ through information that backs up what they think they already know. The best way to avoid this is to look for actual scientific studies or firsthand reports by reliable witnesses, and to actively look for reports that don’t support your argument, belief or hypothesis. Try to look for scientific reports with a balance in the pros and cons. If a report is all positive or all negative – ask yourself why this might be the case.

Echo Chambers: An echo chamber is a situation in which information or beliefs are reinforced by repetition inside a closed system, where different or competing views are censored or underrepresented. The Anti-vaccination network is a classic example of such a closed system, where only the facts that support their beliefs are shared, and anyone speaking against their beliefs are either a shill for Big Pharma or just plain wrong. A good way to spot an echo chamber situation is when anyone speaking up against the belief is attacked on a personal level, without any actual refutation of their arguments being attempted.

The Woozle Effect: Named for the fictional beastie in A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh”. If you’ve never read the book, Pooh and Piglet assume tracks made in the snow going around a larch spinney are being made by woozles. The more they circle the spinney following the tracks, the more sets of tracks they find, because – of course – they are the actual individuals making the prints in the snow.  A media woozle occurs when an article makes frequent citation of previous publications, giving the appearance of credible research taking place. However, further investigation will reveal a web of articles that are all citing each other, without the support of any actual evidence or research.  What they rely on are people being comforted by the solid appearance of careful research, when it is all a house of cards built on misunderstanding. The old chestnut that ‘vaccinations cause autism’ is the best example of a real-world Woozle, as every single citation leads back to a 1998 publication of a fraudulent research paper in the medical journal The Lancet, by Andrew Wakefield. Even though this article has been debunked, retracted by The Lancet, and Wakefield discredited in the field of medical research, it still manages to be cited in every anti-vaccination website in some form.

Astroturf Campaigns: Astroturfing is the use of a fake grassroots movement to influence public opinion, while the campaign is secretly funded by corporations or governmental entities. This might sound like a conspiracy theory, but astroturfing plays on people’s fear of the unknown or of change or of new technologies. A great example would be the movement here in Australia to blacklist alternative energy sources to coal and oil, like windfarms or geothermal energy, with these antagonistic movements often supported by funding by the mining corporations. These campaigns are often based on ‘personal experience’. Studies were taken of people living near windfarms, and they discovered a plethora of ‘disorders’ suffered by these locals, which were then used to fuel the grassroots campaigns against the windfarms. A closer look at these studies showed that the respondents’ answers were skewed by leading questions, and other studies had questionnaires with a bias built in, and that the studies had been funded by corporations who obtained their original funding from the mining companies. And – amazingly – every time a news agency breaks this story, it disappears without any backlash. *sigh*

Silence: Always remember, what isn’t said can often be more telling than what is.

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4 Comments

Filed under Research, writing

4 responses to “Some of the Problems and Pitfalls of Using the Internet for Research

  1. tHIS IS GREAT. lOVED THE OPENING PARAGRAPH. gREAT WRITING! – A SENSE OF FUN HERE. bUGGER, cAPS lOCK IS ON! i WANT AN aPP THAT STOPS THIS HAPPENING!!!

  2. Great article detailing pitfalls that are all too easy to be trapped by when doing online research, especially when one is under time constraints. The various websites that look into the veracity of urban legends and other things we know must be true are helpful in debunking things.

    That said, I love Wikipedia! But–and this is a crucial “but”–unless you’re looking for a simple fact (someone’s full name, year of death, etc.), Wikipedia should be the beginning of your research not the culmination.

    • That is a valid point that I always tell any student asking me for advice. Wikipedia is a great starting point, particularly if there is a list of scholarly references under the Wikipedia article. I myself use the Wikipedia mainly to hunt in the ‘related article’ area. It’s a great way to follow down the path of an obscure idea.

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