To illustrate how broken our online search system has become we can first look at weight loss advice. It’s a relatively benign topic which impacts an ever-increasing number of people, approximately 40% of adults in the United States have searched online for weight loss and exercise tips. It’s also a topic where less than 1/5 of the first page of search results have more than 50% factual information.
Seriously: less than 1/2 of the information is right on 80% of the sites that are being suggested to you as weight loss advice. The cherry on top: most people click on the first or second link offered. This is very likely a phenomenon which applies to essentially every topic, a simple Google search of “plastic safety” returns first page results from Babygreenthumb and Mercola, both of which are essentially parroting information that has little scientific basis. Why is Google leading people to bad information?
The reason is the same reason that we frequently see conspiracy or pseudoscientific stuff on Facebook: it has to do with its virality, financial boosting, and ranking based on how interconnected the site is. The fact is, though, that simple but wrong answers carry farther and louder than complex and uncertain realities. People still scream about preliminary research on topics where that very same research has been disproven, for instance in regard to autism and vaccines. These screams are louder and more certain than the calm voices of scientists, and listening to these screams requires not a single ounce of critical thinking or scientific literacy.
Diseases like measles, which is approximately 9 times more contagious than Ebola, are coming back with a vengeance because people have stopped vaccinating against them. Searching “measles statistics” in Google returns a whole bunch of sites repeating the literally disproven thesis that the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine due to “being too much, too fast” overwhelms immune systems and causes autism. Although the MMR vaccine does in fact raise the relative risk of non-infectious fever and seizures, it certainly doesn’t cause autism.
Measles is a pretty nasty, and very contagious, disease. In 2013, there were globally 145,700 global measles deaths: about 400 deaths every day or 16 deaths an hour. Global vaccination programs resulted in a 75% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2013. In populations with high levels of malnutrition and a lack of health care, up to 10% of measles cases result in death. In many countries, ironically not the United States, measles is dying off and with it we are seeing fewer infant deaths and brain damage.
The bad advice of highly unqualified people, discussing a MMR vaccine risk that has been disproven (while, ironically, ignoring the only real risks we know of) is leading to a return of one of the worst childhood diseases that we had almost gotten rid of.
There are literally hundreds of highly successful businesses based entirely on repeating pseudoscientific claims. From The Mind Awakened to CE or BIN, pure unprocessed bullshit overflows from many of the most popular alternative media sites on the internet. There is, from a purely profit-based perspective, absolutely no reason to create original content or to engage in real thought when preparing an article. It pays to simply parrot widespread disinformation, and excuse a lack of transparent science-based sources with either conspiracy rhetoric or links to sites that don’t support the statements being made. So, how do we fix this?
It shouldn’t just be considered unethical to repeat this type of disinformation, or to encourage people not to vaccinate based on autism worries or to groundlessly fearmonger about GMOs, it should be considered illegal when done for profit. Legitimate confusion is tolerable, and the average person not making a dime from their opinion is being less malicious than they are simply being naive. When companies are relying on this type of disinformation and confusion as a central part of their business model, this should be seen as intolerable and illegal.
People making money for online journalism, or blogging, should have a certain responsibility for the content they are hosting and/or posting. Deliberately spreading theories that are outnumbered sometimes more than 50:1 by scientific investigations should at the very least warrant a loss of one’s business license. Had this been the case, I am almost positive more people would know that mutation breeding (so using radiation to change plants) is totally unlabeled and not even genotypically checked to see what changed. Had this been the case, I am positive more people would understand that targeted mutations and protein optimization bear less risk, while providing more possibilities, than other available and often unlabeled methods.
I’m not advocating pretending there are no risks, but I am advocating that risks should not be blown out of proportion while completely ignoring literally all other available science. Writing that “GMOs are proven to cause cancer” is complete disinformation in the face of the 2000+ studies showing the safety of GM foods, plus a lack of any mechanism of action that could possibly lead a gene insertion or targeted mutation to causing cancer.
We cannot get rid of all disinformation, and debate on every topic under the sun will surely continue (and that’s a good thing). What needs to end is profiteering based on the scientific illiteracy and the easy excitability of nervous citizens just searching for answers. I understand that everyone has to pay their rent, but on a higher level: why should we be helping someone finance themselves when they aren’t even willing to provide half-way reliable information in exchange? This has to change, and the answer (in my opinion) is to increase the responsibility a company carries for what they print. Being wrong is fine, but basing your entire business model on being irresponsibly wrong, and not caring about it, is not ok.