COMMENTARY: Why the Origin of Information Matters

The peer review system is designed to be self-corrective. It works to continually check the quality of work—even after it is published—through ongoing review by experts who have the tools to assess what is and isn’t accurate and honest.

Have you ever thought about the sources of your information? Where and by whom was the information you take as fact generated? And what’s the difference between getting information from Uncle Joe’s UFO and The Conspiracy Truth Emporium website and a highly cited study from the New England Journal of Medicine? Better still, can you say you know the difference between these two sources of information and what makes them different?

Regardless, for the moment, let’s look at shoes. So, you buy a new pair of shoes, and just by looking at the box, you can know where they were made. Now, if you wish to go further, you might even be able to find out in what country and city your shoes were made. From there, you can even go a step further and find out who supplied that factory with the materials for your shoes. And at that point, you might be able to find the origins of the materials for those shoes. In other words, theoretically, it’s possible to track down the origin of your new shoes. Although, as with any form of knowledge, there are limits on what we can know and, thus, how far we can trace the origins.

Contrast that example with an old myth:We only use 10% of our brain.” Perhaps you first heard it from a friend or from the movie Lucy (2014). You might have even heard it from a teacher because there is evidence that about 50% of primary and secondary teachers believe that myth. Fair enough, but we should also ask where that friend or teacher obtained the information. Perhaps it was from another friend or teacher. But then, where did that person get their information? Was it just other people, or was it from a research article, a newspaper report, or maybe a science fiction film that sounded plausible? And how long has that statement been around? Was it formulated in the last few years, or have people thought this since the Ancient Egyptians? Chances are good that you have no clue where this myth originated and who started it.

Now let’s consider the average conspiracy theory. Many are confident knowing that their information came from Uncle Joe’s UFO and The Conspiracy Truth Emporium website. They’ll likely assure you that the information they got from Uncle Joe’s is just as legitimate as your typical scholarly article and that it’s top-secret level stuff, only available to those who can “handle the actual truth.” The belief one can handle the truth might be alluring to the ego, but a problem remains, “Where did that information come from originally?

The idea that vaccines cause autism is a good example of how pernicious a failure to understand the origin of information can be. The myth can be traced to an article published in the reputable journal The Lancet in 1998. However, if you do a bit of digging, you’ll find that only 12 children were involved in the published study, and that’s (inarguably) not much of a sample. Yet, 12 years later, the article turned thousands against vaccines. The Lancet retracted it because it was incorrect and contrary to findings of earlier (and better) investigations.

Mistakes happen even in the rigorous peer review process. That’s why tracing the origin and development of an idea is so important. Many people continue to believe that there is a correlation between vaccines and autism, even though the idea has been debunked and the paper was retracted by the journal that published it.

You can’t privilege that an article was published over the fact that the same article was retracted. Retracting an article is embarrassing to a reputable journal, meaning they screwed up publicly. When a journal retracts it, it is a significant commentary on a research paper. It tells us the paper was not valid.

And this is where the problem lies. Information is not like other things we source. Information is not like food, which spoils and renders itself unusable, and information doesn’t rust, decay, or explicitly indicate age like other things do. For example, many platitudes and colloquialisms appear as completely new quotes to people simply because they haven’t heard them before. If you say that somebody “is all decked out,” you’re referring to a modern American phrase about clothing, right? Wrong! It originated between 1200 and 1500 CE in The Netherlands and was used in Middle Dutch to describe being covered.

Even in the history field, which many assume to be quite complete, we often find raging and ongoing debates about whether something happened the way we think it did. Much information is not closed because a good share is in the form of theories, and it is still being debated. Major historical figures, such as Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates, Lao Tzu, and King Arthur, are still under the scope of debate on whether they existed.

Okay, so now you say, “So what?” What difference does it make whether you know the origin of a given information? Do I need to know where my damn shoes came from? What difference will it make to how they do what I bought them for? Or course, this might be fine in the case of shoes. Or not. Well, what if you learned that your shoes were made by children working under oppressive conditions? Might that not give you something to think about in relation to the source of your shoes? And then, of course, how do you know that the description you find about the makers of your shoes is accurate?

In short, there is an abundance of information available on the Internet, which demands we ask which is likely to be right and which should be discarded. Can anybody just put out any information they want without any consequences?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Thus, the whole issue comes down to the skin in the game. That is to say, who has something to lose should they publish fraudulent or erroneous material? Will Uncle Joe’s Conspiracy website go down if he is found to publish fraudulent material? Probably not. It may well expand due to numerous hits. So, then, who does stand to lose? The answer is scholars.

Academics who publish false material face loss of reputation, professional penalties, loss of employment, and even jail time if they publish fraudulent information/results. To illustrate this, one need only look up scientific misconduct incidents. There have been many incidents ranging from image manipulation to stealing ideas, data falsification, and academics forging their letters of recommendation to secure faculty positions. The inquisitive nature of academia might let a few frauds slip through for the moment, but once others get a hold of the data, discrepancies will be brought to light, and those finding them won’t be quiet about it.

And that is why you should trust academic work over Uncle Joe’s or most of whatever you find online. Fraud happens. Lies happen. Cheating happens. But the system of peer review is designed to be self-corrective. It works to continually check the quality of work—even after it is published—through ongoing review by experts who have the tools to assess what is/isn’t accurate and honest.

Where one obtains information matters. Did that theory come from a couple of kumbayaers sitting around a campfire with nine bong hits in? Or did it come from a scholar who has something to lose if they get it wrong? Are you sure that the scroll came from 9000 BCE? Or does carbon dating data suggest it was from a year ago, made in a basement and stained by soaking in tea overnight?

Using information sources from those with something to lose if they are fraudulent is a far better/more reliable approach than depending on people and websites that throw around unsubstantiated ideas with nebulous origins but who will profit from their circulation.

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