Image: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

How To Research In The Misinformation Age

Intelligence isn’t just being right; it’s knowing when you’re wrong.

We live in a world where being wrong is bad. It’s all about being right and making sure the world knows it. But what if I told you that being wrong is part and parcel of what it means to be intelligent. Because once you know you’re wrong, you will almost always strive to be right. And when you’re right… you’re just right.

But knowing whether you’re wrong or right is mind-boggling in the digital age. We have so much information at our fingertips and only so much experience to make sense of it all. Not to mention the amount of misinformation circling the world wide web. Mix in influential influencers who will say practically anything to generate income, and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem!

Be Intelligent

But there is a way to overcome all this confusion — where you can avoid misinformation traps and spiralling conspiracy theories — and that’s by being intelligent. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything — that is an impossible task, even for those with high IQs — it just means knowing when you’re right and knowing when you’re wrong.

It also means knowing when you don’t know.

Take Covid-19, for instance. There are still so many people out there who believe Covid-19 isn’t a big deal. That we are locking down cities for no good reason and that it’s all a government ploy to gain control. Interestingly, almost all of them are not qualified to be doctors or scientists — and yet, through unclear Googling and algorithm-led YouTube spirals, they seem to think they know the truth.

Now, I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist, so I am in the same boat as those who spread misinformation about Covid-19. The only difference is the way we research and make our minds up. I learned how to research through a communications degree at university, majoring in journalism. And the most important thing to know when researching is that the truth is never black and white — it’s a whole lot of grey.

To make matters worse, there is the whole truth and a whole lot of half-truths — with the latter being spread as misinformation. Yes, misinformation can be true, but it is wildly misleading.

In my research around the Covid-19 vaccines, the half-truth is you can still catch Covid-19 while fully vaccinated. But another truth is that being fully vaccinated means you are far less likely to be hospitalized or die from it. If you focus on the former, chances are you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of misinformation, where you’ll miss the whole truth. Because the whole truth is that Covid-19 vaccines are effective at helping your immune system beat the virus if you are exposed to it. And if you are less sick, this means you are less contagious. This means you are less likely to spread the virus if you’re fully vaccinated.

Be Selective

Another part of being intelligent requires you to be picky with where you get your information. As a trained journalist, I know that it would be more valuable to interview someone with a medical degree over this current pandemic than some opinionated person whose entire knowledge of Covid-19 is through social media and selective Google searches.

This is also why I don’t rely on tabloid news outlets for specific information. News is, by definition, an industry that uncovers current affairs that are in the public interest. They hold those in power to account and strive to get to the crux of every story. But unless a journalist specialises in a particular field, they are as knowledgeable as any other layperson.

So, if I want to learn more about Covid-19 or vaccines, it would be much more fruitful to read industry-specific websites. If I wish to get highly technical, I could even read through peer-reviewed articles. My point is, we should be selective with where we get our information — and not just through industry-specific websites, but even with the authors who write for them.

As a trained journalist, I can honestly say that everyone I interview has an agenda. They want everyone to know what they know. And sometimes it’s for the good of the community, but other times it’s sponsored content. Or they have a vested interest in sharing their story.

On top of this, everyone has varied opinions about everything and are just as human as you and I. This could mean that some doctors are better at their profession than others and that some doctors may know more about certain medical issues than others. A virologist or epidemiologist may know a great deal more about Covid-19 than your local GP.

So it pays to be a little selective with where you get your information. Ask yourself who is saying it, and question why they are saying it.

Be Skeptical

There’s nothing wrong with being unsure. It’s safer than being wrong. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with being wrong, either. Knowing you’re wrong is the first step towards being right.

But to save yourself from being wrong, it pays to be skeptical about everything you don’t know. Because when you’re skeptical, you are less likely to spread misinformation. It also gives you the opportunity to learn more about something so you can have a more nuanced perspective.

So be skeptical about everything you don’t know. Ask yourself if the information you’ve received is valuable. And strive to uncover the whole truth instead of a selective version of the truth.

Feature image: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

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