Never in the history of human kind has so much information been readily available. Sadly, this also means that never in the history of human kind has so much inaccurate information been readily available. When I say this, you know I am talking about the Internet. While the Internet has brought us, as a society, the ability to instantly access information, it has also brought the ability for anyone to create information. This ability to instantly create and disseminate information isn’t all bad, but it is a double-edged sword. Consequently, cultivating critical thinking skills has never been more important than it is today.
To be clear, I love the Internet. Having been a nerd before nerds were cool, I found my people there along with all manner of geeky stuff that no one else wanted to talk about with me at the time. But, like any place physical or virtual, it pays to be smart about your travels and to know that not all sources of information are trustworthy.
For example, who among us hasn’t paged Dr. Google? I’ll admit to this – and whether an infected hangnail or sore knee Dr. Google usually at some point tells me whatever is ailing me is probably going to kill me. Not helpful, Dr. Google – not helpful. So why even look online for this information? Well, there are a number of reasons – researching health online is immediate and when you are up at 2am with a mysterious ache or pain you probably want that information right now. Also, researching health information online is anonymous. Some health challenges are intensely personal, and bringing a library book about that challenge up to the checkout desk – even though our staff are committed to protecting your privacy – can be daunting.
There is good health information online, the difficult part is sifting what is reliable from what is not. Online health information from accredited health care institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, and Sunnybrook Hospital – to name a few – is usually very reliable. As is health information from your local Health Unit and Health Canada, as well as information available through academic resources such as PubMed. However, there are some popular sources out there that require a critical eye because they rely on user generated content that anyone, expert or not, can contribute to. Finally, there are downright deceiving resources – the online equivalent of selling snake-oil – that masquerade as legitimate health and wellness news sites, but provide advice that is inaccurate at best and harmful at worse.
So how do you avoid getting bad health advice online? Well, considering your sources is the first start. Is the source reliable? Is the author an expert? Is the information current? Also, rather than searching Google, you might want to try some of the databases available on our website. Go to haliburtonlibrary.ca and click on “Online Research” in the Quick Links on the right. There, under Health and Wellness, we have Consumer Health Complete and Teen Health and Wellness. Both of these databases have information that has been vetted by professionals and written for you. They cover topics such as mental health, chronic conditions, prescription drugs, sexuality, and nutrition. As well, they are available from the privacy of your home computer – all you need is an internet connection and to access them via the link on our website.
Critically evaluating what you read isn’t just limited to online health information. All information – whether in books, peer-reviewed articles, online resources, or blogs – needs to be considered for tone, bias, purpose, accuracy, and appropriateness for your situation. It does pay, however, to start out on the right foot by visiting sources that you know you can trust, as well as verifying that information using multiple resources. At HCPL we have a wide variety of resources for you to find the information you need. So next time you ask Google remember to also check out the library – to get your facts straight.
*Originally published in County Life March 2016.