Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Evaluating Information: The Impact of Major, Class Standing, and Experience with Primary Literature

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Evaluating Information: The Impact of Major, Class Standing, and Experience with Primary Literature

Article excerpt

In a systematic review, Moorhead et al. (2013) identified several benefits of social media for health-related communication, including increased accessibility of health information, the potential for enhanced emotional support, and the possibility of improved public health surveillance. Furthermore, social media can be used effectively to engage the public and communicate health-related messages. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, for example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used Facebook to educate the public about the disease and the importance of vaccination (Kass-Hout & Alhinnawi, 2013).

Unfortunately, social media platforms and other internet sites can propagate inaccurate or misleading information (Moorhead et al., 2013; Rutsaert et al., 2013). In some cases, facts may be combined with half-truths to generate "informational blends" (Bessi et al., 2015; Rojecki & Meraz, 2014). Consequently, the unregulated environment of the internet encourages speculation, rumors, and mistrust in the scientific/ medical establishment (Del Vicario et al., 2016; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). Recently, in the midst of a particularly bad flu season, an article with the title "CDC Doctor: 'Disastrous' Flu Shot Is Causing Deadly Flu Outbreak" was published online. The article quoted an anonymous doctor at the CDC who claimed that the common denominator for people dying of the flu was the fact that they all had received flu shots. The entire story was a fabrication, yet it went viral on the internet (Keslar, 2018). Likewise, stories promoting "alternative" cancer treatments reach millions of readers online, even though actual laboratory research suggests that the use of alternative treatments instead of conventional care could double the risk of death from cancer (Johnson, Park, Gross, & Yu, 2018).

False information is easily disseminated online. On Twitter, the top 1% of false stories can reach as many as 100,000 people, but accurate stories rarely reach 1,000. Although true stories may inspire joy or sadness, fake stories tend to inspire fear or disgust. Those stories are much more likely to be retweeted (Vosoughi, Roy, & Aral, 2018). Once the false information is out there, it can be difficult to eradicate. Online campaigns meant to debunk erroneous ideas have actually reinforced the misconceptions through a phenomenon known as the "backfire effect." Criticism can increase the familiarity of myths, overwhelm believers with too much information, or threaten the overarching worldview held by those advocating the myths (Bessi et al., 2015; Cook & Lewandowsky, 2011). Internet users tend to be embedded in "homogeneous clusters." Their sense of identity may be greatly influenced by politics or religion, and these group allegiances can promote the formation of narratives that are self-confirming (Del Vicario et al., 2016; Stover, 2014).

Between January 2015 and June 2016, a group of researchers at Stanford University administered surveys to middle school, high school, and college students across 12 states to assess the ability to evaluate information on the internet. For example, college students at six universities were asked to: (a) decide if certain websites could be trusted, (b) verify online claims about controversial topics, (c) identify strengths and weaknesses of online videos, and (d) indicate whether specific tweets were reliable sources of information. Results of the surveys indicated that students, in general, are unable to critically evaluate internet content. Although students may be "fluent" in social media, they cannot effectively judge the information they find online. Many students made broad statements about the dangers of social media, without actually investigating the online content (Wineburg McGrew, Breakstone, & Ortega, 2016).

Davis and Elkins College (D&E) is a small, private liberal arts college that emphasizes small class sizes and strong faculty-student interactions. …

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