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The Age of Misinformation, Part 3: Debunking Hallowed Ground – Medical Research October 30, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in education, InformationIssues, Of Interest.
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Today I experienced one of those small miracles where it seems like the entire universe has converged to say “Yes, I agree with you!” when I was e-mailed an article that expresses everything I have been examining and thinking for the last 8 months–“can any medical-research studies be trusted?” In recent months I have become increasingly involved in researching various medical discussions. While initially disgusted by the number of the people quoting statistics and “they say” aphorisms on the internet without citing any kind of research, my turn to peer-reviewed medical journals, government agencies, and well-established professional societies seemed promising. Boy was I wrong.

The first problem I encountered was a marked dearth of research on certain topics even when preliminary research and letters to the editor stressed the need for follow-up studies. Why had no one taken on the topics so easily presented to them?

My second problem was faulty or insufficient research. How were “peer-reviewed” journals approving studies that used narrow demographics or extremely limited participants as their population of study? And what about the literature reviews and topic analyses that incorporated data over ten years old (or older)? How about the number of studies that measure long-term effects of a drug/procedure when the “long-term” lasts six months?

The final straw was the directly contradictory data between comparable research studies. What could account for one study claiming that vaccinating pregnant women in the third trimester prevents influenza in newborns 63% of the time, while another study claims that the protection is negligible (both supplying method and hard numbers)? While the bias of certain professional organizations (often funded by pharmaceutical companies) was obvious in some, even bias cannot sway hard numbers, or so I believed.

So when “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” by David H. Freeman in the November issue of the Atlantic showed up in my inbox, I was more than thrilled to know I was not alone. The article follows self-proclaimed “meta-researcher” John Ioannidis who, along with his team, has proven, “that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong.”

We have become so accustomed to the way doctors, nutritionists, and scientists later retract studies, or the refutation of older studies by newer ones, that we rarely question why this has happened. Most people, I would surmise, make the assumption that science and research have improved over time and thus provided us with new evidence and information. But, according to Ioannidis, this is not the case. Faulty research, again and again, is. The common errors he lists range from “what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals.”

Does this mean scientists and researchers are lazy? Ignorant? Inherently evil? Why would such important and literally life-altering work be composed so shoddily? Bias. (Hmm…sound familiar?) Turns out that even unintentionally, bias has a way of making itself into every step of the research process, influencing outcomes greatly and it doesn’t matter if this bias is self-inflicted or the product of an outside pressure such as those funding the research. (I cannot help but to point out the irony here, in that we must question whether bias played a role in Ioannidis’ research on research.) And while bias is the source of the faulty research, a number of factors perpetuate the misinformation, including sensationalism, lack of thorough research (i.e. ignoring/missing later refuting studies), and lack of duplication of the experiment.

So what is the point of research refuting research? I’ll stop summarizing the article and give you a chance to decide for yourself. But let me leave you with this last thought: Ioannidis’ research, like medical research, provokes us to examine things we held to be true. And just like medical research, it seems to come up short, leaving us with the question, “well what can we do about it?” Perhaps further research is needed. ; )

The Age of Misinformation: Part 2 October 20, 2010

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There was recently an interesting conversation on (my new obsession) the Brian Lehrer Show (broadcast on WNYC and via XM’s NPR channel 134) on the prevalent and growing bias in news coverage. The host and his guest were discussing CNN‘s decline in ratings over recent years due to, they surmised, the outlet’s attempt to remain neutral. On the other hand, stations like NBC, CBS, and Fox News Channel are gaining popularity as the former two are known for leaning liberal and the latter, notoriously conservative. It seems, historically as well as recently, that people tend to seek out information that agrees with their own belief systems, better known as confirmation bias. I know I am as guilty of this as the next person.

So is there a danger in watching solely Fox or only NBC? Does such a practice really perpetuate our enemy–misinformation? An exhaustive study on confirmation bias done by Raymond S. Nickerson of Tufts University would overwhelmingly say yes. Nickerson’s research (presented in a 46 page paper) claims that confirmation bias, “can contribute to delusions of many sorts, to the development and survival of superstitions,and to a variety of undesirable states of mind, including paranoia and depression. It can be exploited…to press unsubstantiated claims.”  Nickerson later discusses another problem compounded by confirmation bias–inadequate research. Nickerson argues that confirmation bias leads people to accept the first plausible solution to a problem rather than to engage in thorough research. This, in turn, leads to a phenomenon that he will neither categorize as positive or negative–the perseverance of long-held beliefs.

You know you are guilty of it whether you’re a Democrat wincing at the site of Fox News Channel or a Republican who will only watch Fox News. You were probably also aware (on some level) that this is not the most intellectually engaging way of consuming information. So what are you going to do about it? Let me know in what ways we can all attempt to heal the growing divisiveness of American political television and thus thwart the pandemic of Misinformation!

The Age of Misinformation October 18, 2010

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Alas, here I am after months of avoiding blogging. The problem is that my head has been way too caught up with personal matters. But more recently I find myself time and time again consumed with anger during routine Google searches and so it is that I turn to the more savvy netizens (our fickle and fleeting reader base?) to uphold and support my cause–the death of Yahoo! Answers.

As a librarian and self-declared “information specialist” I have no problem admitting that I frequently turn to Wikipedia. While it is certainly no Encyclopedia Britannica, there are references that one can check. So when Wikipedia is returned by Google as the first or second hit, I can deal with it.

However, when Yahoo! Answers is returned in the first page of results (as it increasingly is) I wince inside, and then click on it. I can’t help it. It’s like driving past an accident; you can’t help but look. Not only have I found numerous highly-biased erroneous answers voted “best” by fellow commenters, but the subject matter of the questions concerns me even more. As a pregnant woman who often uses the internet to find quick answers (knowing, of course, that calling the doctor is the best and final way to go), I am shocked by how many people ask crucial, health-related questions.

What are the requirements for people submitting answers? There are none. And to add insult to injury, Yahoo! supplements answers with responses from their “Knowledge Partners”, aka corporate sponsors. As much as we librarians and savvier internet users try to stress the inaccuracy and dubiousness of such sites to our more trusting friends, we are often shrugged off as fuddy-duddy Luddites (have I mentioned I’m 27 by the way?). At the risk of sounding like a sensationalist, isn’t this just another step (or large leap) in the “dumbing down” of our country? I plead with you, as a fellow American, don’t click on Yahoo! Answers; don’t support it. And maybe someday in the not-so-distant-future it will just be a bad memory!

Should the Digital Divide Be Closed? June 23, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in education, InformationIssues.
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Interesting bit from the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website, pointing to a new study that is showing a statistically significant DECREASE in math and reading test scores among students with home computer and internet access.

Meanwhile, students with limited access to computers and internet did not experience this statistical decrease. Does this mean that we should not be working to close the digital divide? That we should not be trying to make computers and internet accessible to every child?

Another point found in the study was that students who had computers and internet at home, but were limited in usage due to “more effective parental monitoring” did not experience the same negative effect on test scores. Perhaps the children in these households put the technology and internet access to more productive uses?

This study is seems to indicate that computers, internet and technology are not only not a magic pill to increase test scores, but without the proper guidance, may be a distraction and hindrance to students’ academic performance.

Does this mean that we should not close the “digital divide”? What do you think?

Burritos for Posterity April 15, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in InformationIssues, Uncategorized.
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That headline would make a good band name or maybe a charitable organization. It’s only tangentially related to this post, but too fun to change. Onward.

Here’s some scary news: The Library of Congress is archiving ALL public Tweets. Yikes!

I’d advise Tweeters to heed the warning of the article linked above:

So if you don’t want history to remember that burrito you had for dinner last night (and its aftermath), tweet carefully—now it’s for posterity.

UPDATE: Here is the Twitter Blog post about the LOC archiving project. Not too much more detail (nor answers to any of the questions in the comments) but there is an additional announcement of another new Twitter feature. “Google Replay” will allow users to search for old tweets on topics from the past and view them as if being tweeted in real time. They include charts showing the volume of tweets on a topic at any time… reminiscent of a conversation we have had in the past about viewing peaks in internet searches or newspaper website visits in the aftermath of major events.

RIP Net Neutrality April 6, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in InformationIssues.
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This is a great summary of the Comcast v. FCC case about Net Neutrailty. Unfortunately, today the decision came down on Comcast’s side. I don’t support piracy, but I’m a big fan of legal sites like Hulu. I’m not looking forward to the consequences of this decision, i.e. probably having to pay more for my internet access if I want to watch TV online. What do you think?

A Digital Archive in the Real World March 3, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues, Technology can do anything, Uncategorized.
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When you think of digital archives you probably think of computer files and, more particularly, scanned copies of ancient documents or photographs of ephemera. But Emory University has taken digital archives to the next level–collecting the “born digital” records of famous writers in the form they were created. For example, they have recently acquired world-renowned writer Salman Rushdie’s “[not only] one hundred linear feet of his paper material, including diaries, notebooks, library books, first-edition novels, notes scribbled on napkins, but also forty thousand files and eighteen gigabytes of data on a Mac desktop, three Mac laptops, and an external hard drive” (Emory Magazine).  Other universities are fast adopting the trend. Harvard University has acquired John Updike’s floppy disks and the University of Texas at Austin has the “nicotine-stained laptop used by Norman Mailer’s longtime assistant, Judith McNally, as well as more than 350 computer disks, forty-seven electronic files including email, forty CDs, two other laptops, and a magnetic tape spool” (Emory Magazine). While the shift from collecting more “traditional” archival material is exciting it comes at a cost. Archivists steeped in centuries of traditions and practices will have to quickly come up with new ways to deal with the materials.

Salman Rushdie aka the love of my life

First and foremost is the problem of accessibility. Few people can access a floppy disk nowadays. Even if the institution has a machine that can read such a format, how long will this machine remain operable or even repairable? Obsolescence has always been a big issue in preservation as well as preserving damaged goods. Don’t think that digital archives are exempt from fire and age damage. One of Rushdie’s donations was a computer he had spilled coffee on and deemed as irreparable. Luckily, Emory’s IT team extracted pertinent files from the machine and saved them in newer formats. Inevitably, this will continue to be the struggle – to preserve and to maintain access.

Another challenge (oh the headache!) will be how to organize and catalog the information so that researchers can access what they need without needlessly sorting through thousands of data files. I believe this is a place where digital archives will be given the chance to thrive. With actual text already digitized it should be easy to keyword search them, something few, if any, traditional archival materials could boast.

What’s most important about this new trend is that the work of seminal American (and international) authors will be preserved, unadulterated, for future generations. Please check out the full article in the Emory Magazine here.

Chinese Censorship Visualized February 12, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues.
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Google’s fall out with China that dominated headlines in mid-January was a reminder to everyone that access to information is an important part of democracy and a free society. Google’s agreement, to block certain sites within China, is a hallmark in our technologically-dependent world and should not go without discussion.  This amazing infographic from Informationisbeautiful.net displays the keywords and websites blocked in China. Some of the things that stuck out to me were: nhl.com, YouTube, democracy.com, digg.com –I mean, what are these people doing at work? Being productive? All kidding aside, this graphic is an important reminder as to why we should continually fight for free and open access to information.

Check out the annotated version on the Guardian datablog here.

Can Social Media Break Through the Paywall? February 5, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in InformationIssues.
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Newspapers have been struggling to maintain revenue and readership, as readers have replaced their print subscriptions with free online resources. Notably, the New York Times recently announced it was considering putting its online content behind a paywall, meaning it would only be available to subscribers. This comes following a number of other print media sources installing paywalls, including the Wall Street Journal.

But these days, social media plays a huge role in the spread of all kinds of media, whether it is a video going viral, or a news scoop breaking on CNN’s Twitter feed, or an announcement of award nominees on the Oscars’ Facebook Page.

That’s because people like to be connected and find things in common. Before the Internet, before TV, before radio, before paper even, people would gather and spread the news or stories. The only reason some of the ancient classics have survived was because of the oral tradition of gathering together and repeating stories over and over through the ages.

Now, I’m not even remotely trying to claim that we need to be able to share news through social media for posterity, just pointing out that it is in man’s nature to want to share the things he finds interesting (at least that’s how it seems to me).  Whether it is through Facebook or Twitter, or even e-mail, sharing links to interesting stories or funny pictures, or current events – its a way of connecting with each other.

For better or for worse, more and more the electronic connections are replacing the face-to-face connections, or even the voice-to-voice. It’s not just kids and teenagers either – email and instant messaging have replaced walking down the hall in offices, and texting has replaced phone calls for many people. With many of my friends (if they can even still be called that) the only interaction we have any more is sharing articles and bits of information found on the internet with each other, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or even this blog.

You might be surprised to know that I am actually a proponent of Intellectual Property Laws. I understand why and how they are are intended to work to promote progress and the proliferation of information, when not abused to prevent it. Maybe I’ll try and explain it someday, but for now, lets just say I get why the newspapers feel not only the need, but the right to limit access to their content. And I’m not going to argue that I would feel differently if it was my company that was hemorrhaging profits while giving away product for free. However, knowing how people interact with their news and their media, and their sharing sites, it still seems to me refusing to allow users to share content is a mistake.

This article points out that newspapers who put their content behind a paywall, do in fact see a drop in traffic to their site, which in turn leads to less revenue from advertising. Can the revenue generated by subscription fees make up that difference? We’ll have to wait and see… But, the problem of sharing still remains… how many users will want to subscribe and support a site that doesn’t allow them to share their favorite topics?

Information is Power, But Do We Want Everyone to Have Power? February 2, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues.
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Sir Francis Bacon first said that, “knowledge is power”. And if knowledge can be equated with information then people have never had as much power as they have now. Information is everywhere and proliferating at an exponential rate. Information can be used for good or ill. It can be used to create a weapon, produce and disseminate illegal drugs, or unleash biological weapons. It can be used to learn about our environment, our bodies, and to help us understand how to live peacefully by not repeating history’s mistakes. These are ideas we have all grown up with. They are trite, but true. For thousands of years information was withheld from certain classes; it was the privilege of the rich to be educated and literate. Even libraries, for many years, were elitist clubs, the membership paid by its rich clientele. Nowadays we believe we have a right to information. We demand it both from our government (i.e. the Freedom of Information Act), our banks, our credit cards, even commercials whose disclaimers have grown to laughable lengths. We crave this access to information because we know it protects us. But what if this transparency has its downfalls? What if this transparency gives not only terrorists the power to fly commercial airliners but enables “a crippling attack on computer and telecommunications networks”, as the New York Times reports intelligence agents told lawmakers yesterday, stating that “an increasingly sophisticated group of enemies has ‘severely threatened’ the sometimes fragile systems undergirding the country’s information systems.” New Scientist, in mid-January published an article expounding the same fears. With its usual alarmist gusto, New Scientist asked, “Are we in danger of knowing too much?”, citing specific examples of public knowledge that could be used in catastrophically fatal ways, such as the publishing of a virus’s genome.

A t-shirt design from cafepress.com

While the New York Times and New Scientist ask these seemingly novel questions, these are the exact questions we have been asked to mull over and debate in library school. I particularly remember one class where the professor asked us if a public library should carry “The Anarchist Cookbook.” Being the militant liberals we are, we mostly agreed that the it was the duty of the public library to carry such a book and furthermore, that librarians should not question those who borrow it.  Perhaps you don’t agree with my argument and that of Francis Bacon. Perhaps you think books are innocuous. Then why then did the Patriot Act “expand[ed] the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement to gain access to… library records, including stored electronic data and communications” (ala.org). And why have most libraries, since the inception of the act, changed their databases to automatically erase the records of their patrons? Who are we? Potential terrorist sympathizers or the militant guardians of free and equal access to information? In the world of 2010 are we the enemies or the last bastions of intellectual freedom? What do you think?

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