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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Walkthrough To Find Credible Souces and Answers to the Controversies of Vaccines, Evolution, Holocaust, and Global Warming

Where do you get your facts?  
Hopefully, a reliable source.
So what's an online reliable source, and how can a regular Joe get a hold of this information?

A very easy way to be confident is to make sure that you're reading from an .edu or .gov page.  One of the easiest (and quickest) ways to find your topic is through the citations on Wikipedia.  Some people doubt the validity of Wikipedia in fear of hecklers.  The nature or self-maintaining issue of Wikipedia aside, the citations at the bottom are a real treasure trove.

It's ok to say I don't know.  It's honorable to say I don't know yet.
There is a tendency for people to choose sides  in controversial issues, to decide what to believe for themselves on a hunch or faith.  Not necessarily religious faith, but especially when a religious or political voice offers alternative explanations.  This is a form of black and white thinking.  By deciding what is real without information from a reliable source, you are ignoring or refusing to accept the validity of precise measurements, also known as data or evidence.

So here we go, 4 issues to tackle quickly.  I'll guide you through it and you'll see how accessible, valuable, legitimate information can be at your fingertips easily.

The topics:
Thank you to those who participated in my latest poll.  For an underdog blog I'm very happy with the turnout.  We got 324 participants who each voted an average of two total options in a list of 4 issues of denialsm, expressing which irked them the most.

Vaccines:               147 votes
Evolution:             197 votes
Holocaust:            159 votes
Global Warming: 128 votes

Follow me now...
Vaccine misconceptions

While typing in Vaccine, Vaccine Controversy is available for auto-suggestion.  Lets do it.
Quick Look:
You see that this issue is, "Is it worth it to get a vaccine?"
"A vaccine controversy is a dispute over the morality, ethics, effectiveness, or safety of vaccinations. Medical and scientific evidence surrounding vaccinations generally demonstrate that the benefits of preventing suffering and death from infectious diseases outweigh rare adverse effects of immunization."

Right after this last sentence are two citations.  Clicking [1] or[ 2] here pops you down to the bottom.  Scroll over and you see each have a link ending in .gov. First:
Quick Look:
"There is increasingly convincing epidemiologic and laboratory evidence against a causal relation of several alleged adverse events following immunization. The scientific framework to detect and investigate adverse events following immunization is increasingly robust.  SUMMARY:  Currently available vaccines are safe in immunocompetent individuals and there is no evidence to deviate from current immunization schedules."

Pretty damn good.  Let's hit up the second link while we're here.
Quick Look:
There's a bit about the research methods, which is encouraging.  Hop down the conclusion:
"The design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing, are largely inadequate. The evidence of adverse events following immunisation with MMR cannot be separated from its role in preventing the target diseases."

So it's worth it.

The controversy over Evolution

You could literally read about the opposing sides for your entire life.  Here's what I mean.
A google search of "Evolution" has 602 million results.
Search "Religion" for 985 million results.
Let's tackle it quickly.
While typing in Creation, Creation–evolution controversy is available for auto-suggestion.  Lets do it.
Quick Look:
The bottom part of the intro offers a quote from the National Academy of Sciences

"Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.
—National Academy of Sciences, Science, Evolution, and Creationism"

Here we see that the issue is rampant amongst fundamentalist religious literalists.  This is really worth going further now.
We click the citation here.
A concise description of this work follows:
"In the book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a group of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine explain the fundamental methods of science, document the overwhelming evidence in support of biological evolution, and evaluate the alternative perspectives offered by advocates of various kinds of creationism, including "intelligent design." The book explores the many fascinating inquiries being pursued that put the science of evolution to work in preventing and treating human disease, developing new agricultural products, and fostering industrial innovations. The book also presents the scientific and legal reasons for not teaching creationist ideas in public school science classes."

This is from the National Academias Press.  With of course a heartwarming .edu link.

There you go.  Evolution is real.  Intermingle it with God if you'd like, just don't deny evolution.

Holocaust Deniers

A speed bump
This topic revolves around a fixed event.  The output of academic releases on WWII was at its height before the internet was around.  The other issues spanning this article are all over the media today still.  Media today, as you know, goes digital pretty much at the same time as hard copy.  For this reason, books, not websites, are the most frequent source of information on the Holocaust.  

Here we go
A very small minority of people claim that the holocaust either didn't happen or that conspiracies have massively overstated claims.  This was brought to the attention of the American media namely due to the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad basically being ridiculous.  (You might also remember his claim that there were absolutely no homosexuals in Iran.)  "On December 11, 2006, the "International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust" opened to widespread condemnation.  The conference, called for by and held at the behest of Ahmadinejad,"

While typing in "Holocaust" Holocaust Denial shows up as an auto-suggestion.  Let's do it.
Quick Look
The citation section is primarily .org's.
In this scenario one can use a nifty trick.  It's a backdoor way to essentially make sure information is coming from an .edu academic source. 

ctrl-F to search for the word University.  31 times in the citation section, the reference is affiliated with a University.
In order to look up these books not available online, one can reference which gives a wide variety of library lookups via ISBN.  The overwhelming number of University publications specifically debunking Holocaust Denialism is then able to be cross referenced over and over.  This does not even address the publications by academic historians on the Holocaust itself.  Publications that have been thoroughly accepted into academia can be accepted as another solid line of inquiry and verification.  The scarcity of holocaust denialism books, papers, and believers in comparison to these might have increased the necessity of this work-around.

Global Warming

While typing Global Warming, Global Warming Controversy is offered as an auto-completion.  Let's see it.
Quick Look
Worth a complete bold.
"In the scientific literature, there is a strong consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused mainly by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. No scientific body of national or international standing disagrees with this view...Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and scientists are more than 90% certain most of it is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels.  These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all the major industrialized countries."
The VERY first reference down in the citations section is great.  It allows you to get the pdf straight from this site, which is wonderful.  
Here's the full entry for citation [1]

 ^ Boykoff, M.; Boykoff, J. (2004). "Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press1" (Full free text). Global Environmental Change Part A 14 (2): 125–136. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2003.10.001 

This is good stuff.  You have a link to the .pdf here, along with the doi code and date.
Pdf's, or rather 1st generation new source papers can be a goldmine.  This is generally preferred when looking for credible information if: it's either brand spanking new, or if it's an analysis of a series of repeated experiments with test results scrutinized in order to compile a consensus.

By opening this PDF, we see it's a paper on Global Environment Change.
It's being hosted on .  For those who know that site, its a damn good source for academic info.  Sometimes they require you to pay to read articles though.

Right at the top we have our scientists and their universities.
Maxwell T. Boykoffa, Jules M. Boykoffb
Environmental Studies Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA b Department of Government, American University, P.O. Box 27, St Mary’s City, MD 20686, USA

A paper this this is a great find and is also interesting.  Here and there he'll mention facts and studies that back up the claims he's making with citations.  He's focussing on journalist practices when the topic of global warming comes up.  Follow up the cites there if you wish...
The Rabbit Hole Can Always Go Deeper...

Search Global Warming now to wrap up the issue.
Straight out of the gates we have our issue and a citation.
Quick Look
"Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans and its projected continuation. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F) with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades.  [here they reiterate most of a paragraph seen on the Global Warming Controversy page]"
Their VERY FIRST citation gets us on our way.
Quick Look
This is a common but differet type of page you'll come across when doing this kind of thing.  As you can see it's NASA's .gov site.  This type of page gives you concise data.  And that's pretty much it unless you're lucky.  This is the kind of data that gets looked over and then eventually comes to a paper.  Downward on Earth Observatory's page you can see a link for
Global Warming Factsheet

A page such as this one is a holy grail to the quest we're currently on.
Incoming--Massive quote

"What is Global Warming?

"Global warming is the unusually rapid increase in Earth’s average surface temperature over the past century primarily due to the greenhouse gases released by people burning fossil fuels.

Earth has experienced climate change in the past without help from humanity. But the current climatic warming is occurring much more rapidly than past warming events.
Why Do Scientists Think Current Warming Isn’t Natural?
In Earth’s history before the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s climate changed due to natural causes unrelated to human activity. These natural causes are still in play today, but their influence is too small or they occur too slowly to explain the rapid warming seen in recent decades.
How Much More Will Earth Warm?
Models predict that as the world consumes ever more fossil fuel, greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to rise, and Earth’s average surface temperature will rise with them. Based on plausible emission scenarios, average surface temperatures could rise between 2°C and 6°C by the end of the 21st century. Some of this warming will occur even if future greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, because the Earth system has not yet fully adjusted to environmental changes we have already made.
How Will Earth Respond to Warming Temperatures?
The impact of global warming is far greater than just increasing temperatures. Warming modifies rainfall patterns, amplifies coastal erosion, lengthens the growing season in some regions, melts ice caps and glaciers, and alters the ranges of some infectious diseases. Some of these changes are already occurring."

The data has been measured.  The evidence, rolling around the brains of our brightest scientists, get analyzed, solidified, peer reviewed.  Eventually you're get your general consensus.

But without doing this, who would be telling you what the general consensus is?  Yahoo News really likes reality TV shows, but cnn belief blog told me transcendental meditiation has many benefits.  There are, like, these magnetic bracelets, like, going around.... I wonder if they really work like they claim.   I remember someone saying something about a placebo effect, a self-fulfilling prophesy... I don't know.  Well, when the issue hits you, decide then and use your gut, your intuition, helped by a little bit of "educated guessing" from, say, recent clips from the news radio or television, maybe a magazine. Or some sign in the median of the road with a name on it that says "vote."

Bonhoeffer J, & Heininger U (2007). Adverse events following immunization: perception and evidence. Current opinion in infectious diseases, 20 (3), 237-46 PMID: 17471032

Demicheli V, Jefferson T, Rivetti A, & Price D (2005). Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (4) PMID: 16235361

Committee on Revising Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2008). Science, Evolution, and Creationism The National Academies Press : 9780309105866

Boykoff, M., & Boykoff, J. (2004). Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press Global Environmental Change, 14 (2), 125-136 DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2003.10.001

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  1. The ".edu or .gov" rule of thumb seems to me to be a bit less useful than you suggest--and your own methods suggest starting with ".org" sites like Wikipedia. On two of the topics you list, the most comprehensive sites of reliable information are ".org" for the creation/evolution debate, and on Holocaust denial. One of the most reliable sites for factual information about the physical basis of climate change is the IPCC WG1 report, which is on a ".ch" site ( Further, most of the scientific literature is itself available online via ".com" websites. But what I think you're right about is that academic institutions and government sites typically have some mechanisms of review before publication, and are concerned about reputation for accuracy in a way that ".com" sites may not be--though that is only a rule of thumb.

    Some of the characteristics I look for are:

    * Does the site publish, link to, and respond to criticisms?
    * Does the site point out the errors of opponents in a way that can be verified?
    * Does the site own up to its own errors and mistakes?
    * Are the site's authors recognized experts in a professional field related to the topic?
    * Does the site have an ideological basis for its positions?
    * Does the site or do its authors stand to gain financially from the positions advocated?

  2. Thanks very much for this interesting tutorial. I also agree with the constructive criticisms offered by Jim Lippard.

    The article here describes a process that would certainly be better than what most people apparently do. Still it could be significantly improved on if people invest a little more time and attention to their evaluation, and that's really the name of the game when it comes to analyzing arguments and sorting through controversies.

    Stepping back from both our natural biases and the ones deliberately leveraged by advocacy sources, in order to weigh the evidence where we can and the legitimacy and perspectives of observers and experts where appropriate.

    Jim's criteria take a little more time and effort to apply but I agree with him that they are likely to provide a significant gain in source reliability, especially for very sticky issues.


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