How come everyone’s an expert according to their writings on social media?

Over the last years the media landscape has changed, and whilst internet is a blessing that helps us tremendously, we haven’t really gotten much time to learn, adapt and understand what that means for our interaction with information presented on said internet. Internet and maybe particularly social media has opened up a fantastic channel for us “regular citizens” to become journalists, writers, participate in debates, spread our knowledge, connect and discuss and so on. But…. we’re still human and humans will go where their feelings go and if a piece of information evokes strong feelings we will react strongly and probably interact with the information, maybe even share and spread it. So far no worries? Nah, not entirely! Because when someone does something with a piece of information that is based on, or strongly attached to, their feelings about that information the information could easily turn into an opinion. And spreading ones opinion is perfectly fine as long as it’s clear that it is a piece of personal opinion and not un-biased information and/or facts.

Enter science, scientific methods and scientific research. With internet the availability to this type of information has become so much easier, most of us can nowadays search for and identify scientific articles of our interest if we want to, how much of the article we actually will read may vary and so may also the accessibility to the entire article. Working with data using a scientific method is an attempt to proof the research data from being affected by a number of things including biases, feelings and personal opinions, working with a standardized method that has to be conducted and presented in a certain way protects the process and makes findings comperable. So working by the scientific methods does not always produce very compelling reading if compared with a well written story by a skilled writer, what it does produce is (hopefully) soundly based, un-biased, scientific evidence.

On social media however, since we’re all flawed biased humans, things can get shaky. If one would read a journalistic article reporting results from scientific research, you have kind of a big job ahead of you. In order to try to evaluate the journalistic article one need to practice skills in source criticism, to evaluate the scientific research findings one need some skills in scientific methods and actually reading the whole article, as well as experience and knowledge to understand what you just read. After doing those two, actually very different parts, one need to try to combine them and view them as a whole, where one part could discredit the other. Hard work indeed!

The human contribution to processing information cannot be distressed enough (and I’ve touched on this in previous blogs) but we tend to overestimate information that supports our previous opinion, we tend to find the information we seek, we tend to believe people and information that is in line with already formed opinions, we tend to overestimate the importance and relevance of anecdotal evidence and so on. There’s even this thing called the backfire-effect that in short means that the more one tries to convince another person of them being wrong or has misunderstood something, the HARDER and STRONGER the person will hold on to their previous opinions/believes. To really top it off there is also things thing of investment-bias, meaning that the more someone has invested in something (investments being everything from time to money to reputation) the harder they will fight for maintaining their opinion.

People armed with anecdotal evidence, strong opinions, high investment in the matter and also filled with variations of “I’ve done my own research”, add in a little Dunning-Kruger-effect and you’re in for one interesting discussion J The key here is as always to be aware of the fact that we do function like this, whether we like it or not, and the only way to come around that is to constantly re-evaluate what you personally consider to be true, correct and right. Know when to back of, when you simply can’t “win them over”, when pushing too hard might actually drive them further away. Internet and social media has given us an opportunity to meet, discuss and debate, but what we bring to the table may vary. I’ve been in discussions where I’ve presented 4 scientific research articles, national guidelines and a full 50-year review of the matter and people may still refuse to even discuss their standpoint, typically basing their opinion on a YouTube-video, a 3-year-old Facebook-post from another part of the world and “…own personal experience…”. Typically, they are considered to be experts and me being bitter, boring, emotionally cold/unattached or bought (by healthcare/Big Pharma/the government or similar…). Social media works in a way that the stuff that evokes the biggest feelings and thereby getting the most interaction will be premiered, for better or for worse but probably both. People with compelling anecdotal evidence in form of videos of questionable origin is very likely to “wipe the floors” with a single sentence and a link to a recently published scientific article, even though the later would be holding the stronger evidence. The issue with this is that the emotion-driven content will get a wider spread and a greater reach thereby making it “more true” than the “boring” (but nuanced) scientific research article. This can be especially prominent in groups of people already holding the same opinion as presented in the video, or its total opposite, both evoking strong emotions within the group.

So question the experts! If they truly know their field they will happily provide soundly based sources for their standpoint, they will welcome questions and discussions and will carry them out in an adult reasonable way. But most importantly they will separate between the actual facts from their personal opinions. If they can’t… well… I guess you should reconsider their status as an expert! Confidence and strong conviction can surprisingly easy be perceived as a sign of competence, experience and/or knowledge, sometimes so well that the person in question might even convince themselves.

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