One of the hot topics around here lately is authority and anonymity. It’s a terribly difficult philosophical question—-how can you ever trust a source of information that is second hand? And yet ultimately we all are forced to do it most of the time.
A potent weapon in the denialist arsenal is the fake expert. The profusion of these charlatans makes identifying trustworthy sources even more important. We have many ways of doing this. We often use our intuition, a powerful but notoriously dicey skill. Sometimes we go by word-of-mouth. Sometimes, we go to established sources of authority, such as the CDC or the Mayo Clinic. Is ScienceBlogs a trustworthy source?
Absolutely! and Not at all!
One factor in our favor is the high percentage of real experts who blog under their own names and have verifiable credentials. Another is the fact that most writers here cite primary and secondary sources with links, so that you can follow up on the evidence yourself. Finally, Sciencebloggers often disagree with each other. You will rarely see cranks and fake experts allowing for dissent. Take, for instance, uber-cranks like Joe Mercola and Gary Null. They run “medical” websites. But the information they give out is very thinly veiled propaganda. When you follow their citations to their source, you rarely find credible sources, such as well-known medical journals. Instead, you find unpublished papers by other quacks, or quote-mined statements from reputable journals. Most of the blogs here, even when we’re not at our best, give links and citations that any energetic reader can follow and verify, and the comment sections are open to allow for our own vilification. You’ll rarely if ever see fake experts allowing a lot of unmoderated comments on their websites.
In looking to see if authorities are trustworthy or not, look for some of these signs—a willingness to be questioned, real citations, substantive information that doesn’t read like some college kid made it up after a night of hard partying. Read, but read with intelligence. And chances are, if someone wants to sell you something that sounds too good to be true, well…