Common Mistakes People Make when Researching Online

In this post, I will talk about common mistakes people make when using the Internet for research. The “research” could be anything from what phone to buy to fact-checking information you heard on the news.

I know this post is kinda long, but its hard to write short posts while giving detailed information.

Please note everything I say are my own opinions or things I have observed.

Only using social media as a source of information.

Social media (e.g., YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Yahoo Answers, Disqus) are very popular places to get information from others. You will find the users on social media have wildly varying opinions. Unfortunately, most of these answers (or videos in the case of YouTube) are given with little to no facts to back them up (a few do though).

In addition, social media tends to attract trolls who try to sow discord. Usually they gather like-minded minions who all-at-once gang up on someone they decide not to like that day. This wastes a researcher’s time, since he must filter out irrelevant posts.

Summary: Occasionally you will find a good user on social media with quality information that is not just an opinion, but from my experience most social media answers are quickly written and are of poor quality.

“Everyone says the same thing, so it must be true!”

This one is a very common mistake. I even fell into this “everyone else says it” trap when I was younger. This is a fallacy called “appeal to the popular”.

“Appealing to the popular” is when you decide something is true or false because everyone else thinks that way too. That is not doing real research. That is just being lazy and letting others do your thinking for you.

A lot of times the majority is not correct. How do you know that a few people didn’t give misinformation online a while back, and everyone else jumped on the “band wagon”, automatically believing what they were told and repeating the same to others?

This applies to people who look at the number of “up-votes” or “down-votes” to determine if an online comment is accurate. Comment voting systems seem like a good idea on paper, but in practice they cause people to believe (or disbelieve) information based upon other people’s opinions. A comment with a ton of up-votes does not make it correct, nor does a comment with tons of down-votes make it incorrect.

Summary: Facts are not made by consensus. Just because everyone agrees, does not mean it’s true. You must always use common sense and verify information you receive.

Blindly trusting information obtained on Wikipedia without verifying.

I’ve observed many people quoting Wikipedia like it’s the Bible and can give no wrong answers. I must disagree.

I have read things (e.g., health & politics) on Wikipedia that were at the very least biased and at worst propaganda. This is due to literally anyone being able to edit most articles on Wikipedia.

I had one Wikipedia article that made a bold claim, but when I clicked the link going to the supposed source of this information, the link didn’t even exist. Someone just made up stuff and gave a phony link to make it look good to people who didn’t bother to verify.

Another Wikipedia article I read made a health claim (I do not wish to get into specifics). However, when I did research on Google, I came across a reliable health website that not only contradicted Wikipedia, but showed that the wiki’s author was intentionally misleading people. Why do that with health-based information?

Even if the wiki’s author is telling the truth, a self-appointed “fact-checker” on Wikipedia may erase their edit due to a severe bias.

Summary: I find Wikipedia useful when it comes to topics such as PC/Console/Server technology or basic information about someone popular (e.g., their age & net worth). Anything else (e.g., politics, science, history, the Bible, etc.) tends to attract people with a major bias to intentionally give disinformation to others.

“Professionals (e.g., doctors, politicians, scientists) can be trusted to give accurate information on the Internet.”

Unfortunately, people who should “know the facts” don’t always know the facts. Sometimes they guess while claiming they “know for sure”, they may assume the information is correct (without verifying), or they make up information to support their agenda.

This means if you automatically believe information without verifying “because my doctor said so” or “my nice newscaster in a suit & tie said so”, you may find that the information was not as accurate as you thought and this may lead to trouble for you.

Summary: Always verify information you receive, even if it comes from a “trusted” source. That source may be giving accurate data, but you should still do your due diligence and verify.

Using “anecdotal evidence” as proof.

This is a logical fallacy known as “appeal to anecdote”. What exactly is “anecdotal evidence”? It is someone’s personal testimony of a particular event. It contains no scientific data, just someone’s word on a matter.

The Internet is full of people who give anecdotal testimonies as “proof” of their claims. Unless you were there with the person at the time of the event, or they present detailed evidence, there is no way to determine if they are accurately recalling the facts. This is assuming the person is telling the truth to begin with.

Here is an example. Let us say you go to a website to view information about the common cold. While on there, you decide to read the comment section.

A guy named Phil has posted a comment saying that he is “very healthy” and “has never caught a cold before”. Now personally I would say Phil is lying. Sure, there is a (very) small chance of his statement being true, but I would not bet on it.

After reading, you take Phil’s comment and start going around telling others that “there are people who can never get the common cold”. You would be committing the “appeal to anecdote” fallacy. You are saying something is true, because someone else claimed that is what happened to them.

Phil’s comment was not “proof” of anything. He presented no evidence of his claim. He could have had a cold (multiple times) and thought it was just “allergies”. If that is the case, he is relaying incorrect information based upon a bad assumption…and now you are relaying his bad information, based upon his bad assumption too. What a situation to be in!

That is why I always insist people verify information they receive online (when possible) and use common sense.

Posted in General, Internet and Servers