A new study has found that most of the time, health information on the Internet is hard to find, hard to read and often incorrect or incomplete, even on the best sites.
The study, described in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, is the broadest on the topic to date; it includes detailed questions on four diseases, rates the difficulty of finding information and the site’s reading level, and assesses its accuracy and completeness. ….
“Too many sites are just trying to sell something,” [one interviewed researcher] said, “and it is scary how they can make a bad site look good.”….
Even though the study reviewed only top-rated sites, researchers still found that the sites gave complete and accurate information only 45 percent of the time, on average.
On average, reviewers found that Web sites had some information that contradicted other information on the same site and the same topic 53 percent of the time. There was wide variation in whether sources for posted information were given. On average, 65 percent of the sites gave both pieces of source information — authors and a date — but the spread was large, from none to 95 percent across the Web sites.
That story ran ten years ago. I came across a clipping as I was going through a box of my old files (which I am slowing digitizing and getting rid of – dusty paper, yuck!). Conveniently, it is still available if you want to see the rest of it.
A lot has improved since 2001. The researchers then lamented not even being able to figure out where to look to find any substantive information. Now the problem is more with information that is incomplete, politically biased, and especially not up to the current state of knowledge. What appears now is much easier to read and more professionally packaged (not necessarily a good thing). But there is still wading through required, but now it is through a lot of content rather than content-free sites that showed up in keyword search results. And I suspect that the statistics from those last two paragraphs are not any better now.
At least back then, it was clear that simply believing whatever came up at the top of a search was not such a good epistemic strategy.