One of the most interesting aspects of living through the second half of the 20th century and into the first half of the 21st century is the profound change in access to information. I remember in the 1980s there was a buzz (at least among technophiles and science fiction nerds) about how computers were going to be connected in a worldwide network and it would transform the way we access information and communicate. The reality we are living in now exceeds even the most fevered predictions being made at that time.
What was difficult to anticipate was how rapid access to almost any information would affect our day-to-day lives. Now, during a discussion, if a fact is in dispute we can simply look it up and resolve the dispute. I can no longer imagine doing research in a pre-internet age, promoting science-based medicine without social media, or collaborating without the virtual-time communication of e-mail.
The internet is rapidly becoming humanity’s collective culture and body of knowledge. For that reason it is important to nurture that body of knowledge to ensure that it is complete, accurate, and fair. That goal is frustrated, however, by the fact that the World Wide Web is not simply being used for scholarly information. It is also a tool to promote ideology and commercial interests. Therefore any efforts to provide scientifically accurate and unbiased information are likely to be swamped by well-funded and highly-motivated misinformation. Search on any medical topic and you will quickly see what I mean.
The good news is that high quality and unbiased information does have an advantage. Not all information on the web is equal. Google rank is everything, and Google highly favors markers of reliable information. There are also pockets of information on the web that are filtered and edited to weed out obvious bias and error.
Here are a few of the projects we and others are working on to help provide accurate medical information and analysis on the internet. You may even find a project with which you can help.
Of course the SBM blog itself is a primary outlet for providing much needed analysis of medical claims and information, paying particular attention to pseudoscience in medicine, dubious claims, fraud, misinformation, and areas that are generally neglected (or mishandled) by academia.
You can help in a number of ways. If you have medical expertise, we do take outside submissions. Just providing links to SBM articles is also very helpful. Many of our readers have forwarded relevant articles to the media to counter misinformation or false claims, or suggested SBM authors to be interviewed. You can also like our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, and retweet our posts.
Occasionally we receive requests to translate SBM articles into other languages. Our response is always yes, as long as the author is given proper credit and a link is provided to the original article here. We also have another requirement, and that is that we be provided the translated version of the article for our own use. We would like to make a repository of translated articles here. It would be great to mirror SBM in as many languages as possible, but that takes an army of volunteers.
Mark Crislip has done all the heavy lifting creating the Society for Science-Based Medicine. This is a non-profit membership organization, and anyone can join. One of the major projects of SfSBM is an SBM Wiki. The core of the Wiki is comprised of articles generously donated to SfSBM by Stephen Barrett – essentially the thousands of articles that make up QuackWatch. Transforming this into a Wiki will allow ongoing editing and updating, breathing new life into all those old articles.
That first stage is now complete. We will soon begin the process of opening up the Wiki to editors, who will be not only the authors and editors of SBM, but vetted volunteers.
The purpose of this SBM Wiki is not to duplicate Wikipedia or be redundant, but to provide a resource of hard-hitting science-based analysis of every topic dealing with science and pseudoscience in medicine. This is also a good way to list references to reliable science-based medical information everywhere on the web.
In addition to all of our dedicated efforts, Wikipedia remains a vital project that deserves our attention. Wikipedia remains the most-accessed source for general information and is often is the first hit on Google searches. It is also often a battleground where different ideologies clash over control of information.
Fortunately the editors of Wikipedia seem to understand the difference between objective academic and scientific information and pseudoscience and propaganda. They have done an excellent job over the years of increasing the quality of Wikipedia by carefully monitoring editors and weeding out attempts to bias the information in Wikipedia.
To illustrate this, Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales recently responded to complaints by CAM proponents saying “If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.”
There are several projects to improve information on Wikipedia I would like to point out. The first is the Guerrilla Skepticism project run by Susan Gerbic. They are doing a great deal of work making sure that topics of interest to scientific skeptics are accurately edited on Wikipedia. They also make sure that prominent skeptics and outlets, like SBM and its authors, have properly-managed Wikipedia pages. As with every such project, they need volunteers. So check them out and consider contributing a bit of your time.
Susan also recently pointed me toward the Health Information on Wikipedia project and James Heilman. Heilman is a Canadian emergency medicine doctor who has become interested in improving health information on Wikipedia. He encourages health professionals to contribute their time and expertise to improving this vital resource.
As part of this project he is now also working with Translators without Borders and he obtained a small grant to hire translators to translate important medical pages on Wikipedia into other languages. To highlight the importance of this project he points out that Wikipedia is an important source of information for those dealing with the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa. One of the greatest challenges to controlling this epidemic is rampant misinformation, or simply lack of information which is being filled with conspiracy theories and the misguided ministrations of charlatans. There is widespread access to Wikipedia in the region through cell phones and so such efforts can have a significant impact.
Heilman describes Wikipedia as a “do-ocracy.” It favors those who do the work.
I am fortunate and grateful to have a dedicated group of contributors, editors, volunteers, and regular commenters here at SBM making this project successful. But our efforts here, while I think we have a disproportionate impact because of the power of our information and analysis, are often overwhelmed by the number and resources of those selling pseudoscience or promoting an anti-scientific ideology. This is why Mark Crislip favors for the logo of SfSBM an image of Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill.
This is also why every now and then (probably not often enough) we put out the call to action. The world is increasingly becoming a “do-ocracy,” rewarding those with energy and dedication for their efforts. If we really want to change the world it will take more than the efforts of a dedicated few. We need to unleash the collective efforts of an army of those who wish the world were a little more rational, especially in the important area of health and medicine.
Above I have outlined a number of ways that anyone can help, even if only by becoming a member of SfSBM or donating to or promoting SBM. For those with more time and expertise, we need editors and translators. Together we can do this.