Sunday, February 7, 2010

Experts vs Bloggers

When it comes to health information online, who should you believe? According to a "study" reviewed on Science Daily in "Health Stories by Experts More Credible Than Blogs" -
Health information written by a doctor is rated as more credible when it appears on a website than in a blog or a homepage, according to a study of college students.
Makes sense to me.

There is definitely something to be said for information that is written by a knowledgeable professional when compared to what is written by someone like me. Professionals, such as doctors, should have a more in depth understanding of a topic area and be able to provide more accurate information.

But, if you notice the the exact wording of the story, they don't say "accurate", they say "credible". Credible means "able to be trusted or believed". So, how did the researchers go about proving that experts are more trustworthy that us mere bloggers? Simple, they told them.

The researchers picked two controversial topics and gave a group of 555 college students screenshots of one of the articles. The articles were attributed to either a doctor or a layperson and the students were told that from either "a formal website, individual homepage, a blog, a bulletin board -- a chat site where people can post messages -- or were simply told that they came from the Internet". Not surprisingly, the students decided that the articles written by a doctor and appearing on "formal websites" were more credible than those from a random person with a blog.

Did you catch the trick?

Let me phrase it a different way. If I show you two clippings, both from the the New York Times, but tell you one is from the New York Times and the other Bob's Smalltown Paper, which are you going to find more credible? If you are like most people, you will say the one from the New York Times. The reason isn't that one article is more accurate than the other but rather that the New York Times has a better reputation than Bob's Smalltown Paper.

In the case of this study, the students were told that one of the authors was an expert while the other was some random person on a blog, homepage, or chat room. The students did not get a chance to look at the context of what was said, did not get a chance to evaluate other things that the same author wrote, nor could they look at the other content on the site to establish a reputation. If you take all of these things away and replace it with your own implied trustworthiness (in this case expert vs non-expert), you should not be surprised when someone picks who you tell them is more trustworthy.

The bottom line is that context matters and you should never blindly accept what you read online - even if it is written by "experts".

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