The truth about Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium
Pennyroyal, a divisive herb

I am a digital native. I have been using the world wide web (WWW) almost since its inception, when outside of a university you needed a modem to access it, and to be frank it mostly wasn’t worth the effort. But as the WWW (which, from now on I will refer to as the internet, although the internet itself is older) developed it became easier to see it as a wonderful, worldwide repository of information. I still do.

Over the years I have met many people who are dubious about the internet, and find it a scary place to hang out. I like to think of it as a virtual city; it’s full of all kinds of people. There are popular spots and unknown (and fascinating) hang outs. There are places respectable people should fear to tread. There are lovely folks, people out to make a buck and people out to con you. In the same way that we learn not to leave our car unlocked, and not to walk down dark alleys alone, everyone should learn that the internet is neither a den of iniquity nor a haven of peace. It’s somewhere you need to keep your wits about you.

In the fake news, ‘post-truth’ era, this has never been more the case. Outside of politics (which I’m leaving alone for today!), this is probably most evident in the context of food and nutrition. As I have a professional interest in food and food plants, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss how to tell whether an internet source is reliable or not. (This is a bit heavy for a Monday morning. You may want to bookmark it and come back later.)

I’ll stop at this point to offer up my credentials. My name is Emma Doughty. I have two science degrees – one in Physics with Astrophysics (it was a long time ago) and one in Ethnobotany (far more recent, and I blogged my dissertation). I have been taught critical thinking, to look for evidence. You’ll find that most of my posts either offer up citations (references) or links to my sources/supporting information. Inbetween studying for those two degrees, I worked for a number of years for the data security company Sophos. I worked in the virus lab there. Viruses are a bit passé now, security issues have moved more into exploits (because there’s money in those). All of this is visible in my LinkedIn profile. Whilst this version of my website has only been in existence for a couple of years, it contains the archive of my previous blogs, which extend back longer than I care to mention. (As I said, the WWW and I go way back….)

The first thing to remember when you’re searching the internet is that, whichever search engine you use, the results can be (and have been) manipulated. At the end of last year there was a high profile case, in which the top Google results for the Holocaust linked to sites that claim it never happened. Google has fixed that, but it demonstrates my point. Even in milder cases, gaming Google (black hat SEO) is commonplace. Something coming out at the top of your search, and being the most popular site on the subject, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Also, are you adding confirmation bias into your searches? For example, if I search for “pennyroyal is edible” I’m going to get one set of results; if I search for “pennyroyal is poisonous” I’m going to get different ones. If I don’t want to poison myself, I need to ensure I’m not just searching for results that confirm my suspicion that pennyroyal is OK to eat. (I actually looked into pennyroyal a while back, and you can read the conclusion I came to, and the sources I used to get there.)

Likewise, popularity on social media can be bought or faked. We’re suckers for what marketing people call ‘social proof’ (and which I tend to call Sheep Syndrome) – we’re more likely to buy/do things if we see everyone else doing it too. I’m a bit weird in that I tend to head away from crowds, but I don’t consider myself immune. (I’m more likely, though, to fall prey to FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – when it comes to unusual plants.)

OK. So you’ve done your search and you’ve arrived at a website. Where exactly are you? A website you recognise and are familiar with? Or a region of the internet into which you’ve never strayed before? Does it look like the site was thrown together by a colour-blind chimp, or does it have a clear design (even if viewed on a mobile device)? Did you have to fend off 15 pop-ups to read the text, or are you being dazzled by so many adverts you can’t see the text? If there are adverts, are they for topic-relevant things (mine are all about gardening and plants, I’m very single minded), or are they trying to make you feel fat, ugly, or vulnerable?

Has this website been updated recently, or it is abandoned? Old content isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is a factor to bear in mind. Science moves on, information becomes outdated. People used to suggest eating comfrey leaves, for example. More recent advice suggests that you don’t. If the site is supplying information or making claims, where are the citations (references), or the supporting links? Do those supporting links still function, or do they lead to dead ends?

One of my pet peeves is the way that the media deals with science stories. Researchers publish a paper (which is usually only on a tiny aspect of their ongoing work) and produce a press release. If the media picks it up at all, it is often sensationalised – which is why we have the yo-yoing ‘scientific advice’ on things like what we should and shouldn’t be eating. One paper is one set of results. If it has been published in a respectable journal (and, unfortunately, there are plenty that aren’t), then it has been peer-reviewed, which means other scientists in the field have checked to make sure it isn’t gibberish. Even peer-reviewed papers aren’t publishing facts, they’re publishing scientific results and the researchers’ analysis of those results. The newspapers don’t usually cover what happens next (or what should happen next), which is other people trying to reproduce the same results. Scientific papers are building blocks of knowledge, it is extremely rare that one can be taken out of context and tell us something immediately useful.

And that is even more true of websites and social media. One website, one post, cannot be taken as the truth. The truth does not live in one person, or a single source. The truth lies in consensus, a hard-fought situation in which an idea has been debated and poked and prodded and tested and has withstood being rubbished to the point where a majority of informed individuals accept it to be the truth. This is what has happened with climate change – there is consensus within the scientific community that our use of fossil fuels has and is changing the climate, that we’re not going to like the results of that, and that we should be doing something to alleviate the cause and effects as soon as possible.

Consensus isn’t hiding yourself away in a silo, where everyone agrees with you. Truth isn’t necessarily what most people believe, what they repeat, and what they would vote for. Truth isn’t always fun or entertaining, simple or easy, and it’s certainly not always profitable.

This boils down to keeping two things in mind. Firstly, when you’re using the internet remember that you may be looking at false information or opinions instead of facts or truth. Dig a bit deeper to find out. The second is that, on social media, it’s quick and easy to share things that aren’t legitimate, and in doing so you’re adding to their credibility. Share with care.