This post is by Pamela Hayes-Bohanan: friend, colleague, and librarian extraordinaire. Read and enjoy, and don’t forget to check out the reference (properly formatted, of course). -catherine w
So, what does a librarian know about fitness anyway? Just as she doesn’t need to be an expert in chemistry to find the boiling point of iron (2750.0 °C; 3023.15 K; 4982.0 °F btw) she likewise doesn’t need to be an expert in exercise and nutrition to assist someone with locating the best information to help them help themselves.
As a reference and instruction librarian for the past 25 years, I have helped people do research on more topics than I can possibly remember. Sometimes I’m helping with a course assignment, but often the information is for personal use. It is hard to balance between helping someone simply find what they’ve asked for (a trendy new diet book perhaps) and wanting to do some real education with them about where they can find better or more evidence-based information on healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss. Ultimately, however, it is my job not to judge, so if someone wants a recipe for a Paleo Shamrock Shake I will do my dangdest to find it, and I won’t roll my eyes or smirk, either. (And if I piqued your interest, here’s the recipe. Do trust me, though, that no caveman ever drank one of these.)
What I can do via this blog post though is provide some guidance on how to navigate the proliferation of information that one will find on just about anything, whether they ask for it or not. How can you tell if the advice you’re receiving is something to heed? There are several things you can look for to help determine its worthiness.
The first thing to do is to check your own bias. Are you only looking for information that supports what you already believe, or want to be true? If you want good information start with an open mind and be prepared to broaden your horizons.
Once you find some information consider the source. Remember that just because you trust the person who shared the link, tweet, or blog post, it does not necessarily follow that the information is trustworthy.
Look for an author name and organization attached to the site. Then LEAVE the site and start sleuthing. See what else you can find out about the person and/or organization. Once you start your investigation look for things like: What are the authors’ credentials? Do they have other publications? Do they have a medical degree? Or is there something (anything) else that leads you to believe they know what they’re talking about? Are there news stories, or reviews of the people or organizations you are researching?
Don’t take shortcuts. Often people are taught simple rules regarding domains. (e.g. It’s okay use .org, .gov, or .edu sites; don’t use .com). Organizations each have their own biases and need to be researched. For instance the National Rifle Association and Moms Demand Action both have .org domains, and each provides a very different view on gun control from the other. Government information is influenced by lobbyists (many of whom represent commercial interests), and government sites are vulnerable to the whims of the head of state as well. Not all educational institutions are created equal, and even scholarly research published on university websites may be influenced by religious, or political motivations. Commercial sites shouldn’t not necessarily be dismissed. Aggregated subscription databases found at your library are commercial websites. So, my rule of thumb is: eschew facile rules of thumb.
Another question to consider is whether the website is collecting information about you. Are you required to provide personal data in order to access the site? If so, the site may be more interested in gathering information than providing it. Also be aware that sites that appear to require you to enter more information may give you a choice to not provide it, but may make the opt-out button hard to find. Keep looking, it may be below the scroll line, or placed on the left side of the screen rather than the right side where more people look for it, or it may be timed to appear only after a few seconds have elapsed.
Finding information is as easy as typing some words into Google. Taking some time to determine its veracity is a not only worthwhile endeavor, it is, as Daniel Levitin says in his book A Field Guide to Lies, part of a deal we need to make with ourselves:
We’ve saved incalculable numbers of hours of trips to libraries and far-flung archives, of hunting through thick books for the one passage that will answer our questions. The implicit bargain we all need to make explicit is that we will use just some [emphasis in original] of that time we saved in information acquisition to perform proper information verification (p. 253).
If you want to give your brain a real workout, visit a library and ask a librarian for more information on evaluating information, and using it wisely.
Levitin, Daniel. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Dutton, 2016.