When older isn’t wiser

A friend asked for my professional review of an article. One quick glance at the article and I knew my conclusion would not be positive but I wanted to give it due diligence out of respect for our friendship. Two quick Google searches later and the result was worse than anticipated so I put it aside, for five months. The dread of expressing my professional opinion on a polarizing topic turned into procrastination. I give professional assessments to patients, all the time, and without any hesitation. Why was this different? After months of internal debate, my conclusion was that despite having had the answer to her question within minutes, I feared she would interpret my assessment of the online article as disrespecting her intelligence, which in hindsight was not fair to her.

Three weeks ago, I decided this topic needed addressing in my blog because gauging the reliability of online sources is one in which the middle-aged and advanced-aged are particularly vulnerable. Not raised in the digital age, there are many skills the younger generation possesses that we do not yet comprehend. It is important we acknowledge our technological deficits without taking it personally when our errors in judgment are brought to our attention. I recall an exercise in which I was trying to teach my students to arrive at a diagnosis through reason. I posed a question expecting to walk them through the stages of reasoning to arrive at the appropriate diagnosis when they each picked up their phones and had the answer in seconds. Which method makes the better doctor? The fact is each generation learns differently based on the technology available to them. Our generation needs to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to false advertising in digital content without feeling disrespected for our expansive knowledge derived from many years of education and experience. Scholarly research has shown that “older adults may be less savvy at identifying reliable online news sources.” Below, I’ve listed a very basic order of which I personally examine an article to determine it’s reliability.

  1. Look at the Title
  2. Who wrote this article?
  3. Where was this particular article published?
  4. Read the article

The Title: Titles are meant to grab your attention. First, consider if there are any “hot button,” or common propaganda words; words that trigger “fight or flight” emotions? Are there any claims that sound fantastical or too good to be true? If there are, I am already going to approach the article with a fair bit of skepticism.

The Author: Run a quick search for the author and investigate each of the sources of the search. Although this sounds like it may take a long time, it literally took me only minutes by following these tips. Most of the time, it will only take one or two searches to discover what you need to know.

  • Skip the initial findings in the search and scroll down to the non-paid ads. Keep in mind the search results by the author, themself, or by the publisher of that author are going to be nothing but positive because they have a financial interest. Those results are usually the first listed in a search because they are paying sponsors of the search engine.
  • Look at the author’s credentials for writing on the subject? Are they skilled in the field of the topic or a completely unrelated topic? What do the letters after their name mean? Often, the letters don’t mean what you think they mean. I was once asked to review an article by a group of persons with a multitude of letters after their names, none of which I recognized. When I did a quick search, I discovered, they were basically high school students doing a class project in another country but they looked like professionals because of all the letters after their name.
  • Are they a researcher or member of a University faculty? What you may not know is that a researcher’s job is dependent on funding. Funding is often granted based on how many times a person has published and been cited in journals so they are under high pressure to publish. The search results will often cite articles the person has written. Open the articles. Are they the first author listed on the article or the last? The first author listed is the one who has done all the work. Are the articles in the person’s field of expertise?
  • Next look at the names of the journals in which the author has published and do a quick search of those journals. Are they reputable journals?
    • How to tell if a journal is reputable. Many journal names are designed to sound important; many even mimic highly reputable journals by simply altering one word. Some of the facts you might find included in a journal search:
      • Acceptance rate: A high acceptance rate means just about anyone can get an article published. The higher the acceptance rate should correspond to higher skepticism. The most reputable journals only publish the best of the best articles and hold their authors to the highest degree of accountability.
      • Impact factor: Is there anything truly groundbreaking in this article? There is some debate as to the effectiveness of using this factor regarding authors.
      • Overall Ranking: Would you trust a ranking of 5 digits or more? I certainly wouldn’t.
      • Publishing date: How long as the journal been in existence? Newer journals are suspect. Why? Being published in a journal is so important to funding, authors desperate to publish have often created their own journals.
      • Can you pay to be published in this journal? In other words, anyone who pays a fee is able to have their article published in that journal.
      • Despite all, non of these factors are complete proof of an article’s worth. It is very complex. This is just a guideline.
  • Scroll deep into the search results for the author. Are there any questionable headlines in the search results? For example, have they been convicted multiple times in a court of law for misleading persons with fraudulent information? Often, the court cases will be buried after all the sponsored search results and in small print. That was the case in my friend’s article. The author had been tried in several courts of law for promoting false information.

Where was the article published? If you have made it this far and still uncertain as to the reliability of an article, look at where the article was published. Was it posted in a journal, a magazine, a newspaper? In my friend’s case, the article was published on a website I had never heard of. When I ran a search for that website, there was absolutely no search list other than the website itself. The poorly-designed website was created by a private individual as a means of posting support for his own personal agenda. The host had no experience in the field. If you previously saw no red flags, this would be a huge one. Personal opinion sites are not subject to any level of accountability as are reputable newspapers and magazines.

Lastly, read the article. Take each paragraph and differentiate it into fact and opinion. Research has again shown that older people “are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions.” which is why I believe important to address here. We are all susceptible.

Although wisdom comes with age, I believe we have a responsibility to continue learning so we do not fall victim to those who would love to manipulate our minds and/or take our money.



Photo by Michael S on Unsplash

15 thoughts on “When older isn’t wiser

Add yours

  1. I think all generations are guilty of this. As a teacher in a prrvious life we worried that kids didn’t taje this on board.
    I read articles on wordpress each day. There is some great writing. Great writing doesn’t mean accuracy. Can I trust that what they say has any validity?I will look to a persons website to seek out their background. I even ask people specifically. You would be disappointed with the feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not surprised at all. I haven’t yet considered using WordPress as a scholarly resource but more as a way to meet and understand different cultures and personalities from where they live. And of course, to learn to write. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article! This is a topic that is close to my heart and I make a point of holding people accountable when they spread misinformation and then show them how to do the research. They generally stop spreading the misinformation simply because they are not prepared to do the research.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Well written. In college I had a professor teach us how to validate printed information using the same format you listed in your article. I have had to show my husband that a website or item he is wanting me to purchase is fraudulent. He trusts what I find, as I love to research things and I really study and learn what I am working with. Currently I raise sheep. I was given false information at a sheep educational field day by two people with doctorate degrees in the field who work at a university. The field day was only for their funding, their information was way off. I talked to the people they quoted and learned different. As the saying goes, get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One problem with doctorate degrees is there is no guarantee they have “field” experience. In other words, have they only worked with data or have they actually raised sheep themselves? I run into this in my field of expertise all the time. As an optometrist working in the optometry school, so many of the teaching professors have never worked with patients. They may teach the theoretical but reality is often different. Although, I don’t know if there is any excuse for giving completely false information. I’m glad you went with your gut and sought more accurate information.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They said they had field experience, but he handled sheep like a beginner. I like to watch someone work with the animal before I buy their program or livestock. It is a job to check out information. Thank you for sharing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is absolutely critical, Michelle. My degree/research is in media literacy education, and even I get caught sometimes. I also think people don’t take the time they think is required to do the five things you listed. It really is NOT time consuming.

    Snopes is also a great resources.


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