Google is not your doctor: Metafact Podcast Episode #0
Hello Metafact members and subscribers!
I realise how busy you are and keeping up with all of the new material from us is hard (whether it’s the weekly consensus or monthly reviews) - so I’ve created a podcast called ‘Fact Check it!’ that translates the member content so you can listen when convenient. I probably should really call it ‘Google is not your doctor’!
In the launch episode, I explain the problem and the evolution of our new model to fact-check the internet. You can also read it below. I will start to share future episodes in this digest and will cover a single question or topic we’ve fact-checked with the world’s experts. You can listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Anchor or Google.
Metafact is funded 100% by our members, who get to choose a topic we investigate in our Monthly Review. This month the vote is close between ‘Intermittent Fasting’ and ‘Sleep’ - so if you haven’t yet voted, please do so here as voting ends soon.
Thanks everyone & may the facts be with you!
From John Oliver on climate science to Dr Google - the evolution of Metafact…
As a career scientist, I’ve always been aware of the persistence of media misinformation, but I didn’t come to fully understand how it seeps into the public discourse until 2009. That year, I and 25 other climate scientists compiled a report called The Copenhagen Diagnosis; it was a summary of all the peer-reviewed research on the evidence of climate change and the causes behind it. We presented the report during a widely-covered climate meeting attended by President Barack Obama and several other world leaders.
After the event, I noticed a big uptick in the number of interview requests I received from journalists. And while some of these reporters presented the research responsibly, I quickly noticed a disturbing trend in which articles would place my quotes right next to those opposing claims the science of climate change. The problem was those opposing were never an actual climate scientist - they were often someone else.
I remember having to debate the science with a Lord from the British Parliament, who ironically called into question my own scientific credentials. As a scientist, I question everything, including the science of climate change - that’s what I’m trained to do - look for holes and try and win the next Nobel Prize.
Questioning is critical, debate is good - its healthy. But false debates just misinform people. You can always find someone to oppose your position - even someone who doesn’t believe in gravity. Debates makes for entertaining viewing. But it doesn’t help progress the hard facts that everyone should be working off.
I found reporters would often present “both sides” to argument as if they had equal merit - in political or social debates that makes sense as we all have different ways at viewing the world. In science there isn’t a left or right - it’s based around the universal laws of physics that dictate whether something is true. Your feelings or ideology means nothing to what the evidence says.
Given advertising serves as the business model of media, it seemed that reporters and producers were looking for debates and shouting matches to keep the viewer entertained. This early experience for me was immensely disheartening.
Then in 2014 I watched a clip from John Oliver - and it was the most insightful segment I’ve seen on how the media can misrepresent scientific facts so easily. Here’s a clip of his segment called “A statistically representative debate on climate change”.
Beyond the 97% consensus
But it’s not just the 97% of climate scientists that are getting misrepresented in the media. On any topic or question from health to technology, the media often misrepresent the facts either by presenting false debates or what is now more likely, publish click-bait headlines that cherrypick one study. How often have you heard of cancer cures and miracle remedies in the news?
Social media has made it much worse. We now have volumes of pseudoscientific claims spread on Facebook promoting a product or cause or company without any of us knowing whether it’s true. Youtube seems to be a big growing channel for misinformation. Flat-earthers (those who believe the earth if flat) have grown from the ‘scientific sounding’ clips. Youtube and Facebook are under intense pressure to fix the promotion of anti-vaccination content. But science misinformation goes much deeper than climate change, vaccination, and GMOs. Every day, wellness gurus, influencers and companies try and use science as a signal of trust to buy something.
All of us rely on external messengers to inform us to make better decisions in our lives - but the messengers are fundamentally broken. A Google search, the traditional media, social media - there is no way for us to know what links, posts or answers to trust? It’s impossible.
So how can we better statistically represent the facts on any topic or question? John Oliver gave me the start of an idea in 2014 - but I didn’t know it just yet.
By 2016, misinformation was reaching a serious scale - so enough was enough. I started to form the first inklings for how to combat this misinformation crisis. It seemed clear that we needed an internet clearinghouse for fact-checking, one that was scalable and valued expertise. I started thinking about how we could begin using a more scientific approach to fact-checking, starting in health.
At the time, I was helping to run a platform called Thinkable, which aimed to help scientists raise money online to fund their research. When we were building Thinkable, we’d been able to manually verify thousands of scientists from across the world in hundreds of different fields of study. We had the idea to take a disputed question -- for example: “Do vaccines cause autism?” -- and then invite our verified scientists who are most qualified to answer it - immunologists and public health experts.
Would the experts actually respond? Or would they just delete the email and move on with their lives? There was only one way to find out. We quickly developed a question and answer tool that would allow a scientist to easily log in and contribute. We purposefully only asked questions with true/false answers -- that way so we could establish a “consensus” -- and the expert could share a quick answer with uncertainty or contribute a longer detailed response.
To our surprise, not only did we receive overwhelming participation, but the majority of the scientists who logged into the platform stuck around long enough to leave a detailed response to the query, often citing peer-reviewed research in their answer. After we’d collected about 200-odd answers, it became clear that our experiment had potential. There was a real desire within the scientific community to answer the public’s queries on science-related issues.
Since then, we’ve been continually building the Metafact platform, helped by over 300 foundation members who pledged to our Kickstarter in March of this year. We’ve now designed the infrastructure so we can process questions and quickly distribute them to the experts we think are best qualified to answer them. To date, we’ve grown our expert database and have published over 2,500 experts answers from questions ranging from whether probiotics have any health benefits to whether eating burnt toast is a cancer risk?
All the nuances from trusted experts
In general, fact-checking hasn’t evolved. It’s been obsessed about checking politicians statements and not enough the most important question in our lives relating to health, products, environment and technology. So we take a more scalable scientific approach by asking relevant experts in their field to review the facts.
For the most important questions in our lives around health, life and society - we need a layer of trust for when someone shares an answer or perspective, that they know what they are talking about - that they have credentials or experience that gives them unique insights into the question or topic we want to learn.
But the wonderful thing about science is that it is fundamentally a collective process. One person does not control the field of knowledge. Isaac Newton famously said “I only see by standing on the shoulders of giants”. What he means, is that knowledge only progresses as a community. A fact is never discovered by one person or one discovery. The truth only comes about from a long process of attrition. Ideas become knowledge only when many independent people confirm and replicate the findings.
Facts are the purest possible example of survival of the fittest. Darwin himself laid the framework of evolution from a biological perspective, but ideas also follow this evolutionary process. Yet the factual infrastructure humanity has produced lies dormant - hidden from everyone. So we rely on what we have to search for answers - Dr Google.
Google is not your doctor
Some questions are simply too important to ask the internet. Have you ever wondered why Google always gives you millions of results for a query? There is no question ever posed by any human that Google can not answer - or give 0 search results. I would love to see a 0 search result on Google. But that is the problem with Google - because there are millions of questions that can’t be answered - at least not truthfully or with evidence. The reason we get sent millions of links for any question is that Google has become a gamed biased system - people have worked it out to ensure they get your attention for their blog or product or cause.
Google is not your doctor and that article or instagram post you read about turmeric is written by an influencer and is getting paid by Amazon to sell turmeric supplements. You would never know that.
What’s both amazing and terrifying is that anyone can become anything on the internet. Do you know the story of the Shed restaurant in London? The Shed became the number one rated restaurant on Trip Advisor in 2017. The problem was the restaurant was entirely made-up. It didn’t exist. The owner wrote fake-reviews leveraging a click-bait media to make that happen.
When you incentivize clicks and attention via a democratized information market called the internet, then is it surprising that the fake economy is now thriving and we can’t judge what is true anymore?
All of us have no idea what source or article to trust. Are they lying, selling or actually telling us the truth. That’s why the internet needs a fact-checker that is accurate, trustworthy and scalable - and what we’ve started to build at metafact.io is the first step towards that goal. We have thousands of scientists, doctors and experts - all verified and ready to fact-check your questions.
A different podcast
My goal here is to create a slower but more trusted knowledge engine when you really need to know the truth. To expand the scientific method and apply it to those important questions that the internet cannot truthfully answer for us. We will take direct questions from anyone relating to anything in health, food, medicine and science. It can be specific or broad.
Please ask binary questions only (True/False). We will invite actual experts who are working on that topic to share the facts. But instead of inviting just one expert to answer - we invite many independent experts. We then share the evidence based on the scientific consensus so you learn all the perspectives from a community of experts who work on the topic.
Sometimes there are big debates within the scientific community and other times there is not. We want to give you a better way to source trusted knowledge so you can make smarter and healthier decisions in your life.
Each podcast will end with a takeaway - this is not based on our opinion but will be entirely based on the prevailing consensus among the experts. If 7/10 experts agree that cucumbers cause cancer - then we will share this. However the 3/10 is also important - and there perspective is not neglected in our summaries. All expert answers are open and published for you to read. If I start deviating on my own beyond the facts from the experts - you can tell me - it’s all transparent.
No one knows everything - but on any question in the world there is someone (sometimes many) who knows the truth. Whether it’s an obscure rare disease or a new popular diet - the beauty of humanity is there are people who dedicate their professional lives to researching that single topic. It’s my job to find the most credible independent trustworthy experts to help us share the truth.
Metafact is about facts, not clicks
So is Metafact the sole arbtrar of truth? Of course not, but we can say that for the more important questions in our lives, our answers are more credible and truthful than anything else out there.
We aren’t looking for the most listeners or the most laughs. We don’t engage comedians or do stunts to entertain. We don’t do click-bait to try and lure you into listening. In a world where clicks are more important than facts, we want to become a refuge for those who value trusted knowledge.
One episode at a time, we want to build back trust and truth by creating something unique. This podcast is your subscription to the truth as verified by science.
You may think your smart - but we are all susceptible to a well-written lie. We need a better way to question everything. But not only that - a better way to extract the truth. Only then, will we be able to make the best decisions for lives, businesses and communities.
Thanks for listening and may the facts be with you!
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