When Even the Trustworthy Sources Aren’t Trustworthy

It’s common wisdom to be skeptical about conspiracy theories and fringe views. At the same time, mainstream sources can be disturbingly inaccurate or dishonest too. Although I’m not going to make the blanket claim that everything you read in reputable publications is a lie (it isn’t), what you read warrants healthy skepticism.

I recently read Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a book on how the opioid crisis got underway in the U.S. There’s a lot that’s eye-opening and depressing in that book, including how medical professionals, academics, and mainstream publications repeated a Pharma-friendly claim that only a tiny fraction of opioid users develop an addiction (less than 1 percent!). The statistic is based on gross misrepresentations, including this one: a brief letter to the editor published in the New England Journal of Medicine that got referred to as a “landmark study.”

The letter to the editor wasn’t a full-fledged study. It communicated the observations a doctor and a grad student made about a population of hospitalized patients who received painkillers in a controlled and supervised way that also accounted for a prior history of drug abuse – a far cry from how painkillers later got prescribed to the general population.

Why did no one bother to look into this “landmark study”? Academic journal archives have always existed. You wouldn’t have needed the Internet to fact check, although yes, you would have had to look up a physical copy of the journal in an academic library.

Repeated until it seemed like established fact, this is just one example of a lie – a devastating one – that uncritically became mainstream. Many people, including journalists and highly educated experts, can be shaky investigators. Publications often don’t prioritize investigative work (or don’t have the budget for it). Also, it’s easier to be a mouthpiece than it is to ask uncomfortable questions and uncover awful answers. Fear, money, laziness, conformity, and an abundance of misplaced trust are all influential forces. So are ideological biases.

I don’t want to argue that there’s no truth at all in mainstream publications. That would be a ridiculous claim. But healthy skepticism is always warranted, even when you’re reading from a respected source. Even if you largely agree with something, leave some room mentally for a correction and updated knowledge.

One reason scientific literacy is important

PhD Comics Science News Cycle

Two worthwhile reads from ActionBioscience.org: Why should you be scientifically literate? and Scientific literacy in the classroom.