Longevity Literacy Pt. 1: Scientist or Salesman?

Science or Sales

Eat this root and add years to your life. Take this pill to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Rub this ointment on your face to remove wrinkles. Separating fact from fiction is key for people invested in longevity research, but that’s not always easy to do. Plus, many of us get our information online, which can make it harder to separate the trustworthy from the worthless. So how can you distinguish science from snake oil? Here are some useful tips that can help you judge the quality and credibility of an article before you even read it.

 

Tip 1: Open the link.

 

Admittedly, this seems obvious. But, strangely enough, actually opening—not to mention reading—an article before distributing it is becoming less and less common. A large number of people get their daily or weekly news from shares or retweets on social media platforms or list-servs. This process isn’t inherently bad, but it can encourage the spread of misinformation.

When we’re scrolling, we have the tendency to click or pause on things that immediately catch our attention: a colorful banner, a cute animal, or a provocative statement. In the online marketing world, writers aim to make their titles and headlines click-worthy. Sometimes this click-worthiness bleeds into clickbait—headlines designed to make readers click open a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to dubious content. Clickbait is meant to increase a website’s traffic by having more people enter the site and/or share the article with others.

Headlines can be misleading due to the clickbait strategy. In another blog post, we addressed how some news outlets circulated a “young blood” research project by evoking the image of the vampire—even when the actual published article said nothing about drinking blood whatsoever. As simple as it might sound, don’t mistake the headline for the content of a news article or blog post. The headline is meant to quickly attract attention. It doesn’t necessarily speak to the actual content. How can you figure out the argument? Open the link.

 

Tip 2: Look for credibility

 

Nobody would read a cooking magazine to learn underwater welding, so why would you go to an irrelevant (or tangentially relevant) website to learn about longevity research? Even if a site does seem on-topic, that doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. There are a few places that you can look to quickly check the credibility of a website and the article’s author.

 

Website Address

On social media, the domain name usually shows up at the bottom of a shared article or image. On your computer, it’s at the top of your web browser. This address (aka a URL) usually starts with www and ends with something like .com, .org, .gov, .net, or the like. You should be cautious of strange domain names like .link, .party, .cricket, or .zip. Also be on the look out for websites that attempt to pass as other sources by using a familiar brand but a weird domain name like nytimes.com.co. These domain names usually do not contain well-reviewed or well-regulated information.

 

About Us Page

Ask yourself why an organization might be interested in posting a story on healthy aging, longevity research, or quick fixes to age-related bodily changes. The website or company’s About Us page can help you answer this question. More importantly, it will help you judge the credibility and scope of what they’re willing to publish.

If you bump into a site that claims that its main goal is sustaining youthfulness through nutritional supplements, for example, then you know that the company and its content will probably be invested in articles that highlight the benefits of supplements. However, they might not discuss their potential dangers. Conflicts of interest like this should encourage you to take their information with a grain of salt.

 

Author Bios

Who is the author and what are their relative experiences with the subject matter? Be wary of articles that don’t name an author, and be sure to read their bios if they’re available. Similarly to an About Us page, the author’s bio will likely explain why they’re writing the post and perhaps mention their credentials. Think of a reliable author as someone you would trust to give you the best and most bias-free information on a specific topic.

 

Tip 3: Follow the money trail.

 

In the age of information, information is anything but free. Remember that websites are usually generating traffic in order to reap profits either now or later down the road. Funded research or research that could bring about monetary gain is by no means disreputable or invalid. In fact, most good longevity research requires some serious funding to get anything done. However, a source should acknowledge any financial incentives.

Take an article about the life-changing effects of some anti-aging product as an example. You might find the article’s argument and research completely believable, but what if the research was funded by the company that created the product or would profit from its sales? Here, you can see how ‘science’ can quickly get co-opted by corporate interests. This is especially apparent in websites that sell products or benefit financially from reader buy-in.

I’m not suggesting that the people or companies that distribute longevity research online have some grand evil plan to exploit you. But I am warning those interested in longevity research to be aware of how money flows in order to separate the sales pitches from evidence-based medicine and science.

 

Learning How to Read Longevity News:

 

These tips can help you follow updates in longevity research without succumbing to the false hope offered by some quick-fix solutions to age-related diseases and disabilities. While this post focused on the credibility of headlines and authors, the next post in this series on longevity literacy will focus on discerning the credibility of an article’s argument or explanation.