Remaining Unsighted

One thing you've hopefully picked up on by now from reading this website is that I really, REALLY don't like misinformation. I even dedicated an entire (poorly-read by expectation) article to debunking the myths about margarine, just because it was my personal pet peeve for the moment. That list of myths was from an email that used to get circulated around, trying to convince people that margarine is bad for you without actually citing any sources to back it up. If you're going to make accusations and claims, especially about health, you need to cite some sources.

Here's the problem: if you say things, there are people who will believe you. If you say things without evidence to back you up, people will take you at your word. If you then make something up out of thin air, people will believe the contrivance you've told them without having any way to immediately fact-check and make sure you're telling the truth. It's obviously unreasonable to expect you to stop mid-sentence when speaking and say "I sourced this from an article from MIT published on April 17, 2009 on the topic of quantum astrophysics," but on the Internet, citing sources is easy: just create a link.

It's the difference between saying "on paper, men should be more flexible than women because men have more muscle fibers, and it's the muscle fibers that stretch the most, thus men have a higher natural flexibility" and saying "on paper, men should be more flexible than women because men have more muscle fibers, and it's the muscle fibers that stretch the most, thus men have a higher natural flexibility." It's exactly the same sentence, and one I've said before (though not word-for-word), but when you have published papers to back up what you're saying, people know for a fact that you're not spreading bullshit, rather than having to just take your word for it.

It turns out that probably through no fault of their own, the biggest online spreader of uncited claims is a company called Taboola. You might not have heard of them, but they're the aggregation source of "related articles" for sites such as The Huffington Post and The Weather Channel. Here are some of the "quality" articles that Taboola will sometimes link to:

Anything on fitnea.com. According to their About page, "Fitnea is all about giving people as much information as possible about staying fit both mentally and physically." And that's all it says. Seriously, that's the entirety of their About page, other than something about contacting them if you have a suggestion. I contacted them asking if they're ever going to cite a source; they never replied. They have articles about things like 11 foods you should avoid because they destroy your mental health, and they'll make specific arguments for each one, but not a link is to be found to actually back up what they're saying.

Anything on epyk.com. They don't even have an About page, or anything at all to indicate who they are or what they do; they just post scare articles. Their "Tech" "category" has precisely one article in it - without a date posted, so you have no idea if the supposed "information" is current - that opens with the following sentence: "The entire Antivirus industry has reportedly admitted to a serious product flaw: antivirus products are poor at detecting or terminating new viruses that you might download." First of all, industries don't make announcements. Secondly, making that announcement would be corporate suicide. Since they included the word "reportedly" in that sentence, what's their source for this catastrophic information? Why it's ...conspicuously absent.

Money Morning. That article in particular is nothing but a scare ad to try to get you to buy a book. Not only are there seven links within the article itself to a video presentation that will eventually lead to trying to sell you a book, but 4 of the 5 related articles on the right all lead to the same video, and the other leads to a similar article about graphene, from which 4 of its 5 related articles all lead to a different 'the same video,' and the fifth leads back to the graphene article again. This one is particularly weird because the rest of the site seems legitimate. And again, neither article cites a single source for its claims.

com-7.co websites. The URL is designed to trick you into thinking you're on a website you're not actually on, by putting the name of the supposed website at the beginning of the actual one, i.e. google.com-7.co. In addition to not citing any sources, this adds an additional level of deception to the "article" by making it seem like it's coming from a legitimate source - they even spoof the layout of the site they're pretending to be. The one I found was spoofing Women's Health, claiming that a miracle bean could help you lose 15 pounds in 4 weeks, and was an obvious sell article. Even better, their "before and after" picture towards the bottom of the page showed two plainly different women who both appear to weigh about the same amount.

This sell page for instaflex. It claims all kinds of benefits from the compound, but there's no documented scientific evidence for anything other than the glucosamine actually having any benefits. And since they don't cite any sources anywhere on their site, you'll never know that unless you specifically go looking. Also, based on some reviews of their product on Amazon, it turns out the company is running a scam where they charge you for pills even after you tell them to stop. See what I did there? I cited a source, so you know I'm not just making shit up.

This scare page for wheat - which is actually a sell page for someone's book. The entire site is, actually. The page makes all kinds of claims about how wheat is bad for you, wheat causes you to not lose fat, and no page on the entire site (as far as I went in it) ever cites an external source.

To make things clear, I'm not trying to shit on Taboola here, because they're just the intermediary who's connecting people to the content. They're in the business of making money, just like everyone else is, and if the ones giving them money happen to be these guys, that's no concern of mine (though I did once email them asking if they care that the pages they're linking to are frequently wholly unethical; they did not respond). The problem is the articles themselves, and in some cases the entire websites in question.

The common thread here is that they tell you things are true, but they never bother to prove it to you. You're just supposed to take their word for it, and trust that they'd never make up a bold-faced lie to get you to buy their product. The real problem is that such practices are potentially very dangerous, because if you happen upon a page like this that tells you a medicine you're taking is ineffective and you should switch to their new herbal supplement instead, and you believe them, then you're no longer going to be getting the benefits of the medicine. It could claim that stretching before exercise weakens your performance, causing you to stop stretching before exercise, and then you get an injury you wouldn't have otherwise gotten. It could tell you that you should stop eating gluten even if you don't have Celiac Disease, and then you suddenly gain all kinds of weight because it turns out the crap they add to make gluten-free substances look and taste like food has significantly more calories than the gluten did - an article on this kind of thing might follow later at some point.

That's why citations are so important when you're presenting things as factual, and it's why I do my best to cite as many sources as possible on this site - and I'm mainly here just to yell at people for being stupid! If I can take the time to research sources to back up the things I say here for free, then the people who are supposedly making a living by writing such articles can certainly afford to take the time to do it too; that they're not is a conscious choice on their part. If you ever come across an article that makes wild claims and doesn't cite any sources - even from me - never take it at face value; do your own research before trusting what it says.

I don't usually do this, but there's going to be a sequel to this article. One in which I defend the indefensible, where I take a set of accusations without citation that's been laid at the feet of a celebrity, and examine them one by one for validity. Be sure to come back next time when I spend more time than any grown man has any right to spend... on Justin Bieber.

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