October 30, 2013. Marta Wegorzewska, PhD candidate, in collaboration with Dr. Seth Bokser, MD. Edited by Dr. Darya Rose, PhD.
Stacy became concerned about a report on a scientific study linking a father’s age and his child’s risk of autism while watching the news with her husband. She’d never heard this before.
Stacy is 3 months pregnant and her husband is 48 years old. Will her child have autism? This question lingers in her mind into the next day.
Stacy turns to Google. Her first search, “autism and father’s age”, pulls up an overwhelming number of hits. She starts at the top and works her way down until the contradictory information about the study frustrates her.
What should Stacy believe?
Science is a language most of us are not familiar with, and it can be confusing. Scientists spend years going to school to learn it.
If you are not a scientist and want answers to questions about your pregnancy, how do you know what to believe if you do not know the scientific language?
The good news is you don’t have to change careers to get answers to your questions. Google will pull up lots of information for you. And the information can be translated into words that you understand.
The bad news is, the Internet is full of opinionated people who want to be heard. You have to decide if you can trust what you read. How do you know that you are getting the facts?
The following steps will help you better identify accurate information on the Internet:
1. Get to know your author. Would you change your eating habits because a stranger on the bus told you to? Probably not, unless you found out that she was a dietitian. If you cannot determine if your author was trained in science (holds a MD, PhD, and/or masters) or has years of experience (works for an organization that specializes on your topic of interest), you may want to hold off on taking her advice.
2. Learn about the other side of the story. If your author only presents one side of the story, chances are there is another side she is not telling you about. You may see more articles on the Internet about one side than the other. Quantity of articles does not equate with quality of the information. One side may have an advantage in grabbing readers’ attention. It may be inherently more dramatic or presented in such a way that intentionally plays on your fears. Spend time learning about the other side of the story.
3. Look for references. Accurate information comes from scientific studies. You will know if what you are reading is supported by science if your author tells you where this information came from. Sometimes the author will talk about a specific study directly in the article or list it at the end of the article. Do a quick scan for the references or you may find yourself believing an opinion that may not be true.
4. Make decisions with your provider. Do not change anything about your pregnancy because of what you read on the Internet. Talk to your provider first about what you learned. Scientific studies have limitations. Science takes years and multiple studies to find the truth. These studies are like the pieces of a puzzle. Many pieces are required to have a clear picture. Talk to your provider about what you learned and together decide if scientists have a clear enough picture of their findings to affect you today.
You do not need to enroll in years of school to get accurate information related to your pregnancy questions. By following steps 1-4, you will be able to:
1. Eliminate scientifically inaccurate information from your reading list.
2. Have an informed conversation with your provider to discuss if it is safe for you to change your behavior based on what you read.
Which of the questions above are the most difficult for you to answer as you scan the Internet for answers?
This work is funded in part by the Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration (GSICE) program at UCSF