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• Does the information relate to your research topic?
• Is the information in-depth enough for academic use?
• Is the author qualified to write about this topic?
• Can you find additional information about the author through Google?
• Is the information supported by evidence?
• Has the author provided citations or links to research they quote?
• Is the information presented objectively, or could the author be trying to sell, entertain, or persuade readers?
• Can you detect any potential biases? (For journal articles, check to see if there are any declarations of conflicts of interest or competing interests, as well as if there is a statement of who funded the study, such as a foundation or government body.)
Assessing the Credibility of Public Experts
In many domains, we have to trust the expertise of others to guide our decisions.
Yet not all experts hold rational beliefs, and many people who are framed as experts in media are not actually experts.
Below are some questions to ask when assessing the credibility of people who are framed as experts.
This is particularly relevant when someone disagrees with expert consensus. Sometimes people get a platform just because they have a novel or interesting idea, even if that idea is unconvincing to a knowledgeable person. It is of course possible that the non-expert is right and the experts are wrong, but it’s unlikely.
People who have one big idea to explain everything are very bad at accurately modeling the world, predicting outcomes, and recommending effective actions. These people are often selected for media attention because they are clear and confident about their beliefs. The world is a complex place, and people who are able to model that complexity in their minds have better information than those who aren’t. Look for people who tend to use multi-factor explanations.
Inability to change one’s mind is a hallmark of an irrational belief system. Can you find examples of this person changing her mind in the past when presented with new evidence or a better interpretation of existing evidence?
This is common among experts, less common among the best experts, and very common among non-experts. It’s also often easy to spot with a little effort. Do a quick Library search for a recent meta-analysis on the topic. Are the conclusions of the meta-analysis consistent with the evidence the author is citing, or are they cherry-picking individual studies that support their position?
Corruption, irrationality, and dishonesty do exist among experts, but if someone makes these claims without presenting clear evidence for them, it’s a bad sign. Accusing opposing experts of “lies”, “scams”, and other similar language is a red flag that the person making the claim is not objective. Conflicts of interest are common among experts, and good to keep in mind, but it’s useful to consider possible conflicts of interest of the person pointing them out as well
Domains such as religion, politics, and nutrition relate strongly to peoples’ personal identities. In this context, beliefs are often driven by group affiliation rather than rational consideration of evidence. The likelihood that someone is providing high-quality information in these domains is lower than in less controversial areas like physics or neuroscience.