Consider the Source
The Ultimate Skin Care Credibility Guide is going to be a multi-part series on the Bioluminescence Blog where I will explore, discuss and investigate the legitimacy of skin care information.
I know that the root and propagation of most modern skin disease originated from an ocean of misinformation freely available on the internet written by those who are unqualified to speak on scientific matters. We live in the Information Age, and we live in the Age of the Charlatan. The internet has given the charlatan an equal voice to that of the informed, and often is given more credibility, especially when speaking to your biases in a pseudoscientific manner.
Who is this guide for? It is for anyone who ever had or ever will read a skin care article online. You can use this guide to become a better investigator of the credibility of the resources you find, and determine for yourself if what you are reading has any truth value. After reading this guide I hope that this will help you become more critical in your thinking, and become a better judge of the information presented to you.
Part 1: Consider the Source
Information is slow. Misinformation is quick
The internet’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The ability for information to be freely supplied, transferred and received by anyone to anyone is what brought us into the Age of Information. But with that has also roped us into the Age of Misinformation. Misinformation is rampant on the internet because there are no fact-checking obstacles required to publish a blog. There is no peer review required. There is no degree or experience that must be obtained. And if you hire the right web developers, photographers, and publicist, you can have a credible-appearing blog that reaches millions of people. And you can have a widespread audience believing everything you write without a single kernel of truth found within any of your words.
There is a much bigger obstacle to credibility in the world of science.
As a scientist, if I wanted to publish my findings, on say, the increase in wrinkle formation associated with skin care containing essential oils, I would need to set aside 10-15 years to do so. Lets break that down:
Years 1-5: Obtaining a Bachelors degree in Science, with a focus on Biology
Years 6-9/10-Obtaining a Masters or PhD in Biology
Years 10-12 Researching, devising, carrying out your experiment. Repeating your experiment (many, many times)
Years 12-14 More research of the existing and supporting data from peer-reviewed published literature and writing your research paper
Years 14-15 Submitting to journals, undergoing the peer-review process, and editing your research paper for journal submission
At the end of this time period, you will be lucky if you get your data published in a credible and high-impact journal. More than likely you will run out of funding, have to halt your experiment to write a grant proposal and wait for a check to pick up where you left off.
Now here is the timeline for a non-scientist to write an article on her beauty blog about how ‘essential oils cure skin cancer’
Minute 1: create online blog account
Minute 15: Begin writing article
Minute 30: Go on google scholar, search for ‘essential oils curing skin cancer’
Minute 33: Copies summaries of all sources confirming her opinion
Minute 38: Pastes onto blog
Minute 40: Clicks publish.
*note: essential oils don’t cure skin cancer. If anything they make you susceptible to the disease due to their photosensitizing effect.
As you can see from the two timelines, there is a distinct reason why there is more misinformation than information. Credible data takes time. It takes money. And it takes education. Being a charlatan is quick, free and easy. The scientist was subject to over a decade of education, training and research, and by the end may not have a research paper to show for her efforts. The pseudoscientific beauty blogger did no fact-checking. She did not perform any due-diligence to determine if the sources she was using were credible. She does not even have the proper education or training to determine if her sources were credible (no, Google Scholar does not determine credibility for you). All she did was do a quick and dirty search for everything that confirmed her set-in-stone opinion, filtered out everything to the contrary, and only published the information suited to her bias for you to see. And because she backed it up with sources, she gave herself added credibility of ‘science’ in case you wanted to question her legitimacy.
Beauty/ skin care blogs are popular. Far more popular than any scientific journal (or even scientific blog). The reason why is because they are easier to read and more entertaining. Scientists are usually terrible writers. Scientific literature is dry, esoteric and boring. Scientists usually think that to properly write a scientific paper, it has to be written in a scientific language that no one can understand. If you don’t need a dictionary by your side to decode every sentence, word-by word, then the paper must not sound very scientific. Every scientist wants to be the James Joyce of research. The problem with writing something that no one can read is that the information held within is useless if no one can understand what you’re saying.
In my research on ovarian development in black widow spiders, I was dealing with a very fine-tuned, ultra specific field, where it was possible to read every published paper on the topic (a rarity in science). It is such an unexplored corner of biology that there was little research to go on, which is why I had to develop a lot of my research methods myself. It was difficult to find published literature from scientists who did similar work on other species of spiders because there simply weren’t enough people in the world who had or were researching this subject. I remember one time I got excited because I found a research paper dealing with my exact topic until I realized that I was the one who wrote that paper 3 years prior. After many years, I became an expert in the area of ovarian development in not just black widows, but of spiders (and I would argue ticks and scorpions as well). Even within my small field of biology that I had a corner on, I would still find research papers written by some PhD a the University of Whatever who had the antiquated notion that convoluted writing meant better writing. And I could not understand what they were trying to say. And this is after taking years to read every research paper on the subject of not just widow reproductive biology, but of all published data on the reproductive system of arachnids. And performing almost every histological method available or possible to study spider tissue.
And the problem of unreadable writing is not exclusive to widow biology, it is everywhere in science. You see it in cancer biology, stem cell biology, and everything in between. It is usually much worse because people’s lives are at stake, and the future of human health depends on this research. Research that no one can understand, no one can read, and no one can properly replicate.
So now you have the majority people who don’t bother with actual scientific literature because no one can be bothered to read the unreadable. Regardless of the information buried within.
Misinformation can often be just the opposite of scientific literature: it can be exciting, easy to read and interesting. People respect science. And they love to read something exciting presented in an easily consumable fashion. Combine the two and you have the rise of the pseudoscientific blog.
Beauty blogs are not credible sources of scientific information
Beauty blogs are a credible resource for one thing only: reviews. You don’t need to be a scientist or a professional to write a review. The only requirements needed to write a credible review are:
- You tried the product
- You were not given a bribe to try the product and write a review
Anyone can meet that criteria, and I think thats excellent because it helps with online shopping and becoming a more informed consumer. I like to go online and read about what others think of various products. I usually like to stick to reviews of products whose enjoyability is less user-variable. I wouldn’t read a review on perfume because everyone’s preference for scent (and its reactivity on the skin) is different. But I would read an Amazon review on a television before purchasing one. However, I wouldn’t read an Amazon review if I wanted to understand how liquid crystal display technology works. I would go to a scientific source for that information.
It requires no education, research or qualifications to write a review. All it takes is an opinion and a keyboard. So as long as the blogger is honest about their experience using a product, you can consider their information credible. And you can use their experience to help guide you in your purchases. In these reviews they can also provide tutorials, tips and tricks for using products which can also provide insight into how to better use the product.
Beauty blogs are not scientific literature and if they are not scientists, then they are not credible sources of scientific information.
One of the reasons why it takes a decade to be considered a scientist is because a lot of education and training is required to achieve scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is the ability to read and interpret scientific literature. I previously stated how difficult it is to read a scientific paper even after achieving scientific literacy. Does it therefore reason that someone with no scientific education or training can take a scientific paper and properly read and analyze it? Or do you think they just copied and pasted it into their ‘reference section’ to make themselves sound credible?
Only a scientist is qualified to cite scientific literature
The scientist does proper analysis of their cited literature and applies their years of experience to their research. The pseudoscientific beauty blogger copies and pastes.
Lets say that we want to do research on the topic of essential oils causing cell death in human fibroblasts. I find a paper that talks about how applying Neroli oil to the skin elicits apoptosis in healthy human skin cells. I need to determine if this scientific paper has merit before using it as a scientific source on my Bioluminescence Blog. Here is what goes into proper analysis of the scientific paper:1. Reading the introduction of the paper- The introduction is the overture for the rest of the paper and provides the necessary background and foundation for the research performed. It is important to know why this research was necessary.
Reading and analyzing the methods- This is the most important part of a research paper, and is the reason why a non-biologist cannot properly read and analyze a biological research study. The methods section explains in painstaking detail every step taken in a study, from the chemicals used (and their exact concentration) to the magnification (and brand name) of the microscope. The methods are written so that the study can be replicated ( a cornerstone of any scientific work), and so that the reader can determine if the results have merit. If methods were not properly carried out, then the results are worthless.
3. Proper analysis of the most important part of a scientific paper requires a background in that subject because you need to have experience in those methods. If you have experience in the methods, then you can properly determine if the author carried out the right methods in their experiment. If you have no experience, you have no idea. And you cannot determine the credibility of the paper.
4. Analyzing the results. In order to analyze the results you have to have the ability to read an interpret what results look like. If you are reading a paper on apoptosis, then you better be able to look at the results of an apoptosis assay and understand what you are looking at. The authors of a study are trying to persuade you on their conclusion, you need to be able to look at their data and determine if they are telling you the truth. I never had to read a novel for entertainment while earning my degree because there was enough fiction in the scientific literature I was reading. I was able to determine when I was being lied to because I had enough experience to do so. A beauty blogger (from a non-science background) is not capable of knowing when they are being lied to by scientific literature.
5. Researching and analyzing the bibliography. This section will provide further insight into the credibility of not just the research paper, but all of the foundational research that the present paper is built upon. I was able to debunk the “science” of vitamin C in skin care for anti-aging purposes by going into the literature cited and determining that it was nothing but hokum and bunk science. And all I had to do was a bit of reading and apply it to my experience in research.
Determining if the journal where the paper is published is credible. Look at the impact score of the journal where the article was published and take it into consideration. A high or medium impact journal means that the paper is likely of sound research because the journal has top-peer reviewers and a reputation to uphold. The competition to get published in a top journal is tight, and this usually means only good research goes into these journals. This isn’t alway true. There is the infamous case of the 100% false paper on vaccines causing autism published in The Lancet, an esteemed journal. Their reputation was completely tarnished (and many children died or are dying agonizing deaths from preventable illness) as a result. I will never read any article published in that journal. And look at the lasting and dangerous impact this article had because non-scientists misread a bogus study and propagated their false notions on TV and online
You also have the issue of bunk science published in what I call ‘paper mills’: journals of low impact that will publish any study. The journal gets the money from the author, and the author gets their study published. A publication can give the author credibility and further their career. A low impact journal isn’t bad, per-se because if it is from an unpopular area of science, a journal in that field will not be very popular and thus be of ‘low impact’. So a journal on invertebrate mating patterns in southern Sri Lanka may have a low impact score, it doesn’t mean that the data published within is bad. Its just not very interesting to most people. However I would wager that the Journal of spiritual essential oil homeopathy is probably a bad journal with a low impact score for other reasons.
As you can see, the scientist goes into a paper with skepticism and incredulity. You go into a scientific paper not believing the authors conclusion, and it is their job to convince you otherwise through sound research and strong results. And all of the above takes a long time. A proper reading of a scientific paper should take you at least one week to read. And most scientific papers are about 4-8 pages long.
The reason why scientific papers cited in beauty blogs are not credible is because beauty bloggers do not do the above analysis when writing their articles. Here is how a pseudoscientific beauty blogger writes their article:
- States their opinion.
- Goes on google scholar
- Types in search terms that confirm their opinion
- Go to the top results
- Reads the title of the paper and possibly the 5 sentence abstract (summary).
- Assumes the authors are 100% correct without any analysis of the paper
- Copies the citation into their blog
- Tells you this proves they are right because…SCIENCE.
None of the above is science. Its just someone pulling the wool over your eyes and telling you they are right. Period.
Science is a powerful tool, but pseudoscientific beauty bloggers wield it like a kid who found their dads gun. And this is why we have people using essential oils in skin care, vitamin C serums, microdermabrasion, and everything else harmful. And the skin diseases that result.
Google scholar, and other scientific resources weren’t meant for Mommyblogger #284729183a-38 to ‘prove to you’ that essential oils cure cancer. Or for the PR/Marketer-turned skin care expert to write on their blog that vitamin C serums are the holy grail of skin care, and here is the science to prove it.
Google scholar was meant for scientists to assist in their studies when they are conducting and writing their research. Most of it is behind a paywall, so you can be sure that most of those blogger-cited papers weren’t even read by the person citing them.
I explore this matter for a specific case of a blogger not reading the research they cited here
Determining credibility of the blogs you read.
Next time you read a beauty blog that goes into the science of something, or cites research, do the following to determine credibility:
- Assume that what you are being told is a not true. It is the authors job to convince you otherwise.
- Look at their ‘evidence’. Is it just a bunch of cited literature? A bunch of cited literature is meaningless without proper analysis.
- Does the author have the experience and training to understand the literature they’re citing? What field is their degree in? If they are a non-scientist then they are not capable of analyzing scientific literature because they do not have the education and experience to do so.
- Understand that a scientist cannot fully interpret science outside of their field of expertise. A chemist cannot properly analyze a biology paper unless they have an extensive background in biology. A chemist studied chemistry and performed chemistry experiments. If they did not perform biological experiments, then they cannot determine if the methods of a biological paper were done properly. And therefore they cannot determine, with certainty if the paper has scientific merit. Don’t fall for appeals to authority. I wouldn’t want a physicist fixing my car, regardless of their PhD or publications. And I wouldn’t want a chemist analyzing biological research.
- Are the papers they cited behind a paywall? If the blogger is not a scientist, then they likely do not have access to those papers unless they paid $75.00+ for access. Which is unlikely.
- Look out for their language. One word scientists do not use is the word ‘proven.’ Science is not here to ‘prove’ things. Scientists know that. Pseudoscientists don’t care. Science is here to support or refute existing hypotheses of natural phenomenon. Science changes, proven things don’t. Proofs only exist in two realms: in courts of law and in mathematics. We do not try people twice for the same crime once they were proven innocent, and once a mathematical proof is concluded it is Quod Erat Demonstrandum and we do not revisit the possibility that 2+2 may equal anything other than 4.
- Given the above analysis of what it takes to not only become a scientist, but to read a scientific paper, do you believe that the author of the beauty blog met the criteria for proper scientific analysis of the papers they are citing?
I believe that we wouldn’t have as much acne, dermatitis and other skin ailments if it weren’t for the rapid spreading of misinformation by unqualified individuals ‘who just sound so sure’. Hubris can make an author convincing, and reinforced with scientific studies can make their words sound like fact. I am hoping that with this series, we can work together to put an end to the spreading of misinformation, end this Age of the Charlatan, and make your skin look better in the process.
Please send your input for upcoming credibility articles to firstname.lastname@example.org