The unfortunate reality is that in this "Age of Information," where we as a species have the ability to store, access, and transfer knowledge with a speed that fifty years ago would have been in the realm of science fiction, it is harder than ever to know what's true and what isn't.
The internet is as good a conduit of bullshit as it is of the truth. Not only are there plenty of well-intentioned but ill-informed people, there are lots of folks who lie deliberately for their own ends -- monetary gain, power, influence, the dubious thrill of having pulled off a hoax, or just their "five minutes of fame." It used to be that in order to be successful, these purveyors of bad information had to go to the trouble and expense of writing a book, or at least of finding a way to get speaking engagements. Now that anyone with money and access can own a webpage, there's nothing stopping cranks, liars, hoaxers, and the rest from getting their message out there to the entire electronic world simultaneously.
When I taught a high school course in critical thinking, one of my mantras was "check your sources." If you find a claim online, where did it come from? What is the originator's background -- does it seem like (s)he has sufficient knowledge and expertise? Has it been checked and corroborated by others? If it's from a journal, is it a peer-reviewed source -- or one of the all-too-common "pay to play" journals that will take damn near anything you write if you're willing to pay them to do it? Does it line up with what we already know from science and history? (Another mantra was "nearly every time someone claims 'this new theory will overturn everything we know about physics!', it turns out to be wrong.")
None of this guarantees that the claim is correct, of course; but using those questions as general guidelines will help you to navigate the intellectual minefield of science representation on the internet.
Except when it doesn't.
As an example of this, have you heard of Camille Noûs?
I hadn't, until I read a troubling story that appeared last week in Nature, written by Cathleen O'Grady. Camille Nôus first showed up as a signatory on an open letter about science policy in France early last year, and since then has been listed as a co-author on no fewer than 180 different papers. She? He? -- the name "Camille" could be either, which I don't think is accidental -- has been racking up citation after citation, in a wide range of unrelated fields, including astrophysics, ecology, chemistry, and molecular biology.
Pretty impressive accomplishments in the world of research, where increasing specialization has resulted in what a friend of mine described as "researchers knowing more and more about less and less until finally they'll know everything about nothing."
This same narrowing of focus is why the red flag of Camille Noûs's ubiquity would never become apparent to many scientists; they might find the name over and over in papers from their field of evolutionary biology, for example, and not realize -- probably never even see -- that Noûs had also, astonishingly, co-authored papers in medical biochemistry.
So what's going on here?
By this point, it probably will come as no shock that Camille Noûs doesn't exist. The last name "Noûs" was chosen because "nous" means "we" in French, and is also a play on the Greek word νοῦς, which means "reason." Noûs was the brainchild of RogueESR, a French science advocacy group, as a way to personify collective efforts and knock the elitist attitude of some leading scientists down a peg. RogueESR protested the cost-saving approach by many research institutions of eliminating tenure-track positions and making just about all available openings temporary, project-specific research, and they decided to come up with a moniker representing the human, group-cooperative side of science."Hundreds of articles will make this name the top author on the planet," they wrote in a newsletter, "with the consequence of distorting certain bibliometric statistics and demonstrating the absurdity of individual quantitative assessment."