It's predicted that the Internet will contain 200 million Web sites by 2010. Seventy percent of Americans use the Internet. There's no question that we have greater access to more information than ever before. But how much of that information is trustworthy?



There's a saying that, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Problem is there are a lot of opinions out there presented as facts. With the exponential growth in the sources of "information," those faux facts can spread like wildfire.



There's also a joke: "It was on the Internet, so it must be true." On the Internet, anyone can claim to be an expert. Since few Web sites have fact checkers, and since we can't always depend on the news media to get it right either, our job as information consumers is to question the veracity of the information or misinformation that constantly streams our way.



For example, a paper put out by Environment California titled "Overkill: Why Pesticide Spraying for West Nile Virus in California May Cause More Harm Than Good," says pesticides approved for mosquito control include compounds "known to have serious human health impacts." Well, sure, if you take a bath in the stuff.



What the paper doesn't mention is that all pesticides have safe, Environmental Protection Agency-approved application rates, and they would have to be applied at several times those rates to have "serious human health impacts." The report is filled with claims that pesticides "may" do this and "could" do that. Convincing? To anyone with even a basic understanding of pesticides, hardly. To the average reader, likely.



Here's another gem. An article in the July 2006 Smithsonian magazine by Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, who has written several New York Times articles critical of modern food production, says that nitrates used to fertilize crops flow into the Gulf of Mexico, "where their deadly fertility poisons the marine ecosystem."



Pollan is talking about the hypoxic zone in the gulf, an area that is low in oxygen needed by fish. Pollan fails to mention, because it doesn't help his argument, that there are other contributors to the hypoxic zone. Phosphorous from household chemicals is as responsible, if not more so. Variations in climate, waste material and petroleum that leak from ships, and a host of other nonagricultural sources are factors, as well.



To be a wise information consumer in this information age, one must be a critical thinker. Ask questions like, "Who says," "How did they come to that conclusion," "What are they not telling me" and "What is the opposing view?" The answers can help distinguish between facts and someone's two-cents worth. Do they use words like "may," "could" or "some?" These are signs that you need to look further for the facts.



Ironically, in this day when more information is more readily available than ever, the individual burden to research an issue to get at the truth also is greater. Consider the message, consider the source and look for the facts. Be a critical thinker and avoid misinformation overload.



Lynne Finnerty is the editor of FBNews, a publication of the American Farm Bureau Federation