Does that Sound Like Research to You?

poison symbolThree days after his wife died from cyanide poisoning, medical researcher Robert Ferrante typed a search into Yahoo! Answers:

How would a coroner detect when someone is killed by cyanide?

Several months before his wife was poisoned, Ferrante also searched for:

  • information on divorce laws,
  • how to tell if a woman was having an affair,
  • and the legal definition of “malice of forethought” an apparent reference to the legal term “malice aforethought,” meaning premeditation.

During his trial, the prosecutor used Ferrante’s online searches against him. Ferrante claimed that he was just doing “research” related to his work. In closing arguments the prosecutor noted that:

…one article was titled, “Illinois man wins the lottery, poisoned by cyanide,” and she asked the jury, “Does that sound like research to you?”

Ferrante was later sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder.

Ferante’s choice to use Yahoo! Answers is a little like choosing to play the lottery: it’s alluring and it occasionally provides good reliable information, but often it doesn’t. For a question about cyanide detection in the body there are a number of reliable sources that surface easily by doing a Google search. If you can manage to pass by the first few hits from companies selling products to detect cyanide, just a few sites down are reputable sites from the National Institute of Health, state poison centers, and scholarly medical articles about cyanide detection and poisoning. These are much more reliable then the random and anonymous person that might answer a Yahoo! Answers question.

Unlike searching for facts, questions like: “Is my wife having an affair?” can be dicey to throw out there on Google or Yahoo! Answers. Suddenly all the vultures pop up to “help.”,, and pop to the top of a Google search, but WikiHow snags first billing on my Google search with the enticing click-bait of:

How to Tell if Your Wife is Cheating (With Pictures)

The pictures are disappointing, but WikiHow also cites sources, probably to boost its ranking and get the number one slot in Google. The citations are not to research articles or even marriage counselor advice columns, but to other sites trying to boost their own traffic with quickly thrown together “articles.” One of the four citations is to It provides a brief useless article in poorly written English on how to determine if your wife is cheating, and then suggests you might want to blow off steam by gaming on, you guessed it,, their social media gaming platform based in Singapore.

In the same way that Ferrante ended up sidetracked and viewing the site on the lottery winner who died of cyanide poisoning, I find myself quickly sucked into investigating Why would WikiHow cite such a shoddy website? I jump on Wikipedia and the article on screams:

This article has multiple issues … appears to be written by a contributor with a close connection to the subject … is an orphan—has no links to it or from it.

 I hear the little voice in my head mimicking the prosecutor in the Ferrante case: Does that sound like research to you?

[Excerpt from: Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth]

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