Facts in a Sea of Fiction: The Search for Reliable Health Science in the Internet Age

12/18/2017 03:23 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2017

In a 2011 Ted Talk, Ben Goldacre identifies what he believes to be the biggest single ethical problem facing modern medicine—the difficulty of locating reliable information that can be used to make responsible decisions. This problem extends into almost every area of life, but may be most dangerous when it comes to personal health. In the world of health science, easy access to large amounts of data may seem like a good thing. The more information we have, the more informed we are, right? But consider the vastness of the internet.

The internet represents the most popular information source currently available. Unfortunately, while the internet is the most popular source of information, it is not always the most reliable. Health information online ranges from articles published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals to pseudo-scientific opinion pieces, and biased blog posts. With so much information always at our fingertips, locating credible sources can be very difficult, particularly when trying to distinguish between good health science and bad.

The Infinite Audience

While there have always been both reliable and unreliable information sources, the internet has allowed bad health science to flourish like never before. Headlines and concepts based on bad science are often more sensational, and in a significantly higher quantity, than reliable facts derived from studies and journals that use proper scientific method. The latter is also usually less exciting and therefore, more difficult to locate. The result is that good health science is often overlooked in favor of sensational misinformation. Many people are all too willing to accept sketchy science at face value, and are almost entirely unwilling to follow up with reliable research. The anti-vaccination movement is an appropriate example.

Vaccination Disorientation

There aren’t many medical theories that have been as soundly and thoroughly disproven as the proposed connection between vaccinations and autism. The amount of reliable research invalidating the connection is staggering, and Andrew Wakefield, the researcher whose work first set off the vaccination controversy, has since been discredited and stripped of his medical license. Additionally, neither he nor any other researchers have been able to reproduce the results from his initial study. As far as the scientific community is concerned, Wakefield intentionally falsified data for financial gain.

His work should have been quickly forgotten, but it wasn’t.

In today’s 140-character-limit society, the slow processes associated with good science are hardly share-worthy. Dramatic headlines, on the other hand, travel very far indeed. Effortless sharing options, coupled with a wide audience of interested listeners, have allowed the anti-vaccination movement to proliferate. Now, approximately three out of ten Americans think that vaccinations should not be mandatory. As a result, many preventable, potentially fatal diseases are resurfacing. The anti-vax movement is perhaps the most alarming consequence of sensationalist science, but it’s certainly not the only example. Thanks to bad science, certain foods are being incorrectly identified as dangerous, despite lack of evidence.

Unfounded Infamy

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that causes the body to react badly to gluten. When a person with the disorder ingests foods containing gluten, their body’s immune system attacks the small intestine, resulting in a number of possible short-term and chronic gastrointestinal problems. A gluten-free diet is one of the most reliable ways to manage celiac disease, and currently 3.1 million Americans actively avoid eating gluten. However, only about a fourth of those Americans actually suffer from Celiac disease. While new research suggests that some may suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, for many of the rest, the decision to avoid gluten is likely based on the public perception that gluten is bad for everyone—an idea that is not backed by any reputable science. Similarly, the ingredient carrageenan, a seaweed extract that is used to thicken certain foods (such as ice cream), or keep them from separating (think almond milk), is currently at the center of an ongoing controversy. Claims that carrageenan may be linked to cancer and other serious medical issues are so prevalent, that an entire movement has developed around having it removed from all food products.

Carrageenan opponents cite flawed research, while ignoring the vast majority of peer-reviewed data, which does not confirm any health threats. Despite the fact that major food regulatory committees around the world affirm carrageenan’s safety as an additive, social media and blog enthusiasts continue to spread the hype.

Taking things a step further, fad diets likewise rely on hype and shareability, while also promising readers something that is often too enticing to pass up—easy solutions to difficult problems.

Fashion Plate

A nutritious, balanced diet, paired with an active lifestyle, can help promote good overall health. Of course, for many diet enthusiasts, this is of secondary importance when compared to weight loss, making diets that promise simple, fast ways to shed unwanted pounds that much more attractive. They’re also too good to be true. Healthy weight loss is a slow process, one that depends more on changing habits and exercising portion control than on identifying the “one weird trick” so often promised in sharable clickbait articles. Diets that eliminate entire categories of food, rely on pills, encourage long-term fasting, or that promise astonishing results with minimal effort can do more harm than good. At best, these diets may lead to temporary weight loss, often due to malnourishment or dehydration. At worst, they can cause serious harm. Once again, it’s not necessarily a lack of information that prevents people from understanding that these fad diets are often dangerous, it’s the difficulty of finding reliable information when bombarded with misinformation.

New diet crazes are born so quickly and so often, that they seldom have the benefit of being thoroughly tested. In these cases, reliable scientific data may not only be difficult to find, it might not exist at all. Just as you wouldn’t ingest a prescription drug that had never gone through clinical trials, you should never commit to a diet that hasn’t been scientifically proven to be safe and effective.

Know Better

One key thing lesson that we can take from these examples, is that with a little effort, we can position ourselves to consume more reliable data.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Goldacre’s explains in his Ted Talk. “Lift up the lid, finger around in the mechanics, and peer in.”

Essentially, we cannot be passive recipients of whatever information comes our way. Instead of believing every sensational headline or shocking tweet we read, we need to follow up and find the science. We need to be willing to take responsibility, extracting the best available and follow up with personal research.

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