How to spot fake health news

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How to spot fake health news

How to spot fake health news

Fake news is everywhere.

As a practitioner and health writer myself, my main concern is with fake health news. And it’s getting pretty savvy. Those flashy, sensational, or controversial headlines are designed to grab our attention. Leaked information, or whistle-blower stories can erode our trust. And, not only in who is disseminating the information (media), but also who that information is about too.

My goal is to help combat the ridiculous amount of fake health news out there. I want to increase intelligent skepticism of health news, as I recently wrote about here and here.

I also want to help you be able to respond when your clients ask about the latest headline. I want you to be ultra-credible. I want to join forces with you to improve public health on an epic scale.

I really do!

How?

By recognizing fake health news, and combating it. One blog and social media post at a time.

Are you with me?

Before we begin, know that my mission is based on a deep-seated philosophy that WHAT is right is infinitely more important than WHO is right. Myself included. (HINT: In this post I share a story about being happy that someone questioned my knowledge.)

I posted this a few years ago:

Who is right vs what is right

It is a photo of the Canadian and American falls at Niagara. We have the longest border in the world. And there is no military defending it on either side. We don’t agree on everything, but we use discussions and not wars. So, let’s discuss how to spot fake health news.

Too much fake health news

We live in an unprecedented information age. With 24-7 access to the internet, and 76.3 million new blog posts being published. Every. Single. Month. On WordPress alone!

We live in a time of fake news and “alternative” facts (a.k.a. mistruths, falsehoods, and downright lies).

We just lived through the year that the Oxford dictionary declared the 2016 word of the year to be… Do you know what it was?

“Post-truth”

It is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”(ref)

And, while a lot of the “post-truth” references are political, it has some serious implications in terms of communicating health and science.

On a good note, Google announced its intention to show if certain posts have been fact-checked. Search results are supposed to start showing a little “fact checked” label under them. I haven’t seen any yet, have you?

Facebook has created a policy to help curb the spread of fake news.

Even if we do identify what information is real or fake, and curb its spread, there is still the issue of  algorithms. They show you web and social media posts based on ones you’ve previously liked. They create an “information bubble” around us where we stop seeing different perspectives. Where we get regular confirmation that what we “like” is true.

Even if it’s not.

(And I’m going to share a story where I found myself proven wrong.)

The bottom line is that there hasn’t been so much information readily and instantly available in the history of the world. And this information comes in varying degrees of quality. Just about all of it is biased to some extent. And it has either strong, weak, misunderstood, or completely misrepresented evidence.

All of this good and bad health information has the ability to affect clients, blog audiences, and public health in general. Ultimately, everyone online can indirectly be affected through grassroots health practitioners like you and I.

This is why it’s so important to me and why I want to join forces with you. People see and hear new health information every day. Many of them act on it. Some of the information is false. And making health decisions based on fake news can be dangerous. I’ll tell you a true story in a second.

Why should you care?

Let me tell you a few reasons why I care. Why I want you to have and spread the best information to your clients and audience.

It truly is because I want to join forces with you to improve public health on an epic scale.

Here are a couple of my reasons:

Reason #1 Why I Care – A story about grapefruit juice and medications

An older person I know has many conditions. He is taking many medications. Years ago I warned him not to eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice.

Forget the fact that I have a Master of Science degree in biomedical toxicology and nutrition. Or that I wrote a paper on this exact mechanism in grad school. Or that I worked in drug safety for 12 years. These are how I was exposed to this fact, but certainly aren’t necessary to know that grapefruit and its juice interact with many medications. Including at least one he is taking.(1)

It really doesn’t matter how I know; the point is that it’s correct (it’s not fake health news). And I care about him.

So, what does he do? Goes to look it up himself.

Yay, right?

I applaud his skepticism of what I say, and taking the initiative to double-check. I wish more people were empowered over their health and learned about their conditions, medications, and lifestyle interventions to be healthier. Don’t believe anyone at face value, even experts can be wrong. (Yep, including me!)

#WHATisrightvsWHOisright

Even experts can be wrong. (Yep, including me!) #WHATisrightvsWHOisright #fakenews #health #bias #ego Click To Tweet

But, what did he find?

That the “grapefruit effect” only lasts for 2 hours. Two. Hours. (It actually lasts over 24 hours).(1,2)

Why do I care about this? Why should you or anyone else care?

Here’s what happens:

Grapefruit (and limes, pomelo oranges, and seville oranges) contain a type of compound called a “furanocoumarin.” This compound inhibits an enzyme (CYP 3A4 for #healthnerds like me) that metabolizes dozens of medications.

In his case it’s a blood pressure medication.

This means that taking the medication and grapefruit he is inadvertently overdosing on his medications. Once cup of grapefruit juice can cause blood levels of certain medications to be 300% higher than water.  By drinking 3 glasses a day for 6 days, one single dose can reach 500% higher blood levels than with water.(1)

Even having a small glass of grapefruit juice 24 hours before the med increases blood levels by 32% or more.(2)

Can you see how having 32+% higher medication levels in your blood can be dangerous, and why fake health news is a public health issue?

Fake health news is a #publichealth issue. Find out how to spot fake #health news - #fakenews Click To Tweet

This is such a simple thing to prevent. A simple and unified public health message to ditch the grapefruit if you’re taking certain medications (85 meds and counting). Enjoy other citrus fruit (not limes, pomello oranges or seville oranges).

Let’s not allow incorrect information to negatively affect public health.

Help me spread the word on this one, please.

Reason #2 Why I Care – Books, blogs, and documentaries

Lots of people create or contribute to health books, blogs, and documentaries. And I’m guessing the main reason is to share their message with a larger audience. #amirite

1 – Expert opinions aren’t always right

Books, blogs, and documentaries are essentially a collection of stories (also known as “anecdotes“) and “expert opinions.” Most don’t have rigorous review (or even much fact checking) before publication. However, many people who read or watch these believe they’re credible, that the experts are correct, and that the information applies to their unique health situation. So, they go ahead and act on the information and make decisions to change something they’re doing. Sometimes this is great (like getting people to eat more vegetables). Sometimes this is dangerous (like drinking grapefruit juice with meds).

Yes, I’m knocking expert opinion. (Don’t worry, I’ve been proven wrong too!)

#WHATisrightvsWHOisright

Want to know why “expert opinion” is not considered to be high quality source of information, especially when it comes to health and science?

2 – Books, blogs, and documentaries have medical disclaimers

The fallibility of expert opinion aside, there is another reason why books, blogs, and documentaries based on expert opinion aren’t reliable. It’s called “medical disclaimers.” They’re used to disclaim liability from anyone who uses their information and is harmed by it. Say, by drinking grapefruit juice 2 hours after taking medication.

Here’s why:

Licenses to practice, codes of ethics, and medical liability insurance can be prohibitive. They can stop health professionals from making certain recommendations to their clients/patients.

But, not if you share them in a book or blog or documentary with a good medical disclaimer.

Many experts use these avenues to say things that they may not be able to in a professional relationship with a patient or client. And certainly they can say things without needing their peers or others to weigh in on the quality of the information.

In fact, I’ve heard health “gurus” admit to purposefully dropping their professional healthcare licenses so they can say whatever they want to without fear of professional misconduct! #redflag

3 – Books, blogs, and documentaries re-tell old stories

Another problem is when the often un-credible information in books, blogs, and documentaries are used as references for new books, blogs and documentaries. By not looking more critically at that information, and searching for contrary and updated information, it gives the impression that:

  • The information is new (because it’s in a new book, blog, or documentary); and,
  • The information is true and high enough quality to be referenced.

So much health information just continues the cycle of incorrect health information. #fakehealthnews

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What’s an educated practitioner to do?

Yes, there is SO MUCH conflicting health information out there. And no education is complete upon graduation. Not even medical school.

Sure, helping people drink more water, eat more vegetables, or cook from scratch are no-brainer great things to help clients do more of. But, if you’re digging down into helping people with certain conditions you may need to learn a lot more.

This is why spotting fake health news is so important.

Keep learning the new and better information. Be intelligently skeptical.

Also, notice when some piece of information really gets you frustrated. If you start feeling defensive, take a step back. New information is NOT about you, it’s about new information.

#WHATisrightvsWHOisright

Here are a few of my favourite quotes on the topic of being open to being wrong:

Everyone you will ever meet

Byron Katie says:

“If a criticism hurts you, that means you’re defending against it. Your body will let you know very clearly when you’re feeling hurt or defensive. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling rises and becomes anger and attack, in the form of defense or justification. It’s not right or wrong; it just isn’t intelligent.”

If a criticism hurts you

 

And I’m all for intelligent review of health information.

 

So, how do you spot fake health news?

1 – See how other people have spotted it

Here are some recent examples of fake nutrition news. It discusses the science (or lack thereof) behind:

  • Nutella causes cancer;
  • Red meat causes cancer; and,
  • Low-carb is a sham.

Here is a quick summary of a few studies and how they were reported in the media/online. You’ll see the difference between what the studies concluded, versus what the headlines said.

2 – Learn how to spot it yourself

Here’s an interesting article about a study that tried to teach kids to spot fake health news. It lists the most important ideas a person would need to grasp to critically evaluate health claims, including:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

Here is my second-most favourite infographic of all time. It’s a Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science. It includes a few points on how to spot bad media coverage (see #1, 2 & 10). Many of the other points refer to spotting if the study itself wasn’t awesome.

3 – Look for and follow credible organizations

There are also a number of organizations that are on the path to show consensus on health information or look for fake health news. They are:

  • Evidently Cochrane
    • Sharing health evidence you can trust
  • True Health Initiative
    • Our mission is to create a culture free of preventable chronic disease by demonstrating and disseminating the global consensus on the fundamental, evidence-based truths of lifestyle as medicine.
  • Health News Review
    • We systematically review health news to help journalists and the public improve their critical thinking about claims of health care interventions.

5 – Accept that our understanding of health is constantly evolving

When it comes to nutrition in particular, there are lots of reasons for a plethora of conflicting information. Particularly because it’s extremely difficult to do randomized controlled trials and control exactly how much of what foods people eat. This has been eloquently explained by Julia Belluz at Vox, John Berardi at Precision Nutrition, Darya Rose at Summer Tomato, and Sarah Ballantyne at The Paleo Mom.

And I completely agree with Sarah that:

“The human body is extremely complex, and it is true that we understand only a fraction of how all the systems in the body interact with each other, diet, lifestyle and the environment. But these studies still help increase our understanding of health and are our best tools to inform our choices.” ~Sarah Ballantyne, The Paleo Mom

You can download my list of credible health resources. I’ve also included links to these and more articles explaining why health science seems conflicting, particularly nutrition science. And if you’re so inclined to go straight to the science, I’ve included some PubMed tips too.

Credible Health Research

Credible health resources

Download this list of credible health resources and tips on where to research health topics.

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6 – Learn how to do your own research… credibly

When you research for your own blog posts or client recommendations, here’s my method on how to do it both CREDIBLY and EFFICIENTLY.

Before I reference anything, here are some things I look out for:

  • Do they cite mostly peer-reviewed scientific articles?
  • Are the references recent?
  • Do they cite corporations that make the products they are affiliated with?
  • Do they cite like-minded experts?
  • Do they cite no one because of their grandiose expertise?

A few warnings signs that scream “don’t trust this” to me are:

  • What products or programs are for sale on the site. Not just ads, but also products and services that they may have a financial investment in. Are their posts sponsored? Do they promote one particular brand?
  • Does the website try to be controversial? Are their headlines “clickbait?” Do they purposefully go against common recommendations to stand out and become known?

I have to say that I’ve been highly disappointed in a few different new books that purpot to be the new way of medicine. They claim to be science-based and have a bunch of PhDs and MDs etc. as spokespeople. Some “facts” they mention in their new book references textbooks that are 20 years old. They didn’t even fact-check or search for primary scientific references!

And I know they’re not facts, because after hearing these claims in the past, I looked up the research and didn’t find anything to support it.

7 – Be intelligently skeptical, and cautiously open, to new information

Nope, not even fancy degrees or years of experience stop me from changing my mind to new (credible) information. Last year I completely changed my mind on gut microbes because of new information that just came out.

8 – Don’t spread fake news

Recent research at MIT confirmed that fake news spreads faster and farther than the truth.

They also identified certain characteristics of the “spreadable” fake news vs the truth. Fake news:

  • Is more novel
  • Evokes feelings of fear, disgust, & surprise.

The “less spreadable” truth evokes feelings of anticipation, trust, joy, & sadness.

 

Conclusion

Will you join forces with me to spread credible health information to your clients, audience, and the world?

  • Grapefruit and juice should not be taken with medications.
  • SPOILER ALERT FROM WHEN I CHANGED MY MIND: There are NOT 10x as many gut microbes as human cells, the number of human and gut microbe cells is about the same.
  • WHAT is right is infinitely more important than WHO is right
  • Expert opinion is not always right (not even mine!)
  • Everyone can learn to spot fake health news

I hope so!

 

Signing off and toasting: To spotting and preventing the spread of fake health news!

 

Over to you

What do you think? How do you spot fake health news? Did I miss any other helpful resources? Do you have any comments or questions?

Let me know in the comments and I’ll personally reply!

 

References

(1) Bailey, D.G., Dresser, G., J. & Arnold, J.M.O. Grapefruit–medication interactions: Forbidden fruit or avoidable consequences? CMAJ March 5, 2013 vol. 185 no. 4. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.120951
LINK: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/185/4/309.long

(2) Lundahl J1, Regårdh CG, Edgar B, Johnsson G. (1995). Relationship between time of intake of grapefruit juice and its effect on pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of felodipine in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 49(1-2):61-7.
LINK:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8751023?dopt=Abstract

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I'm Leesa Klich, MSc., R.H.N.
Health writer – Blogging expert – Research nerd.

I help health and wellness professionals build their authority with scientific health content. They want to stand out in the crowded, often unqualified, market of entrepreneurs. I help them establish trust with their audiences, add credibility to their services, and save them a ton of time so they don’t have to do the research or writing themselves. To work with me, click here.

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