Real vs fake health news
Originally published August 2017; updated with even more awesomeness September 2019.
Fake news is everywhere.
And it’s gotten pretty savvy. Those flashy, sensational, or controversial headlines are designed to grab our attention and emotionally trigger us. Misrepresented study results, leaked information, or whistle-blower stories can erode trust–in all industries, but particularly in health and wellness.
False health information doesn’t empower anyone to improve their health. At best it won’t help at all; at worst it can cause injuries, serious illness, or even death.
My goal is to help combat the ridiculous amount of fake health news and misinformation out there. 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 and re-earn trust on an epic scale.
I really do!
By recognizing fake health news and combating it. One blog and social media post at a time.
Are you with me?
WHAT is right vs WHO is right
Before we begin, know that my mission is based on a deep-seated philosophy that WHAT is right is more important than WHO is right.
That means that there are few people who’s information I take at face value. In fact, you need to earn my trust over time before you ever reach that level.
I guess I live with a dose of skepticism and want to look past the person delivering the message to see what the message itself says. It’s kind of like a self-imposed blinded trial where I try to look at the evidence, rather than who is saying it. #NerdAlert
Types of real vs fake news
As with most things in health and wellness, there isn’t a black-and-white good-versus-evil credibility for news. Yes, some of it is straight-up lies and intentional DISinformation, while others may be satire or simply honest misinterpretations. So, when you look at health information in the news and online, it can fall anywhere between those two extremes (there is a lot of grey area!). Not everyone has the same intent to deceive.
According to a 2017 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there are seven types of mis- and disinformation. In order of increasing intent to deceive, they are:
- Satire or parody
- False connection
- Misleading content
- False content
- Imposter content
- Manipulated content
- Fabricated content
As you can see, it’s not a black-and-white distinction between real vs fake news–there is a continuum. And that makes it more tricky to discern. So, read on for some tips on how to spot it like a pro.Here are some tips on how to spot fake news like a pro. #FakeNews #Misinformation #Disinformation Click To Tweet
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 and we know that misinformation can have negative health effects.
Here are a couple of my reasons:
1 – Expert opinions aren’t always right
THIS is why it’s important to separate the information from the teller of information.
For example, lots of people create or contribute to health books, blogs, documentaries, and online summits. The main reason is to share their message with a larger audience. #Amirite
Many books, blogs, documentaries, and online summits are a collection of personal stories (also known as “anecdotes“) and “expert opinions.” Most don’t have rigorous review (or even much fact-checking) before publication.
But, guess what?
The general public doesn’t always realize this!
Many people who read or watch these believe they’re credible. They believe that the creator is exposing a hidden truth, the contributors are correct, and 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 mixing grapefruit juice and medcation use).
I remember watching one health documentary a few years ago and found three factual inaccuracies in the first ten minutes. I couldn’t even handle it and had to turn it off. It was a cesspool of misinformation–easily provable misinformation. But, the general public wouldn’t know that. They look to these as trustworthy sources not knowing that they’re created to grow the audience and gain followers by convincing people that they’re correct. (And that you are now part of the savvy few whose eyes are open to the horrible conspiracies that are insidiously wreaking havoc on the world…). 🙁
If you want to know a documentary I personally enjoyed and was true to the science, check out Vitamania: The sense and nonsense of vitamins.
Want to know why “expert opinion” is not considered to be high quality source of information, especially when it comes to health and science?
- In this infographic (one of my all time favs), you’ll see expert opinion is ranked even lower than animal or cell studies.
- Here is an article that talks about why expert opinion is not reliable. I’m particularly fond of reason #1 that says “It’s not about who declares something to be true but how they judge that something is true.”
Just because a bunch of like-minded people get together to talk about their position on a topic doesn’t make it a scientific consensus or conspiracy!
This is why consensus and independent unbiased review is SO MUCH BETTER than one, or even a few, experts’ opinions.Just because a bunch of like-minded people get together to talk about their position on a topic doesn't make it a scientific consensus or conspiracy! #ScientificConsensus #Conspiracy #FakeNews Click To Tweet
2 – Medical disclaimers and lack of oversight
Let’s be clear: you need a good medical disclaimer! You need to disclaim liability from anyone who uses your information and is harmed by it. You don’t know what kind of pre-existing conditions or allergies each of your readers has. You don’t know how they can misinterpret what you’re saying.
But, some people take this too far and use it to purposefully share information that can be harmful to their readers. This is a big reason why Facebook, Google, Pinterest, etc. have all created health misinformation policies in the past few months!
Here’s where it gets even more sketchy, IMO:
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. There are penalties for those who spread harmful health misinformation.
But, not necessarily if you share them in a book, blog, documentary, or online summit 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.
Even worse, 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 from their regulatory bodies! #RedFlag
3 – Many re-tell old stories or share stories that aren’t even relevant
Another problem is when the often un-credible information in books, blogs, and documentaries are used as references for new books, blogs and documentaries. Plus, sometimes the information is shared as “proof” when it’s not even relevant!
For example, as a Canadian, I am bombarded with information from the US that simply doesn’t apply here (no, the FDA and USDA have NO jurisdiction here! There are totally regulations for foods and drugs and agriculture and supplements, etc.).
So, by not looking more critically at that information, nor 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)
- true and high enough quality to be referenced
- relevant to the people who read/watch/listen to it
So much health information just continues the cycle of incorrect health information. Here are a bunch of examples, from the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies in North America to supplements to bone health. #FakeHealthNewsSo much health information just continues the cycle of incorrect health information. #FakeNews #HealthNews #HealthInfo Click To Tweet
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, nor your PhD in nutritional physiology of skeletal muscle (or other super-intense health-related topic).
Sure, helping people drink more water, eat more vegetables, or cook from scratch are no-brainer great things to help clients do more of. (Can you believe that some “experts” are telling people to stop eating vegetables? #Unbelievable) 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 new and better information. Be intelligently skeptical.
Also, notice when some piece of information really gets you frustrated or angry. If you start feeling defensive, take a step back. New information is NOT about you, it’s about new information.
Remember to consider: #WHATisrightvsWHOisright
Here are a few of my favourite quotes on the topic of being open to being wrong:
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.”
People get defensive and fear being wrong when they associate their sense of self with their beliefs.
You are not your beliefs.
Disassociate your sense of self from your beliefs and you open yourself up to learning so much more than others could ever imagine.
— Jordan Syatt (@SyattFitness) August 27, 2019
And I’m all for learning new and intelligent things–especially health information.
So, how do you spot fake health news?
Here are a bunch of tips and strategies that can help.
1 – See how other people have spotted it
Many times it’s not the studies that are wrong. Its that the studies are misrepresented by the mainstream media or on social media. This is why I focus more on WHAT is right, not WHO is right.
Here are some examples of nutrition myths that just won’t die. Things like:
- protein/carbs/fats/egg yolks/red meat/salt/HFCS are all bad for you
- nutrients from foods vs supplements
- how to lose fat and boost your metabolism
2 – Learn how to spot real vs fake news 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:
- Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
- New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
- Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
- Beware of conflicts of interest—they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
- Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
- Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.
Here is my second-most favourite infographic of all time. It’s includes a few points on bad science as well as some on how to spot bad media coverage of good science (see #1, 2 & 10).
3 – Look for and follow credible organizations
There are also a number of organizations that do a great job of separating real vs fake health information:
- Evidently Cochrane
- Sharing health evidence you can trust
- Health News Review
- We systematically review health news to help journalists and the public improve their critical thinking about claims of health care interventions.
- Red Pen Reviews
- Red Pen Reviews publishes the most informative, consistent, and unbiased health and nutrition book reviews available, free of charge. We exist to help you evaluate the information quality of the books you read or are thinking about buying.
4 – 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.
But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean no one knows what they’re talking about and all studies are garbage! The idea is to weigh all of the evidence to see patterns and connections–and many times they’re NOT what we expected. Sometimes early studies, done a different way or with new information prove that older hypotheses are wrong.
This is the beauty of the evolution of knowledge–we build on it study-by-study.This is the beauty of the evolution of knowledge--we build on it study-by-study. #Science #Research #Health Click To Tweet
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
5 – 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 books that purpot to be the new way of medicine. They claim to be science-based and have a bunch of PhDs and MDs as spokespeople. Some “facts” they mention in their new book reference textbooks that are 20 years old. They didn’t even fact-check or bother to 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.)
6 – Be intelligently skeptical, and cautiously open, to new information
Nope, not even fancy degrees or years of experience stop me from changing my mind if there is enough new (credible) information on a topic. A few years ago I completely changed my mind on gut microbes because of a new study that blew my mind.
7 – Don’t spread fake news
A 2018 study at MIT confirmed that fake news spreads faster and farther than the truth. And, in this case, the news wasn’t spread by bots, nor a few people with massive numbers of followers. It was spread by your everyday person.
What characteristics made the false news so much more “spreadable” than the truth?
- Is more novel
- Evokes feelings of fear, disgust, & surprise (strong emotions)
The “less spreadable” truth evokes the less strong emotions of anticipation, trust, joy, & sadness.
So, know that people who want traffic and attention purposefully use headlines and images to trigger these strong emotions.So, know that people who want traffic and attention purposefully use headlines and images to trigger these strong emotions. #FakeNews #Clickbait #Emotions Click To Tweet
Will you join forces with me to spread credible health information to your clients, audience, and the world?
- WHAT is right is more important than WHO is right
- Expert opinion is not always right
- Everyone can learn to spot fake news and stop its insidious spread
I hope so!
Signing off and toasting: To spotting real vs 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 below!
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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.