If 2018 has a catchphrase, it would have to be “fake news.”
Yup, false or misleading information is everywhere. On our Instagram feeds, clogging up Facebook and (according to some) even in respected media outlets.
Unfortunately, “fake news” has existed in health reporting for ages. And while some outlets may knowingly report health facts not actually backed by science, most of the misinformation comes from misunderstandings or simply overzealous reporting.
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So how do you protect yourself? Spotting fake health news can be tricky if you’re not an expert in the field, but it’s not impossible. Ask yourself these four questions to determine how credible health news reporting might be – and whether you should take it to heart or with caution.
Is this research peer-reviewed?
The scientific community already has built-in protection against publishing fake news in academic journals – a process called peer review. During peer review, the journal sends along a researcher’s draft to other professionals in the field, who can evaluate the research and point out any shortcomings.
Any research published in a peer-reviewed journal has gone through this layer of editing. But sometimes heath reporters write about findings presented at seminars or conferences, which means that some of the info may not be peer-reviewed. That doesn’t mean the research is bad – just that it may not have yet gone through the same scrutiny as research published in a peer-reviewed journal. If it’s really splashy or goes against conventional wisdom, wait for the peer-reviewed paper.
How significant and applicable are the results, really?
Health research can be tough. Studies on human health are time-consuming and expensive, and require a lot of upfront investment for results that might not tell you anything. So scientists often start research with less expensive experiments that are easier to work with, like lab-grown cells and tissues, or animals like rats or mice.
But lab and animal studies have shortcomings. Sometimes, what looks like an exciting finding based on animal studies doesn’t work out when applied to humans. And it may take years to confirm that it does work in people.
And, of course, some human studies have problems, too. They might only study a small group of people or take place over only a few weeks, which makes the study too small to assume it has larger implications.
Read past the headline and pay attention to the methodology. If it’s a lab or animal study, or it uses just a small sample size, take note – it will take more research to know for sure if the result might apply to you.
Does it sound like a conspiracy theory?
“This mysterious compound in this lichen can stop cancer in its tracks...but the drug companies don’t want you to know, because they can’t make money on it.”
How many times have you seen this type of promise on social media?
It makes no sense: Drug companies want to release new treatments – that’s part of how they make money – and there are also researchers at universities, hospitals, government agencies and nonprofits who don't focus on profit at all.
Plus, if you’re not supposed to know about it, why would it be on social media?
Most of the time, publications that rely on conspiracy theories to “sell” their ideas do so because the science doesn’t (yet) back them up. Pay extra attention to whether the research is peer-reviewed and well-designed to judge whether it's true.
Does it promise too much?
Health reporting means balancing the realities of science – that even a large, well-designed study is just one small piece of a large puzzle – with the need to attract readers. That can lead to being a little, um, over-excited about the impact of a study.
So when you see a headline that seems a little out there (“A Glass Of Red Wine Is The Equivalent To An Hour At The Gym”), look back at the methodology and see if it might really back that claim up. In this case, the study was performed in rats – which means it will take more experiments to see if it really applies to people.
The bottom line
Use common sense as you guide when deciphering health research. If it sounds too far-fetched or too good to be true, it just might be. If you want to do what’s most effective for your health, stick with the basics: getting good sleep, staying active, and eating right.