Monthly Archives: October 2016

Spotting pseudoscience on social media

It sometimes feels like a tsunami. As social media becomes an integral part of our lives, scientific misinformation is being propagated at a faster rate than ever before. Videos, articles, memes, all cleverly designed to trick unsuspecting patients and consumers into thinking that their information has a grain of truth to them. Some are selling products directly, some are selling books or talks, and most are creating an environment of fear and mistrust of the medical system, which indirectly is used to sell various products and services.

So here are a few basic guidelines I want my patients to be aware of when trying to sift through what information is likely true and what is likely rubbish.

1) Look for the “store”

If you are reading something on a page that has a “store” button anywhere on it, it is likely that sales are driving the editorial policy of the website rather than any dedication to science. Supplements and herbal products are the usual products they sell, but these websites will sell just about anything that vulnerable patients will buy. They post information to create a disease or condition that needs treating from the products they sell, or just create a general mistrust of authority, which will result in higher long-term sales. Bottom line, if you see the “store”, it’s likely a terrible source of information.

2) Look for the buzzwords

Thankfully, most sites and sources with poor quality information give us a few obvious clues as to their motives. Many use the same marketing keywords that are designed to steer patients towards pseudoscientific treatments. In no particular order, these words are: natural, naturopathic, homeopathic, organic, toxins, detox, antioxidant, holistic, integrative, inflammation, functional, and wellness. There are hundreds more, but these are the main culprits. It is possible to be a reputable site and still use one or more of these words periodically, but when you see them, it should be a big red flag to be wary of the quality of information from that source.

3) Look at other information from the same source

Does every piece of information from the source follow the same basic narrative? Does the site that is telling you not to vaccinate your child also pushing 9/11 conspiracy theories? Does the chiropractor’s website telling you to go for routine adjustments also claim that doctors are maliciously hiding the cure for cancer? Sometimes it’s unfair to label all of an organization’s information as questionable based on one flawed belief or claim, but in many of these cases, if you do even a basic search, you will see that they have an agenda that goes well beyond that 2 minute Youtube video you just watched.

4) Look for citations

It’s too easy to make claims on the Internet without an ounce of solid evidence to back up those claims. If you encounter information that may change your beliefs on a certain topic, you need to spend ample time looking for whether proper studies have been done. A link to another questionable website or opinion piece does not count as reliable evidence. There is just too much of an incentive for quacks to spread misinformation that you cannot simply assume that all claims are equally deserving of your trust.

5) Ask a professional that you trust

There is nothing that I appreciate more than when a patient, friend, or family member, sends me a link to something that they want me to look over. Is it legitimate? Can it be trusted? In a time where ordinary citizens don’t have the time or expertise to sift through available reams of information, yet have tremendous access to both good and poor quality information, it is more important than ever to develop relationships with health professionals you trust. Professionals who can be looked to for critical analysis of any scientific topic, without bias or prejudice.

 

So go ahead, click on the link. Click on the video. But before you share it, or use it to guide you or your family’s health care journey, please apply these basic principles to decide whether it is likely accurate and trustworthy. We all need to play a role in ensuring that only high-quality information is propagated through our social network.

When World Series returns to Cleveland, time for game ops to show common sense

Year after year, every Cleveland Indians postseason appearance is predictably met with a few individuals who feel it is appropriate to show up to a game at Progressive Field wearing red face paint. These individuals are always shown prominently during the TV broadcast, and many of us with any sensibility squirm in our seats. The next morning’s sports shows inevitably re-litigate the appropriateness of the logo and nickname, and Cleveland fans are left trying to justify their team’s marketing strategy to friends and family, rather than basking in our team’s success.

I was optimistic after Game 1 and 2 of the ALDS in Cleveland, where it looked like the usual suspects had traded in their red face paint for white face paint in the design of a baseball. Sadly, I was at ALCS Game 2 in Cleveland, and was horrified to see multiple fans donning headdresses and wearing red face paint again. One particular individual wearing a headdress, walking up the aisle to his seat, thought it would be appropriate to put his hand to his mouth to make what he likely interpreted to be an “Indian war call”. The Jays fans next to me sat with their mouth agape as multiple fans joined the man in his mockery.

I understand the dilemma the team faces. Every time the topic of phasing out Chief Wahoo comes up, a large segment of the fan base threatens to “boycott” the team. And for a team that struggles at the turnstiles like the Indians, they have to be sensitive to any public relations issues with any fans.

But with the World Series returning to Cleveland next week for Game 6 and 7, I hope that the Indians game operations team can take a simple first step towards decency. If fans are seen at the entrance wearing any costume including red face paint, or a headdress, they can easily ensure that those materials aren’t allowed into the stadium. Is that somewhat hypocritical given that Wahoo’s face will still be everywhere? Sure, but baby steps.

Am I being too politically correct? Maybe. But I want the focus of the sports world to be on this terrific baseball team, not its logo, and I want to be able to enjoy our first championship since 1948 without spending every conversation discussing the nickname and logo. Let’s not bring any more negative attention to what should be the best week of our baseball lives.