How to Spot Fake Health News
5 ways to find islands of reality in a sea of misinformation.
Posted February 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
The internet and social media have allowed breaking news to travel at warp speed and given a voice to professionals to share their expert commentary. But these new avenues of communication have also become littered with potholes. The pressure to accelerate reporting often compromises accuracy, and the choir of experts has been dwarfed by a circus of uninformed commentators, con-artists, and influencers who are more interested in followers and advertising revenue than the truth. As a consequence, we are awash in misinformation.
Combating this surge of misinformation has proven to be extremely challenging. As the burden of sorting fact from fiction largely falls on the shoulders of individuals, here are some strategies to help you assess the validity of health information.
1. Evaluate the source.
There isn’t enough time to wade through the vast amount of information we encounter, so the quickest way to sort the wheat from the chaff is to make sure the individual making the claim is a reputable expert. Experts are lifeguards that rescue people from the undertow of misinformation, which is why purveyors of fake news disparage qualified professionals. Remember, expertise matters: who would you prefer to fix a clogged pipe? If that pipe is under your sink, you call a plumber. If that pipe is an artery in your chest, you want a cardiac surgeon. If you are starting a restaurant, would you hire a professionally trained chef or a food blogger to prepare the meals?
Most health experts have earned a degree (for example, M.D. and/or Ph.D.) in an appropriate field from an accredited university. Such individuals have gone through extensive training and often have hands-on experience with the subject. They not only know the history of the field but are also likely to be following the latest trends and discoveries. In the world of medicine and academia, reputation is everything, so professionals have a vested interest in being truthful, or they will be called out.
Even so, academic credentials are not a foolproof indicator of quality information (see number 5 below). Despite the ruin it could bring to their career, some experts have been fraudulent, while others make honest mistakes. But the upshot is the probability that an expert’s advice is sound is much higher than a nonexpert’s, especially when one expert’s opinion is supported by other experts.
2. Is the claim supported by substantial evidence?
The second tactic involves appraising the claim itself. Claims need to have a rational basis and must be supported by evidence, usually in the form of peer-reviewed studies in an official scientific or medical journal. A peer-reviewed study has been analyzed and approved by independent researchers in the field. Some media outlets also report the results of “pre-prints,” which are unpublished studies that have not undergone peer-review. The findings in pre-prints may prove to be sound, but it is important to recognize that they have not been vetted by independent experts.
While peer-review builds confidence in the fidelity of a study, it does not mean the results are definitive. Mistakes or fraud can get past peer-reviewers. Studies often contradict one another due to the differences in design or materials used. A new study could be published tomorrow that challenges an older study. Most published studies are small or performed on other organisms, such as mice, so whether the results hold for a large number of people remains an open question. Despite these caveats, the media tend to sensationalize many studies, reporting the finding without mentioning the shortcomings.
As you can surmise, the road to the truth is more like a maze than a straight path. But when enough convincing studies show the same result, a “scientific consensus” forms, which is an informal agreement among experts that the bulk of the evidence supports a certain conclusion. Putting it all together: Scientific consensus is more reliable than one peer-reviewed study, but a peer-reviewed study is more reliable than a pre-print.
3. Be aware of media bias.
Recent decades have seen a proliferation of “news” channels and websites that are thinly veiled propaganda machines for political parties. In this case, the information you consume is frequently biased, aimed at manipulating the consumer to satisfy a political agenda. At best, your information diet becomes malnourished because you’re not getting the full story. At worst, you are being flat-out lied to or misinformed. To guard yourself against being a partisan puppet, it is best to avoid propaganda camouflaged as news altogether, but be especially leery about accepting health advice from biased media.
How do you know if your preferred media is biased? One obvious tipoff is that the venue consistently praises one political party while relentlessly bashing the opposing party. Another tipoff is the way the information is conveyed: The tone should be professional and objective, not infused with emotion, rage, and personal opinion. If your preferred news source insults other people, defames experts, or fails to challenge your worldview in a thoughtful manner, then what you’re consuming is not news.
To see how biased a channel or website is, consult resources like the latest Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media. To avoid being fed news poisoned with bias, subscribe to a consistently unbiased source such as the Associated Press.
4. Consult fact-checking websites and renowned health organizations.
A number of fact-checking organizations have risen to the challenge of combating misinformation. Some of the more popular include Snopes, PolitiFact, and SciCheck at FactCheck.org. Snopes also maintains a list of sites that regularly produce fake news, hoaxes, and scams. If you encounter a claim that sounds strange or too good to be true, it is worth checking these sites to see if it has been debunked.
When it comes to health concerns, a pharmacist or your general care physician should be a source you can trust. Invest the time in finding a doctor that you feel comfortable with, who listens to you and is open to your questions. To supplement advice from your pharmacist or physician, there are a number of outstanding resources on the web offering reliable medical information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Mayo Clinic.
5. Watch out for these red flags.
Sometimes legitimate doctors or scientists champion ideas that go against scientific consensus. They might object to a current medical procedure or advocate an unorthodox treatment. Should you trust them over the prevailing wisdom spouted by the majority of experts? Exercise extreme caution. If these mavericks have truly made a new discovery that will overturn established medicine, they need to bring compelling evidence to the table. Moreover, it should be reproduced by another independent group.
It can be hard to spot a problematic expert, but there are some signs that should give you pause. Beware of credentialed experts who have a conflict of interest, which means they have something to gain from the advice they give or the product they promote. Similarly, beware of studies that are funded by pharmaceutical companies or other corporations. They may prove to be right, but again, the results should be verified by independent researchers who do not have a stake in the claim.
Also, be wary of experts who do not stay in their lane. All doctors and biomedical scientists have a general understanding of biology, but they train in highly specialized fields. For example, ideal sources regarding vaccines include scientists with a Ph.D. in microbiology or immunology or an M.D. who specializes in infectious disease, rather than experts who specialize in economics, astrophysics, or radiology.
Finally, beware of information sources that do not police themselves and admit their mistakes. Reputable sources are more interested in the truth than winning an argument. This is an enormous problem among several pundits and commentators, who consequently become major contributors to the misinformation dilemma. They are looking out for themselves—they are not looking out for you.
The dissemination of bad health advice affects us all. We can help stop the spread of malignant information by refraining from sharing dubious material and reporting the offenders. If we stop patronizing those who constantly pollute our information stream, we deprive them of what they need the most: attention.