Cohen: Three ways to tell good health information from pseudoscience

Pay attention to what social media influencers are selling, how they’re talking about science and what sort of expertise they claim.

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Health information is increasingly being shared online, and often the borders between legitimate health expertise and pseudoscience aren’t clear. While the internet can be a valuable way to learn about health, it’s also rife with disinformation and grift, as unscrupulous influencers exploit people’s fears about their bodies.

In my medical practice, I can usually track online wellness trends, such as a patient refusing a medication because of online claims — many of which are false — that it lowers testosterone, or the several months when it seemed everyone was taking turmeric for joint pain, or the patients who request an ivermectin prescription in case they catch COVID.

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So how does someone who simply wants to learn more about the human body separate bad-faith grift from good advice?

Wellness influencers tap into a truth about how we process information: it’s more trustworthy when it comes from a person we feel like we know. That’s why a charismatic personality’s Instagram account that uses intimate stories to promote a sense of community is more memorable than a website offering dry recitations of evidence. As social media has become ubiquitous, health experts have caught on that sharing their personal side alongside reliable advice can be a good use of their platform.

The following tips can help determine if the person posting health advice is actually knowledgeable on the topic:

1) Are they selling something?

Rarely do popular wellness influencers post out of the goodness of their hearts. Almost invariably these accounts are trying to profit. Whether it’s a supplement store, a diet book, a subscription to a lifestyle community or a Masterclass series, the end goal is the same: transform social media influence into sales. Gushing over life-changing benefits from something the promoter is selling should always prompt skepticism.

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Some legitimate health experts also sell advice, usually in the form of newsletters, books or podcasts, and this is worth keeping in mind. However, there’s a big difference between selling a subscription to a health newsletter that discusses evidence, and promoting your own supplement shop, where your financial motives shape how you present the information.

2) What are the boundaries of their expertise?

True expertise in a subject requires years of dedicated study and practice. That’s why people are rarely experts in more than one or two domains, and no one is an expert on everything.

If a wellness influencer promotes themselves as erudite on all health topics, that’s an excellent indication of their lack of knowledge. A real health expert knows the limitations of their knowledge and can call on others’ expertise when needed. So the podcast host who opines on every health issue is substantially less worthwhile to listen to than the podcast host who brings on guest experts for topics outside their scope.

3) How do they talk about science?

Science is a process of discovery, not a static philosophy, so scientists emphasize talking about current evidence rather than “truth.”

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If someone wants to post about their personal wellness philosophy or their spiritual journey and how it makes them feel, that’s fine. But dropping in biology jargon without explanation or name-checking one or two questionable studies without fulsome discussion isn’t a meaningful way to engage with the evidence on a health topic.

Science-based information should acknowledge where data are uncertain and more research is needed. Using the pretext of science to lend credence to a personal “truth” is a form of pseudoscience and should raise red flags.

These three principles are a good framework for deciding whether an influencer’s health content is worth consuming or whether they’re simply trying to sell a new supplement or spread disinformation.

As online health information becomes easier to find (or harder to avoid), this framework can help people make a more informed decision about engaging with a wellness influencer’s content. This is an important type of media literacy that anyone spending time online should cultivate — for the sake of their health.

Michelle Cohen is Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine, Queen’s University. This article is excerpted from a longer version in The Conversation.

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