Separate Fact From Fiction In Health And Wellness Claims

  • Victoria SodréPh.D. in Biochemistry – University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil

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Overview

In a digital era such as ours, the sheer amount of, often conflicting, information can be overwhelming. Unless you are trained in science, it’s possible that you struggle to separate fact from fiction, especially when misinformation and pseudoscience have gained so much momentum with the advent of social media. When it comes to health and medical stories and news, it is even more tempting to believe in miraculous cures and easy solutions to complex problems. So, how can we distinguish good science from pseudoscience? 

Good science vs. pseudoscience

To protect yourself from pseudoscience and misinformation, you don’t have to have a formal education in science - but it helps if you can think like a scientist.1 Scientists are sceptical and work based on the scientific method. They have critical thinking and a rational, systematic way of investigating claims. To protect yourself from false beliefs, more important than knowing about a scientific subject is to understand what makes good science. A recent study found that reminding people of the importance of critical evaluation was more effective in protecting them from pseudoscience than just telling them to trust science.2 A lack of critical thinking can be exploited by ill-intentioned pseudoscientists, aiming to control, manipulate, and profit from unsuspecting people. Thus, let’s look into what is good science and what to consider in a critical evaluation.  

Good science

Basically, science is the construction of knowledge using the scientific method. The scientific method involves three fundamental steps:

  • Formulation of a hypothesis based on observation and/or previous scientific knowledge
  • Testing this hypothesis using a variety of methods
  • Proving or refuting the initial hypothesis

Since the scientific method tests one hypothesis at a time, scientists will be very careful when making claims. Usually, they will try to draw conclusions that apply only to the specific hypothesis that was tested and avoid extrapolating their data. On the other hand, pseudoscience will often make bold claims and statements, which are dishonest. 

Serious scientists will also be careful to use adequate methods when testing their hypothesis, with the aim of being as impersonal and unbiased as possible. In medical research, the golden standard is a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study. Breaking this down, it means:

  • That neither the researcher giving out the treatment nor the subjects knew if they were receiving a treatment or a placebo, avoiding bias (double-blind)
  • That subjects weren’t grouped according to certain criteria, which may introduce bias (randomisation)
  • That the treatment was compared to an appropriate control or placebo (placebo-controlled)

Other important hallmarks of good science are the use of robust statistical analysis to verify the significance of the findings, employing a variety of methods to prove the same hypothesis, and performing the study for an adequate amount of time. The latter is especially important when studying a chronic condition because the effects over time can change. 

Peer reviewing

After you have formulated, tested, and confirmed your hypothesis using  the scientific method, it is time to share your work with others. In the scientific field, we do that by writing up our findings in scientific articles and publishing them in reputable scientific journals. You can check how reputable a journal is by looking up its impact factor - the higher this number, the better. Before being published, an article goes through peer review. This is a process in which other researchers from the field, not directly associated with the work, will revise the article and see if there are any flaws that could prevent that work from being published. That adds another layer of robustness and credibility to your science. Anyone can write a paper on basically anything, but how many will stand against the scrutiny from experts in the field? That’s why peer reviewing is so important for good science.

Not all scientific journals are the same. Indeed, there are predatory journals that will publish anything for a fee, with no reviewing process at all. Bad science and pseudoscience thrive in these environments.

Pseudoscience

Differently from good science, pseudoscience doesn’t follow the scientific method rigorously. It often makes claims that are impossible to test and disprove, and can be heavily biased. Pseudoscience relies on flawed “evidence”, such as testimonials, or badly executed science that didn’t follow the scientific method properly or didn’t go through adequate peer review. Some famous examples of pseudosciences are astrology, homoeopathy, and feng shui. There is also scientific denial, which is when plenty of solid scientific evidence exists for a certain subject, but some people don’t accept it. This is the case with flat-Earthers, climate change deniers, and anti-vaccination (antivax) movements.3

How to spot pseudoscience

How can the average, non-scientist citizen protect themselves from misinformation? There are some red flags to watch out for that are common to many pseudoscientific claims:4,6

Sensationalism 

While serious scientists go to great lengths to be unbiased and avoid absolute statements, pseudoscience is not afraid to be sensationalistic and use all sorts of artifices to catch the reader’s attention. They might come as bold claims, or fear-mongering, often with the use of very emotional language. The idea is to elicit a visceral reaction from the reader, creating a bias toward believing the claims. Be sceptical of miraculous cures, or one cure to various complex conditions. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Conspirationism

People promoting pseudoscientific cures or treatments may use catchy phrases like “Doctors don’t want you to know about this cure!”, or “The government is persecuting people who know about this!”. This is a way to discredit experts and authorities on the subject and to shield themselves from criticism by positioning all opposing forces as machiavellian villains. Don’t fall for this trick - researchers, universities, and governments all have good reputations to uphold. They wouldn’t risk it by depriving the citizens of important life-saving information. Try to question yourself, what would doctors and governments gain from withholding this information? And what would the person claiming this gain from your belief? 

Dishonesty

Sometimes, people disseminating misinformation or pseudoscientific claims will use dishonest techniques to convince their audience. One way to do this is to present only part of the information or to twist the facts to their cause. For instance, they might say “Your body’s metabolism produces toxins that need to be removed! That’s why we have formulated this state-of-the-art, revolutionary, detox supplement”. Yes, our metabolism does produce toxins, but they are routinely removed by the natural work of the liver and kidneys. If you don’t have severe issues in those organs, you don’t need a “detox supplement”. Another common strategy is to use the chemical names of harmless substances with the aim of fear-mongering. If you hear that “The government is poisoning people with dihydrogen oxide!”, it sounds pretty scary, but that’s just the chemical name for plain water.

Bad underlying “science”

People promoting pseudoscientific cures or treatments might reference a specific article to sustain their arguments. Look into that with a critical eye: 

  • Was the work performed by experts in the field? 
  • Was it published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal? 
  • Does it have adequate sample sizes? 
  • Were appropriate control or placebo groups used? 
  • Was the study conducted for an adequate period of time (which should be years if investigating a chronic condition)? 
  • Was it a double-blind, randomised study?
  • Did the authors analyse the data with good statistical methods?
  • Are there other studies corroborating those findings? 
  • Were any conflicts of interest properly disclosed?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, don’t trust the study. The path to a new medication or therapy is a long one: good quality studies need to be done showing the efficacy of that product in cultured cells, animal models, and human clinical trials, often over several years. Don’t believe claims that didn’t go through the proper stages of investigation.

Weak credentials 

Is the person making the claims an expert in the field? What background knowledge do they have to sustain their arguments? By quickly looking up the person’s name online, you can find information on their curriculum. For claims regarding medical research, the person should at least have an MD or a Ph.D. in a relevant area. Years of experience working either in academia or industry in the area of the claims also count. Beware of experts making claims on a subject from another area of expertise: for instance, a dietitian who claims to have developed a specific diet that cures auto-immune diseases. Unless that person is also an accredited rheumatologist, or at least has an MD or Ph.D. in auto-immunity, it is highly unlikely that their dietitian background will give them enough experience to come up with this. 

Ulterior motives

What people promoting pseudoscience benefit from your support and belief? Usually, they’re either in it for the money and/or for an underlying ideological agenda. Always follow the trail of money. Sometimes it’s easy to understand their motivation: a person selling a fake supplement or an alternative therapy to a condition will simply pocket the money. On other occasions, it might be difficult to identify conflicts of interest. Many bad scientific works fail to disclose conflicts of interest properly. It pays off to do a little bit of research on these characters to try to understand their motives.

Summary

In a world constantly bombarding us with information, misinformation and pseudoscience can spread like wildfire, especially where understanding of good science and critical thinking are lacking. By watching out for some telling signs, you can easily identify when a claim is pseudoscientific:

  • Be sceptical of sensationalist claims and absolute truths - the reality is often much more complex than that 
  • Doubt conspiracy theories that may try to discredit scientific experts, and instead question what the claimant might have to benefit from your mistrust in authorities
  • Watch out for dishonest strategies, such as partially presenting information or using chemical names for common compounds 
  • Always check if the underlying science is sound and if the people involved have relevant backgrounds to the claims
  • Always look for potential conflicts of interest, regarding money or ideological agendas 

References

  1. Čavojová V, Šrol J, Jurkovič M. Why should we try to think like scientists? Scientific reasoning and susceptibility to epistemically suspect beliefs and cognitive biases. Applied Cognitive Psychology [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 May 10]; 34(1):85–95. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.3595.
  2. O’Brien TC, Palmer R, Albarracin D. Misplaced trust: When trust in science fosters belief in pseudoscience and the benefits of critical evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 May 10]; 96:104184. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0022103121000871.
  3. Blancke S, Boudry M. Pseudoscience as a Negative Outcome of Scientific Dialogue: A Pragmatic-Naturalistic Approach to the Demarcation Problem. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 May 10]; 34(3):183–98. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02698595.2022.2057777.
  4. Lilienfeld SO, Ammirati R, David M. Distinguishing science from pseudoscience in school psychology: Science and scientific thinking as safeguards against human error. Journal of School Psychology [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2024 May 10]; 50(1):7–36. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0022440511000793.
  5. How to Identify Nutrition Misinformation and Pseudoscience | Lifespan [Internet]. [cited 2024 May 10]. Available from: https://www.lifespan.org/lifespan-living/how-identify-nutrition-misinformation-and-pseudoscience.
  6. Willingham E. 10 Questions To Distinguish Real From Fake Science. Forbes [Internet]. [cited 2024 May 10]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2012/11/08/10-questions-to-distinguish-real-from-fake-science/.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Victoria Sodre

Ph.D. in Biochemistry – University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil

Victoria obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences and Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in Microbial Genetics and Enzymology at the University of Warwick, UK. Victoria is an experienced scientist passionate about translating complex scientific knowledge into content accessible to all. She is a prolific writer with several years of experience in academic writing, promoting and communicating science for all audiences.

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