Separating Health Fact From Fiction:

An Introduction

January 3 , 2005

by Laura Dolson

"Don't cross your eyes, they'll get stuck that way." "Coffee will stunt your growth." "Bananas will give you nightmares." "Feed a cold, but starve a fever." "Mayonnaise will clog your arteries." These are all examples that you students handed to me before vacation. And none of them are true.

All too often it isn't easy to figure out whether things we hear about health are really true. Many false "facts" have been passed through the ages as "old wives tales". Others have been helped along by the Internet. Some originate in someone trying to sell something. And others are simply the products of poor health reporting in the media. To make matters more confusing, perhaps most of the time there is at least a germ of truth in the misinformation, but it has been exaggerated or distorted in some way, or truth has been combined with fiction.

In the next couple of months we will explore the ways that misinformation about health gets propagated, and how we can begin to recognize distortions we hear and provide ourselves with correct information.

Where does misinformation come from?

Well-Meaning People - Most of the time, misunderstandings about science are passed around by people who are interested in health and truly attempting to understand it. They hear something that sounds scientific and tend to believe it. This information is getting spread very rapidly now since almost everyone has access to the Internet. Although the Internet is a wonderful source of information, it is also a great storehouse of misinformation. Often one Web site will "steal" misinformation from another, and when you read the same thing in a lot of places (or hear it), it's tempting to think it's true. I have seen lots of information repeated on many Web sites, often word-for-word, and sometimes totally wrong. This leads those who are trying to educate people about health to want to tear their hair out.

Media - Unfortunately, it is my experience that many health and science reporters do not read the studies they are reporting on. Instead, they rely on "press releases" or other second-hand information. They also are usually under pressure to make health news appealing to the reader, which can lead them to take complex issues and make them "easy to understand", losing some of the important information in the process. To top it off, editors often add "flashy" headlines, which can actually mislead - many is the time I've seen headlines which actually are the opposite of the results of the study.

Recently, I read a "joke" article about research on an especially healthy meal called the "polymeal" in a scientific journal. This was reported on in newspapers around the world as true, because it was written in a scientific manner. Clearly, none of the reporters actually read the article. I will tell you more about this in class.

People who are selling a product - When someone is trying to sell you something, beware of the information that comes from them. Enough said for now.

People who have something to gain - legally, politically, financially or ethically. There are vegetarian Web sites which will tell you that the digestive tracts of human beings resemble herbivores more than carnivores (in fact, we fit very neatly into the "omnivore" category). Polluters like to give out information that "proves" that the stuff they are dumping into the water and air isn't that bad. And sometimes people don't want to admit they've been wrong about something, so they keep repeating the same information, ignoring new research for as long as possible - an example of this is that the evidence against partially hydrogenated oils has been around for a long time - but it is only recently that it is getting media attention.

How can we learn to spot misleading information? That will be the focus of this unit of study.

- We will learn what to expect from real science, which can help us to spot the imposters.
- We will learn some basic ways that numbers and statistics can be manipulated to fool us.
- We will learn to "ask the right questions" when we read a health article or hear information, and how to get the answers.
- We will learn some good accurate sources of information about health.

What will you be doing?

This unit will require you to pay more attention to health information you encounter. Please do these things for class:

1) Summarize the articles, except for this one (you get a week off!).
2) Look in the paper, magazines, Web sites (see below), and books for health information that you are interested in. Bring an article to class, and we will "ask the right questions" and evaluate it for accuracy. Try to do this at least once over the course of the unit - but sooner is better. We'll talk about this more in class.
3) Each week there will be at least one Web site that I will link to. I want you to go to that site and look at it carefully. Write down some things on the site that make you think that the information may or may not be true. Then, write down three questions you would want to answer to help you decide about the validity of the information. This is the Web site for this week:

Fat Foe Eggplant Extract

If you need sources of health information to bring in to class, you could check out:

CNN Health

Yahoo Health

Google Health News

Health Day

Remember to bring in articles you are especially interested in, not just any old random article.

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