It’s all in the details: Suspicions of fake science
Even from up here in Canada, I know it’s been an extremely confusing time in knowing which information can be trusted and which should not be trusted. However, even as that person who wrote on identifying high quality sources of asthma information, even as I peruse peer-reviewed journals more frequently than most, even as I click through links and scrutinize details like publication dates, by-line credentials, and look for citations to external primary sources, I almost shared information from a non-credible source because it met the criteria. Yeah, I know you’re looking at me with a half frown and a raised eyebrow.
Questionable science or pseudoscience has been around as long as credible science has—in the current vernacular, we could call it fake science
It’s nothing new: it’s how Andrew Wakefield’s “study” linking vaccines to autism which is completely unfounded was released in The Lancet despite a sample size of just twelve children and the “speculative nature” of the research—for twelve years, until the paper’s redaction by The Lancet in 2010, parents were forced to make difficult choices unnecessarily, which put their children’s health at risk, based on unfounded claims, and—later admitted—deliberate selection of data that would reinforce the study team’s hypothesis. Yes: sometimes poor quality “science” falls through the cracks, discernible as legitimate science. It changes outcomes for people, for society, and it can have a ripple effect impact for far, far longer than it should.
Author: Clicked through. Held a Master of Arts in Biology, and a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences. Education – check.
Year published: 2015. Within last 10 years – check.
Works cited in article body: articles link to CELL Journal – November 2014 – check; another article written by the author (broken link, but searching found an updated article from 2016—citing yourself is often required to link to previous work); and a 2014 article from Fontiers in Immunology journal—check.
The article gave actual data from the other works. Everything checked out fine. Everything sounded right, and I had another source of content for an article on an emerging topic relating to asthma and nutrition, one that does have peer reviewed articles, yet is still in its early stages regarding studies for therapeutic validity.
Thinking I’d found trustworthy information on probiotics and asthma, I got to writing.
Then something prompted me to click through to the website’s About page. And I was greeted with not a true about section, but rather… endorsements.
Science does not require endorsements
Endorsements are about opinion, NOT ABOUT FACT.
Red flags went up.
I continued to investigate. I read the name of one physician providing endorsement in particular, who has been projected into media spotlight recently (he’s got this title of United States Secretary of Health and Human Services right now). And then my eyes drifted to this sidebar called Groups Who Hate Us. Initially, I thought it was, funny. I thought pseudoscience would be in there. And then I realized it.
THE WEBSITE I WAS READING WAS THE PSEUDOSCIENCE. The real science was in the hater sidebar!
I headed to Wikipedia because sometimes, Wikipedia is an EXCELLENT PLACE to confirm suspicions about questionable websites posing as fake science. Wikipedia gets into the down-and-dirty of the big picture as well as the criticisms of things—on a social level, Wikipedia is a goldmine—there is a time and place, and I use it often.
Wikipedia confirmed my suspicions: this group looks legitimate, but it takes huge industry sponsorship from Big Oil, formerly “nutraceuticals”, and other things that have a negative impact on either our health or our wallets.
The pieces can all be there, everything can look right, and yet the red flags can be hiding in plain sight. When you just want good quality information, this is just one more obstacle to navigate. This is even more, reason that we, as patients, must work to ensure that quality science is not blocked by a paywall like many journals are.
What did I learn from this? What do I recommend?
We now have to be even more cautious than ever about the information we consume. If you’re questioning the legitimacy of a source, keep questioning until you find answers. Find primary sources, read philosophies of the researchers to see if they align with what you know to be true of science. ASK QUESTIONS. Ask someone you know and trust to check out the source, too. Send me a link on Twitter if you need to, or ask someone on the Asthma.Net team.
And, even more than ever before, make sure your doctor vets any information you get that may change how you manage your health. This has always been a crucial step, but given how difficult it may be to discern accurate information, especially when we are second guessing everything we hear, the importance of this can’t be understated.
Keep learning, keep exploring, but if you have questions? Ask those more than ever. Yes, it takes more time to refuse to settle, but when it comes to our health, we must. It is all in the details.