I love the internet. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on email, playing on Facebook, or hunting on Pinterest for some kind of crafty way to serve dinner. But for all its greatness, the internet is also a dangerous place. To be blunt, some of the stuff you can read on the world wide web is crap. The First Amendment is in its full glory in this medium, where just about anyone can say just about anything at just about any time. Don’t get me wrong. I love the First Amendment and freedom of speech. It’s just that when mass amounts of unfettered information get set loose on the web, it can be very hard to navigate legitimate information from less legitimate information.
For instance, the other day a friend posted a health article on Facebook that was from the American College of Pediatricians. Now, because I write about health topics all the time, I am pretty familiar with all well-respected health organizations, but I had never heard of this group. The American Academy of Pediatrics, yes. This group, no. So I was immediately suspicious, and particularly because this organization was making a health claim that I had never seen before and that went against standard practice. I looked into this group and sure enough, the ACP is not quite on par with the AAP. The ACP is a group of physicians, it is true. But, they approach medicine and medical research with a social agenda, and an inherent bias in your approach to science has to render what you say suspect.
So, how do you figure out whether the health and medical advice you find through Google is legit or not? Great question. Here are five key things to look for when deciding whether to take the advice you get on the internet, or whether to leave it behind.
1. Who are they?
Anytime you visit a website for health information, your first step should be to look for an “About Us” or similar page that explains just who the particular organization or group is that runs the website. Look at who is writing the articles for a particular site: is it a physician or other health professional? Are the articles reviewed by other physicians or health care providers? Who and what does the article cite in support of various claims? A good tip to remember is that websites ending with .org, .edu, or .gov are typically the most reliable sites for getting your health information because this indicates (usually) that these are websites run by non-profits. This means the person or group providing the information to you is not doing so for profit motives. Which brings me to point 2.
2. Are they selling you something?
If a website is offering you health advice AND selling you something at the same time, exercise caution. If I am going to try to sell you supplements to, say, reduce the alleged “ill-effects of a vaccine,” I’m going to need to produce some kind of seemingly scientific sounding article about how vaccines cause ill-effects. Right? So, when your friend posts an article on Facebook that says some mineral is the key to longevity and giving you super-hero powers, double check who is posting the article. A person trying to sell you something is going to have a serious conflict of interest when it comes to providing you with unbiased information.
3. What are they saying?
Beware the promise of a quick-fix. Anytime, I see an article that guarantees my life will change if I add just this one food, or remove just this one “toxin” or drink just this one green thing, I am suspicious. You see, if taking Vitamin X or never again touching a hamburger, could 100% change my life and make me forever healthy, then don’t you think we would be hearing about it from a LOT of places? The fact is, being healthy is the result of a complex web of circumstances and factors that includes a healthy diet and exercise. Are there certain foods that seem to offer greater benefits than others? Of course. Might adding a supplement to your diet improve your skin or hair? Maybe, I guess. But there are no guarantees. And if someone is telling you there are, you’re better off running the other way.
Just like the milk in your fridge, double check the dates on any health information you find on the internet. As anyone who has had the unfortunate photo keep resufacing on the web knows, once something is out there, it is out there for good. Take note of the date of the articles you are looking at and take the time to see if there is something newer that either supports or contradicts what you are being told. Medicine and public health are ever changing fields and new information is constantly coming out. Older information may not be useless, but if an article is older, see if you can find a newer version of that article or more recent findings on the subject. You don’t want wear most of your pants from 1989, so don’t necessarily rely on medical info from then either.
5. Bias. Mission. Goals.
To me, this may be the biggest factor to consider when determining whether what you read is worth your time or not. What is the mission or goal of the organization or writer? For instance, when you look at the American Academy of Pediatric’s website, their stated mission is to “attain optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults.” There are no qualifiers and no social statements. Compare this to the mission of the American College of Pediatricians, a socially conservative think tank, whose core value is to promote child health, but within the “fundamental mother-father family unit, within the context of marriage.” The mission is clearly different here. The AAP is focused on child health. That’s the mission. But. because the ACP’s mission is to promote heterosexual, married family units, they are naturally going to find and promote health literature and research that supports their mission. Likewise, a company whose mission is to avoid “needless and potentially dangerous drugs” pushed by indiscriminate “corporate pill-pushers,” is going to push a lot of articles that suggest the evils of Big Pharma and traditional medicine.
Listen. Unless you’re a dope, you wouldn’t go out into the forest at night without a flashlight and a compass, right? The same caution should be taken when exploring the internet for health information.
A couple of good places to start: www.healthfinder.gov and https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/evaluatinghealthinformation.html.