Health and wellness myths spread, trust in reliable science wanes

Oct 20, 2018

Decades ago, people got their health information from their doctors. Today, information is much more available (thanks, internet). So much so that we're bombarded by it: lose weight forever with this one simple trick; here's the cleanse that will cure your bloat; don't lie awake in bed at night, take this supplement, cure insomnia. Many of these tips, tricks, cures and secrets are misleading and inaccurate, spread by celebrities and laypeople alike.

Timothy Caulfield has spent most of his career trying to find out if there's any evidence behind these wellness trends. He joins us on "Take Care" to dispel some myths and get to the root of the problem. Caulfield is a researcher, author and professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta. He's host of the show "A User's Guide to Cheating Death," which is available on Netflix.

“It’s everywhere,” Caulfield said. “It’s becoming, I think, increasingly difficult to tease out what is accurate and what is inaccurate. In addition to that, it is getting transmitted by various forces, including social media.”

Part of the reason why false information spreads faster than the truth, Caulfield said, is because it can be more interesting, appealing to powerful emotions like anger and fear. The solution is not simply spreading an equal amount of truth, he said, because misinformation has a lot of staying power once people see it and believe it once.

Timothy Caulfield, host of "A User's Guide to Cheating Death," cites health information overload as a reason why people will believe falsities over facts.
Credit Matt Barnes/wikimedia commons

“Just dumping accurate information on people won’t change their minds,” Caulfield said.

Progress, he said, comes from using narratives and storylines that are relevant to people, which he calls creative communication strategies. Still, he acknowledged it's an uphill battle.

The onslaught of misinformation can make people wonder how we got here. Caulfield said it started with a breakdown of trust toward traditionally reliable health information sources like physicians and researchers. In addition, there has been increasing concern about how science is produced, fear of things like big pharma and focus on so-called conflicts of interests. It could also be something as simple as a bad personal experience with healthcare, Caulfield said.

“Those things, I think, are contributing to the drive toward this misinformation and creating space for alternative voices,” Caulfield said.

Caulfield said the shift in trust from healthcare professionals to people like celebrities came about because of influence. Celebrities can seem very fit and healthy, so their opinions also hold more weight in people’s minds, Caulfield said.

“They have a big megaphone,” Caulfield said. “They are able to keep these ideas alive, and they give these ideas a lot of currency.”

One of the most pertinent examples of the power celebrities wield to spread health myths is Gwyneth Paltrow, who, among others, used emotional stories to popularize the vaccines-cause-autism myth, which a wide array of scientific research has disproven.

“That kind of compelling story can overwhelm all of the available evidence,” Caulfield said.

Another problematic area when it comes to health misinformation is wellness, Caulfield said, which puts a lot of pressure on people to achieve an almost impossible state of being.

“The wellness industry, however you define that, is now a multi-trillion-dollar industry,” Caulfield said. “It’s almost now that we’re all obligated to do whatever we can, all the time, to try to improve our health and our wellbeing. Ultimately, I think the messaging is not that constructive.”

The best way to fight all of these inaccurate health messages is an active sense of skepticism, he said. Testimonials can be compelling, but it is crucial to focus on objective research over emotional stories. Once people start to research statements presented as “facts” before spreading them, he said, misinformation will start to decrease.

“Try to find reliable sources of independent science that you can turn to that you feel speak to you and try to triangulate,” Caulfield said. “Don’t be fooled by the grand claim.”

Unfortunately, Caulfield said, it's going to get increasingly difficult to navigate through all the health misinformation because the supply is growing. It may take serious time to make up ground in the right direction.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Caulfield said.