Emotions are winning over facts in public debates today. But I’m a facts guy. I’m a clinical researcher who writes about devices like heart and ankle implants. For each report, I read dozens of peer reviewed articles that rely on clinical trial data. In medicine, we strive to research as much as we can, ask hard questions, and challenge each other in order to make the science sounder. Scientists are always learning. Science is an ongoing conversation in a world where people want sound bites, one and done. When laypeople make quick and sometimes dangerous claims on the public stage, I call BS.
In fact, I’ve written a series of books calling out celebrities touting pseudoscience, like Deepak Chopra. I also take to task real physicians like Dr. Oz, who seems to mislead his audience with magical thinking and junk science, perhaps to appeal to more viewers and profit off of questionable merchandise. Consumers need sound medical advice, not multilevel marketing schemes that further enrich the rich.
Along with Dr. Phil, another Oprah-manufactured “celeb expert,” as well as reality TV’s Dr. Drew, Dr. Oz initially downplayed the severity of coronavirus. He had to walk back his comments that the potential death toll for opening schools during COVID was inevitable and acceptable. Haven’t we already learned that TV personalities are often hucksters only interested in self advancement?
If we want to prevent illness and live healthier lives, we need to avoid using “edutainment” as our primary care physicians. We can start by not visiting mass media for medical advice. A good rule of thumb is to avoid products and techniques sold on TV or social media. At the very least, conduct your own research. Ask Google “Is there any credible evidence to support this claim?”
I’ve heard nurses say that sometimes they have to argue with patients who are convinced what they see on TV is the best advice, like drinking grapefruit juice in the morning even though they’re taking Lipitor. The popular prescription lowers bad cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. But grapefruit limits some enzymes that break down medications, causing too much of the active ingredient to enter the bloodstream, leading to liver and muscle damage and possibly kidney failure. It seems that when presented with a chance to be like their favorite celebrity millionaires, people often abandon common sense and follow their pleasure-seeking lizard brains.
But please use your human brain. As a medical scientist, my job is to help you to be healthy, happy and well-informed. Here’s some scientific terms that explain how reason might be manipulated.
First is cognitive dissonance: “You smoke even though you know it’s bad for you.” Behaviors and beliefs (knowing and perceiving, or cognition) don’t align. Facts are explained away, a disconnect that causes discomfort. This can lead to:
- Confirmation bias. You select evidence that supports or overvalues your beliefs and claims, and dismisses contradictory evidence. The solution? Read. Read science. Take your time and don’t come to a conclusion right away. Read a variety of scientific materials to get a better understanding of the material.
- Logical fallacies. This is a group of common communication reasoning errors that undermine facts. Be aware of using these in your own arguments and watch for them in others. Logical fallacies lack evidence. Maintain a foundation in peer-reviewed science to avoid irrelevant points and illegitimate arguments.
- Bandwagon. “Nobody else is wearing a mask, so I won’t either.” This is especially dangerous with health issues, because everybody is unique. Listen to your professional healthcare providers rather than following the mob mentality.
- Hasty generalization. In an instant gratification environment, quick solutions seem the most palatable. But science isn’t quick, and it’s infinitely more accurate.
- Either/or. Oversimplifies an argument, saying there’s only two choices. Science is nuance, and rarely black or white.
- Ad hominem. Attacking a person’s character rather than the argument (see Twitter, mostly).
- Whataboutism. Shift from the main issue to another problem entirely, as in “what about…” In politics, this is called “the pivot.” In science, it’s diversionary nonsense.
- Dunning-Kruger Effect. A cognitive bias where people with low ability overestimate their ability. They don’t have the skills to know they don’t have the skills. Remember that we live in a society of specialization, so I don’t have to pretend I’m an expert in mortgages. I’ll get a mortgage broker. Just because Dr. Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon doesn’t mean he knows anything about diets, nutrition, or virology. Listen to experts in those fields, not those who happen to have a TV show.
Read entire articles, not just headlines. Like you learned in school, find at least three sources with established credibility and editorial oversight per topic. Avoid clickbait, and know that hard facts aren’t usually simple and alluring. And I can’t say this enough: when something sounds too good (or easy) to be true, it probably is.
Health isn’t built on gimmicks or pop stars or quick fixes. Healthy living comes from proper diet and exercise, not social media and celebrity podcasts. Don’t fall prey to hucksters. Save your money and save your life.