Researchers have debunked nearly 400 pieces of medical advice, The New York Times reported. Out of 3,000 studies published in the 21st century, more than 10 percent disproved previous common beliefs. Finding accurate medical information often requires skepticism.
According to the article published by The Times, peanut allergies occur in children regardless of early exposure, ginkgo biloba doesn’t prevent memory loss, and fish oil doesn’t lower the risk of heart disease. Revelations like these could greatly affect sales of over-the-counter remedies—it claims that ginkgo biloba sales alone total $249 million a year. So when should we be cautious about taking medical advice, and at what point does that skepticism become unhealthy?
Reliable Sources of Information
Despite the recent debunking of many long-held medical beliefs, members of the public shouldn’t be too quick to cancel their regular check-ups. “Still, the single most reliable source of reliable information is health care professionals,” said Dr. Steven Novella, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions—if you’re going to do some research on your own, do it before you go in, and go in with specific questions. Physicians basically expect that these days and it’s part of the interaction.” Dr. Novella also said not to be afraid to ask for more time, even if it means making an additional appointment to get all your researched questions answered.
So how should one do their own research? There are, after all, unreliable websites and so-called health experts out there. “Trusted sources include known universities—my own institution of Yale, Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, or Johns Hopkins,” Dr. Novella said. “There are also many research institutions like the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. There are professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Neurology—pretty much, there’s one for every specialty there is.”
Red Flags, Snake Oil, and Bad Journalism
Dr. Novella offered advice on how to tell reputable sources from bogus ones. “Anyone can create a snazzy website and make it seem like they’re an impressive organization,” he said. “Beware of so-called ‘institutes’ or organizations that seem to be doing nothing more than promoting a single individual—anyone, again, could name themselves an institute. Beware of sources that seem to ultimately be trying to sell you something; probably they’re going to be distorting the information to make that sale.”
He also mentioned lone outliers that go against seemingly all other medical knowledge, as well, especially those claiming to be victims of persecution or “conspiracies of silence,” which Dr. Novella said are often ways to distract you from the skepticism you should exercise when faced with the oddness of their medical opinions.
Finally, there are murkier examples. Dr. Novella cited well-meaning online groups with sincere intentions of helping patients of specific diseases. Unfortunately, these groups sometimes lack a “culture of science,” meaning they can occasionally become echo chambers of unintentional misinformation.
“On the internet and elsewhere, there are rumors, there are urban legends, there are myths that are spread as fact,” Dr. Novella said. “Of course, there are lazy and sometimes sensationalistic journalists who are promoting it all. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Dr. Steven Novella contributed to this article. Dr. Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University.