A guide to spotting health misinformation

You’ve just sat down after a long day. Perhaps you’re scrolling on your phone or reading the newspaper and trying to unwind.  Then you come across a headline: ‘New study shows eating 50 slices of burnt toast causes cancer’, and you think ‘Oh great, yet another thing I have to avoid’.

But perhaps the first thought should be ‘Is this true?’

The internet is filled with many conflicting claims about health and cancer, so it’s hard to know whether we’re trusting the right information.  

Misinformation is information that is inaccurate, outdated, incomplete, false or misleading. And often, it can really affect us, causing upset or even harm. That’s why it’s important to think critically about the information we encounter, and decide for ourselves whether we think it’s trustworthy. 

It’s easier said than done. But priming ourselves to be more aware of misinformation can help make us better at identifying ‘fake news’.  

So, here are 5 tips you can try out to help identify misinformation when reading a headline or social media post about cancer.  

1. Can you trust the source? 

In the age of the internet, it’s pretty easy for anyone to make a claim or post information about health and cancer. And it’s often possible for these posts to reach lots of people without necessarily having the evidence to back it up.  

Information can be fabricated and spread with an agenda in mind. It can be swayed by personal or political beliefs or might be an attempt to sell you something. So, in the same way you wouldn’t open an email from a sender you didn’t recognise, you also shouldn’t trust health information that comes from an unknown source. Consider if the outlet sharing the health information has the credentials and expertise to back it up. Is the social media account or news outlet known for publishing quality content? 

Good content on health information should also reference where their information is coming from. For example, a high quality news article might cite guidance from a governmental body or a specific original research study.  

So do some digging. Looking into where information has been shared from can help you decide whether it is trustworthy. 

2. Does the story accurately represent the original study? 

Articles or social media posts often talk about scientific studies. However, sometimes misinformation can arise when the information provided doesn’t truly represent the findings from the original study. For example, some posts might cherry pick information from studies, without giving readers the full picture. 

When reading articles or posts on scientific studies, here are a couple key things you can look out: 

Animal or cell studies 

Early scientific research often takes place in animals or cells. However, how things work in animals or cells won’t always be the same as in humans. Humans can also be affected by real world factors such as alcohol and smoking.  So, be wary of content that generalises results from animal and cell studies and applies them to humans.

Correlation vs causation 

A study might show that there’s a link between cancer and something like how many socks you own (completely fictional by the way). And the news headline reporting on the study might say ‘Owning fewer socks causes cancer’. But this headline is misleading as the study didn’t prove that cancer is a direct result of owning fewer socks. Instead, it might have merely found an association or correlation that people who own more socks may be less likely to get cancer. But not a cause.  

There could be many reasons behind this association. For example, people might need more socks as they have to change them more often because they go running every morning. And because they run a lot, it helps them to keep a healthy weight, which is a proven way to reduce the risk of cancer.

So just because something might show a statistical association with cancer, it doesn’t mean it definitely causes it. 

Credibility of the research 

Like with any news, good journalism should report information based on quality sources. The same goes for articles on science, health and cancer.  

To check if the scientific source is good quality, it can be worthwhile to ask these questions: Was the study peer-reviewed? Has it been published in a respected journal? Who was it funded by? Did the news article mention the limitations of the study? Does the conclusion truly reflect the results? 

This can feel incredibly complex, but sometimes just a small amount of digging can reveal poor sources very quickly.  

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