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Facts, Alternative Facts and Fake News


In no place do facts matter more than when it comes to our health.

We live in tense times. It seems like we are fighting for truth. In no place do facts matter more than when it comes to our health. What is true, and what isn’t? How can ordinary people trust their sources?

I wrote about this recently on my other blog (www.hepmag.com). False headlines appeared in the Guardian stating, “ ‘Miracle’ hepatitis C drugs costing £30k per patient ‘may have no clinical effect’.” The Guardian wrote, “Drugs that have been hailed as a cure for a debilitating and sometimes fatal liver disease – but have threatened to break the health budgets of most countries because of their cost – have not been proven to have any effect, according to a new review.”

The review the Guardian was referring to, was a report issued by the Cochrane group. For those who aren’t familiar with Cochrane, this collaboration tries to provide bias-free evidence. I am not sure that bias can be completely eliminated, but Cochrane’s goals are admirable. So a review from Cochrane stating that hepatitis C treatment may have no clinical effect is deeply disturbing.

It was nonsense. However, even if news is set straight, headlines often do more damage than good. This is because it is hard to make bad news go away. For example take the false connection between autism and vaccines.  In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, MD published a study in The Lancet suggesting that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine could trigger autism. It turns out that Wakefield’s data was fabricated. The Lancet eventually retracted the paper and Wakefield lost his medical license.

But the damage was done, and people continue to believe there is a link between autism and vaccines, despite numerous studies showing that they don’t. Vaccines save lives and they are covered by health insurance. Despite this, vaccination rates are still lower than what they need to be to protect us from preventable diseases.

Good luck getting people to change their minds. There are a number of theories, based on various experiments. It may just be that we have a hard time changing our minds. One experiment found that the act of trying to correct misinformation made us more likely to believe the false news rather than the correct version.

Back to my questions, “What is true, and what isn’t? How can ordinary people trust their sources?” Don’t rely on news headlines for your medical and scientific information. In general, reliable scientific journals have been peer-reviewed. However, this would not have protected us from the false autism research. For that, it’s best to have an open mind. If you hear something that contradicts your belief, go to the source. You may learn that you were mistaken, but you may also learn that you are open-minded, and that is a wonderful thing to be.

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