How to Spot Fake Medical / Science Claims: Episode #2 – Scientific Studies, Marketing, and Bias

You have all seen it. You are in some online venue in which some controversial topic comes up in science, health, or medicine and invariably, someone will post a link to a “scientific” article supporting their claims. How do you determine what is valid and what is not? Let’s take a look:

1.) Website Links: Web of redirection

If you are sent to a website that makes many claims but they only link back to other articles on the same domain. You are probably being scammed. Proper evidence should come from multiple sources outside of their website that corroborate the site’s claims. However, some are wising up. I have checked the site ownership of some of these companies and even though they have different domain names, they are owned by the same company. The express goal?… to get you to buy their products. Which brings me to number two:

2.) Site Selling Products

If the website you are visiting is flooded with purchasing options. You are probably being scammed. Keep in mind that their existence is predicated on you purchasing their products, they may not be as transparent and honest about what their product can and cannot do. It is all marketing. Consider: What would sell more? A: Chemical X kinda sorta does this in some situations? or B: Chemical X treats Z and fixes P? A is more truthful, but it won’t sell as faithfully as B.

3.) “It Contains Chemical X”.

This argument is used quite often in promoting a product or health food. The reality is that thousands of other products may contain the exact same ingredient. It may not be necessary to only use that one particular packaged version of the product. Worse, the chemical may not even do what they claim in the first place.

4.) No Links to Research

As mentioned in #1, proper evidence should come from external corroborating sources. If they make big claims with absolutely zero links to a scientific website, medical journal, or other scholarly resource. You cannot trust the source. Could be true, but how could you know? How can you verify? Heck! How can they know? You should always ask, “Where are they getting this information from?” Also, check for disclaimers. Some natural, herbal, and medically-oriented blog sites will inform you that they have not really vetted the claims of their authors or they are not giving you medical advice. Believe that. That should give you pause right there.

5.) Personal Testimony

Red flags should go up immediately when someone says, “Works for me!” This is not to say that this is absolutely untrue, it is just that this kind of evidence is the worst kind of evidence in science. The reason is because most people are not critical evaluators of claims and/or do not understand basic scientific processes. The cause of what appeared to work may be all in one’s head due to bias. Humans tend to forget the misses but cling on to what they perceive as hits. Did the cranberry juice cure your UTI? Or was it time (your body’s own natural defenses)? This is akin to when someone takes an antibiotic and they believe it helped with their cold symptoms.

6.) Scientific Studies – “Studies show”!

Sadly, you can’t trust these either. Rather, you must know how to discern the crap from non-crap. Here are a few tips to help you know when you have fallen upon a crap scientific research paper.

  • Exaggerates claims and uses subjective language – “Great source of X”, “Best protein..” “No other study in the world has shown…”
  • Research the authors. What University? What Company? What are their qualifications?
  • Conflicts of interest not apparent. Do the scientists that claim cloves cure cancer work for Cloves Inc?
  • Old paper. Yes, a lot has changed since 1923. Find more up-to-date resources. Scholar.google.com may help you with that.
  • Confusing format: No abstract. Not professionally done. It’s written more like an essay. Again, this not to say that the essay is false, it just doesn’t help with credibility.
  • The article refers consistently to only a few external sources to provide evidence for their claims. If this is the case, then visit that primary source. Avoid the middle folks if you can. Often, you will discover that what the biased secondary researcher is claiming, is actually NOT what the primary researcher is saying at all.
  • No citations, images, graphs, or data at all. Oddly, I have seen this a few times.
  • Check dosages of chemicals. Far too many research studies are misinterpreted or skewed for headlines and sound bites. For instance, a scientific study may reveal that phthalates cause cancer. Okay, but at what dose? If a lab experiment revealed that mice breathing 25grams of phthalates an hour died in two weeks (which is absolutely horrible) you must ask, are humans breathing nearly that much though. Probably not; but even if so, how do we know that humans would react the same as a mouse? In most cases, we don’t.

7.) No Mechanism of Action

I have mentioned this in the previous episode, but if the page is chock full of science, medical, and health claims but there are no explanations for how they work, beware. It is probably a scam. If an explanation is given for how something is supposed to work, research that chemical or process at an unbiased source. For instance, if you wish to discover if tryptophan is a powerful sleep inducer, you should NOT go to: ILoveTryptophan.com/store. Visit university sites discussing the chemical. Search for these chemicals using scientific journals or journal aggregators such as: Parity.com or Google Scholar. Motherjones.com is not a trustworthy source. Even some science news websites post crap from time to time so be very careful. You must triple check their claims, even moreso, your own beliefs.

Well, that’s it for this lengthy episode. I hope you have found something of value, if not for yourself, perhaps for others.

 In Science & Reason,

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– Reggie

#pseudoscience #science #research

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