The internet has changed the world beyond all recognition. The way of life that was so common only 20 years ago has now been totally upended. We all have access to more information, discussion, and debate than we ever have before in human history– but that’s not necessarily always a good thing. Information should be beneficial, but in actuality, it can just be plain confusing.
There is one area where this sentiment is truer than others; healthy living. There is so much advice online about healthy living, the most obvious conclusion is that we are all able to have far more control over our health than we ever have been before. We can research symptoms, learn about illnesses we otherwise would not have been aware of, figure out what products might help us– surely the internet is allowing us all to live happier, healthier lives?
Not necessarily, and there’s a very simple reason for that: arguments. Think of any subject relating to health and you will be able to find opposing viewpoints online. There is almost no consensus on the majority of health subjects; there are differences everywhere. From the anti vs pro-vaccine debates to smaller, niche subjects about which medication is best for an allergy– the internet has exposed us all to a variety of different opinions, all at once, and left us to muddle our own way through.
If you have ever struggled to find the right answers in this confusing world, then don’t worry; help is at hand. If you’re just trying to live your best, healthiest life, then there are a few techniques you can implement to ensure all the information you obtain online is as beneficial as it should be. The next time you’re trying to find a realistic answer to a health question, here are the essential questions you should ask yourself about the information you’re seeing.
Question One: “Where’s The Money?”
Understanding where the money is behind health information is absolutely vital to getting the best information when you research online. Here’s an example as to how this works.
Let’s say Company X have produced a tablet that they claim lowers cholesterol. They have some scientific studies to back them up. These studies evidence that their medication is incredibly effective at lowering cholesterol.
So, the natural conclusion on reading about the above would be that you’re going to want to take that medication. There are even scientific studies to back the claims up! Surely following the science is always a good idea?
It may well be, but science isn’t always as easy to track as one may hope. Scientific studies are hugely troubling, especially because we’ve all been trained to accept them as the gold standard when it comes to medication. Here’s where the problem is; would you feel as comfortable about those scientific studies if you knew the studies had been conducted by Company X? What do you think the likelihood is that they would produce studies that said their product didn’t work? Well, it’s not huge– and studies being tampered with, or influenced by, parent companies is a real problem. Here’s an overview of how it works with the pharmaceutical industry, but they’re far from the only perpetrators of false studies.
Of course, there’s always the chance that a study isn’t being influenced by the parent company. What you need to cultivate is a careful habit of doubt, without dipping into cynicism. If you learn to follow the money, you will quickly be able to identify any studies that have only been done to bolster the company sales rather than any true research. Here are a few other identifiers of cherry-picked studies:
- The sample group for the study was tiny. Cosmetics companies are infamous for this.
- There is only one study about the efficacy of the medication/product/etc.
- The study claims a vague benefit, i.e. participants “felt better” or “had more energy”– hugely subjective and difficult to verify.
Question Two: “What’s The Authority?”
If you’re a fan of a blog, then over time, you will begin to trust the blogger. They may have recommended products to you in the past, that you have then tried and experienced a benefit from. This trust is great, and one of the things that makes blogging so unique, but it can also be misused.
Here’s an extreme example: you have long been visiting a blog that talks about fitness. You have followed workout tips, enjoyed their suggestions, and consider yourself to be a fan of the blogger. Then, out of the blue, they suddenly start to post information about how best to deal with hair loss… and you should try this new product to help with that.
While this might be natural — there’s every chance a blogger uses something they love and wants to spread the word — it’s worth asking yourself what their authority is on the subject. While you may trust their word for one aspect (so in this example, fitness), that doesn’t mean they are trustworthy on everything else. At the very least, go and check out their claims at independent sources and see if you can verify the good feedback.
Question Three: “What Do Other Countries Think?”
On a subject as universal as health, it can be tempting to think that general opinion on various subjects would be global. This isn’t actually the case.
There are plenty of examples of this. For instance, B12 deficiency; in Japan, you could be diagnosed with a severe deficiency, but in the US be told that you’re absolutely fine based off the exact same results. You might be in need of B12 injections, but you just live in a country that doesn’t yet recognize how influential B12 is on all aspects of health. The same is true of vaping, which has been widely embraced by European authorities, where smokers are encouraged to look for an in-depth guide to help them make the switch, whereas the US has been more circumspect.
Why do attitudes differ throughout the world? There’s no particular cause, but a few different issues tend to crop up:
- Lobbying is always an issue. For example, in the US, the tobacco lobbying group is hugely powerful, so they have reason to encourage governments to be more cautious about embracing an innovation that may derail their products.
- Different countries have different priorities. For example, those living in Nordic countries have more reason to be concerned about Vitamin D deficiency, so will have done more research on the subject.
Health is too broad a subject for every country to always be on top of the requirements of the public. If you have a health issue and conventional treatment in your home country is not offering you answers, then expanding your scope can be hugely beneficial.
Of course, if you do find answers from overseas research, you will need to persuade your doctors at home to implement it. This can be trickier than it sounds. However, if you stick to reliable sources and provide these to your doctor, they may be persuaded to adopt the global attitudes and try to help you find a solution for the issues that you’re experiencing.
Question Four: “Is This Confirming My Bias?”
We all have biases, even if we don’t know about them. The way we judge information that is presented to us is usually filtered through these biases. Here’s an example of how this works.
You believe that natural solutions are always better than pharmaceutical options. We’re not discussing if this is a valid point, more the way that it can influence your thinking– so, in this case, natural is always preferable to you.
You then come across information about a new product that is designed to help with insomnia, a condition that you suffer from. This product is all-natural and contains no synthetic chemicals. You read a little about it and decide to give it a go, discontinuing your use of standard treatments for insomnia.
Now, there’s every chance that this all-natural new product is the right solution for you– but would you, in this example, have jumped into trying a new product that didn’t confirm your pro-natural bias? Probably not. We’re all capable of seeing something we want to be true, and using that as a justification for making switches to our health regimes and lifestyle. It’s a kind of confirmation bias.
This is a bias you’re going to have to move past if you want to make reasoned judgements about health information that you find online. You have to be as skeptical about claims you do like the idea of as you would be about claims you don’t like the idea of. This ensures you’re making the right decisions, rather than just opting for ideas that help to back up your existing thoughts.
Judging whether or not to follow health advice that you follow online requires these questions to be applied, but there is a final step you need to take: consulting with your doctor. Before you begin any treatment plan or lifestyle change due to online advice, speak to your doctor and ensure they think it will be right for you– this is by far the safest course of action. Good luck.