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Skeptics use science to fight wave of bad nutrition advice on the internet

Special to The Washington Post

Finding health information online is easy. Cutting through the clutter and getting facts is very difficult. There's a cacophony of voices, each saying something different. The confusion worsens when charlatans provide false hope and bad advice.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Scientists and researchers are working to debunk the most egregious health myths and educate Americans with evidence-based, factual information. Let's call them skeptics, myth-busters or debunkers. In any case, this group is collectively using science to fight back against the pseudoscience (like fad diets and quack cancer cures). What advice do they offer so we find better information online? I spoke to four myth-busters to find out.

David Gorski, professor of surgery at Wayne State University and managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, and Yvette d'Entremont (a.k.a. SciBabe), a writer, analytical chemist and forensic scientist, have played roles in quieting the bunk from Vani Hari (the Food Babe). James Fell, a blogger at Body for Wife and a syndicated fitness columnist, can take credit for adding to the bad press that ended the run of "The Biggest Loser," a TV show that depicted harmful diet and exercise practices. Timothy Caulfield, professor and research director at Health Law Institute of the University of Alberta, often debunks Gwyneth Paltrow 's Goop, and is the author of the 2015 book, "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?"

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"Where there's a huge magnitude of bad info, there needs to be a huge magnitude of good info coming out to counter it," says d'Entremont, who does this job to try to lessen the influence of bad science.

If you don't know the background science, any argument can sound convincing online. Many people are searching for hope and sometimes believe what they read because they want it to be true. It's the job of myth-busters to dig deep into the evidence and poke holes in the pseudoscience, so we don't fall for unproven cures and risky remedies.

"The scientific community has a responsibility to make sure information is translated clearly, and there is more need for people who are science-based to answer the call," says Caulfield. He explains that we need researchers involved in myth-busting because the topics are becoming increasingly complicated. Things like unproven stem cell therapy, genetic testing or detox diets are hard to debunk for people with no background in science.

Gorski says that being a skeptic is about more than debunking. It's about promoting science and reason. As a team, debunkers are creating a movement that reminds people not to believe everything they read. Individually, they each have a small impact but, collectively, change is happening. From the anti-vaccine movement to some questionable items found on celebrity websites, these topics are being examined more critically.

"It used to be that when a story about vaccines or autism was published, journalists interviewed anti-vaxxers and had no balance," says Gorski. "Now they tend to show both sides of the story and are calling on us more often."

Caulfield says: "Celebrity opinions used to be seen as harmless entertainment, but that's changing in the era of fake news. Policymakers are seeing the harm from bunk and are taking it more seriously than they did 10 years ago."

It's a tough job, but . . .

Debunkers face hate mail, personal attacks and even lawsuits. So why do they do this job?

"I want to expose scientifically why this bunk is all wrong, and I want to give people good advice instead," says Fell. "We want dialogue and want people to be critical thinkers."

D'Entremont says that the public needs to know that certain people aren't credible sources of information. "We're not saying not to read them, we're saying to look at them with a bit of skepticism and see where their info comes from," she says.

These myth-busters rely on a full body of evidence to pen their articles, rather than one study or personal anecdotes. And they encourage people to fact-check their articles. Simply, they exist to help people navigate and understand the science, and are happy to engage in debate. Except, of course, when it's going to lead to nonsense.

"A lot of the people promoting pseudoscience are pretty good at the "Gish Gallop,' " says Gorski. That's when a dishonest charlatan lists many misleading items to leave their opponent flustered by heaps of pseudoscience. It looks like the dishonest speaker wins the debate because the scientist can't possibly reply to all of the junk. The charlatan provides no references, and ignores the scientist who requests them. If you see this kind of battle, it's a red flag that bunk is afoot. Some other warning signs that you're getting junk science are when:

  • One treatment protocol is said to heal a long list of conditions. There's no "one thing" that can cure many ailments.
  • The information is based on testimonials and anecdotes, not on research.
  • Science is alluded to, but no actual references to reputable journal studies are provided.
  • The words "magic" or "miracle" are used. If something really worked that well, you'd have heard about it and it wouldn't be sold online for $29.95.
  • You are encouraged to spend money on products or services to achieve the lifestyle that's promoted.

Fell says that if the information you seek is really important to you, dig into multiple sources. It's not enough to read opinions on one website.

Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of "Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans."

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