As I continue to accumulate experience in the world of nutrition across both the private practice and social media setting, I can’t help but feel as though the joint problems of nutrition misinformation and the spread of harmful nutrition messaging have not really gotten better.
I find it impossible to deny that the average person continues to be heavily influenced, often to their detriment, by questionable nutrition claims and information they may encounter from pseudo-intellectuals in our field.
Many of my long-time readers will know that I’ve actually previously written on the topic of dealing with people who spread misinformation on nutrition.
That particular article, now a few years old, was written from primarily a common sense/conventional wisdom standpoint and certainly has not lost any its salience with time.
I have, however, chosen to re-visit this particular topic today for a very specific reason.
Fighting Back Against Harmful Information
I recently encountered a pretty comprehensive 2016 report published by the WHO that essentially serves as an educational resource to teach people how to deal with vaccine deniers in public forums.
The internet is, if nothing else, the ultimate public forum and vaccine denial is essentially what many consider the ultimate and most egregious form of anti-scientific conspiracy and misinformation.
Yes, it’s even worse than demonizing fruit and gluten!
Upon reviewing this document I had the cool idea of summarizing some of the key points of guidance that the WHO offers to deal with vaccine deniers and re-framing them with a nutrition twist.
I hope and believe that this article will provide unique value to colleagues, nutrition students and everyday readers.
Let’s get started!
Part 1: How Is “Scientific” Misinformation Spread?
Well, let’s start with the fundamental principle that underlies all the craziness – a false claim.
A false claim could be something innocuous like celery juice causes your hair to grow thicker ( a divine message of sorts) or something with more potentially harmful consequences like saying that gluten is toxic and should be avoided ( a “divine” interpretation of science – one might say)
Regardless of the precise nature of the claim, false claims are generally propped up by a number of either underhanded or misguided tactics.
I encourage you guys to call these tactics out if you recognize them in a public sphere ( ie: social media) and name them precisely for what they are using the guide below.
These Tactics Include:
1. Skewing The Science: Which usually comes in the form of using one or few studies of low quality that do not represent the scientific consensus to support an argument.
2. Shifting The Hypothesis: This tactic is akin to “changing the subject” and is often used by people who feel they are losing an argument on a specific point.
3. Censorship: Blocking, banning or dismissing anyone who challenges the viewpoint in question.
4. Attacking The Opposition: When a false claim faces undeniable scrutiny, those who support it may resort to personal attacks on the expertise or character of a group who may hold opposing beliefs.
This is kind of like saying – “Dietitians only know how to follow the food guide”
5. Conspiracies: This is exactly how it sounds and essentially means that a false claim is supported by the suggestion that major organizations who dispute it are part of some massive conspiracy.
6. Fake Experts: Very often the opinions of pseudo-experts or those with very limited expertise or actual knowledge may be referenced to support an argument.
7. Impossible Expectations: Sometimes those who support false claims put impossible expectations on science to prove things to such an extent that cannot actually be done.
Part II: What You Can Do To Fight Back?
So on the one hand we have the strategies employed by people who might seek to spread misinformation in the public sphere.
But what is perhaps most important for my readers today is the strategies and tactics that are best employed by the individuals on the side of good science and evidence.
Which is most of you I hope?!
These Tactics Include:
1. Underline Scientific Consensus: Is someone claiming something crazy about nutrition? Challenge them by sharing consensus statements from reputable organizations.
Conversely, you might challenge them to procure there own in support of their view.
An example of this might be the Canadian Society For Allergy & Clinical Immunology Society Statement against “food-intolerance” tests.
2. Don’t Question Motivations: I’ve actually brought this up in my previous article and I’m glad the WHO agrees with me, but I think it’s fair enough to say that it remains important to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Of all people who may spread false information I think it’s reasonable to assume only a small fraction do so for purely destructive reasons.
The Medical Medium, for example, does not likely promote celery juice for any other reason ( besides fame and notoriety I suppose…) than that he actually believes it could do good for the world.
At the very least, I doubt he is not doing it to purposely harm anyone.
3. Avoid Humour: Now while I’m sure you all know how strongly I believe in humour as an effective tool in nutrition discourse ( duh), I think it’s fair to say that it can also be misconstrued in the wrong setting as condescending and potentially detract from the validity of your argument and how you are perceived by those observing or taking part.
4. Emphasize Social Benefit: This really means always looking at the bigger picture consequences.
Let’s use someone who is widely promoting a paleo diet that omits grains/legumes for the broad population.
Grains & legumes are affordable, require far less resources to grow than meat/dairy and are generally widely enjoyed and associated with good health outcomes.
Always look at the bigger picture of any suggestion being made, that usually weakens most arguments from irrational actors.
5. Tell The Truth: It’s not okay to misrepresent scientific facts or arguments just because you are “fighting the good fight”.
Honesty and integrity remain important at all times.
This means that you should not overshoot your confidence in an argument if the evidence is that strong and also not disregard any valid arguments that someone from the opposing side of an argument may have.
If you do either, you aren’t really that much better than your opposition.
6. High Safety Framing: When engaging publicly it makes sense to frame things in a positive fashion to support your argument.
That is to say, if you are fighting back against the claim that everyone should avoid gluten, for example, you’d frame your argument by saying that 98% of people can enjoy gluten with no digestive or other health consequences ( rather than saying only 2% of people have an allergy or intolerance, for ex. – I just made these stats up for sake of argument).
7. Use Inclusive Terms: When you are disputing contentious points in a public forum it is very reasonable to identify yourself by your accolades that set you apart ( ie: dietitian, PhD, doctor) but it also helpful to make sure you also identify yourself by the characteristics that you share with public ( ie: gym goer, runner, mother, IBS sufferer).
Fighting back against nutrition misinformation online or in other public forums continues to be a topic of great relevance to the reputable health professionals of the world.
It’s important to understand that in this fight, there are specific tools we can use ( and that we can identify the “other side” using) that are most effective in supporting our cause.
I hope today’s article, inspired by the WHO, helped to make that clear.
Until next time,
Andy De Santis RD MPH