Why Even Smart People Fall for Bad Science

Photo: pixelfit/Getty Images

We all do it about a hundred times a day: Open our preferred news app; read a terrifying headline about scary new health research; experience that now-familiar anxiety level spike. Consume too much media and it can feel like the world is ending every day. Trust me, I get it.

As a doctor, I get my medical information from validated scientific sources. But when I want to catch up on the latest “health tips” that my patients might be seeing, I check my Facebook feed. Unfortunately, I often see friends and family sharing content that ranges from misleading to straight-up deadly.

In the weeks and months (and probably years) ahead, it’s going to be really important to be able to read health and science news without panicking. But even smart, savvy people can get sucked in by dramatic headlines — especially in the midst of a legitimately scary public health crisis. Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re scrolling:

Our brains want our thoughts confirmed

We’re all prone to confirmation bias: We like to read things that agree with what we already believe and tend to immediately ignore things that we disagree with, rather than stopping to see if we need to change our thinking.

Confirmation bias can lead to some big problems. When a recent report from the WHO said people with Covid-19 who are “asymptomatic” are not as contagious as previously thought, people who hate wearing masks — there are a lot of them — took it as justification to take those masks off.

But that report was meant for scientists and health professionals who were aware of the many studies showing that masks dramatically reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s hard to understand how a public health organization could have communicated so poorly to the public. What did they think would happen when they made a statement that the spread of Covid-19 from asymptomatic people was “very rare”?

It was immediately reported by all the news channels, leading the WHO to clarify the next day that it was important to pay attention to the prefixes: Asymptomatic and presymptomatic are two different things. People who are presymptomatic with the coronavirus are highly contagious and can easily infect others during the three to four days before their symptoms show. That means we still can’t tell who is going to give you the coronavirus. Later articles clarified this, but only if people read them — and choose to believe them.

Negativity bias makes dire headlines seductive

Thanks to our innate negativity bias, readers are often drawn to the more dire and scary headlines. So that’s what we click on and, therefore, what some media outlines tend to use. But frequently the headline implies one thing while reading the article in its entirety gives you a very different idea.

Here’s one panic-worthy headline from June 16: “Coronavirus can still pass between face mask wearers — even when they’re 4 feet apart: study.” It makes sense that you’d click on this out of fear. But when you actually read the article, you find out that they are talking about people who are coughing in a mask. Also, the article explains that without a mask the droplets from a cough can go 18 feet. In the end, the article’s takeaway is pretty straightforward and not all that surprising: Don’t go near a coughing person during a pandemic.

To get the whole story, you have to read the whole story.

One study is never enough

In school, we were taught that science is fact. But science is a messy process of discovery. We test what we think we know, and then we test it again and again from different angles. That’s why scientists like to see multiple studies finding the same thing, instead of jumping on the first one. For instance, although hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 looked promising in an initial paper, later papers couldn’t repeat that finding.

It’s easy to fall for key phrases like “the first study to show,” or “new and unexpected finding.” Those can be interesting studies that make for good news stories. But doctors aren’t going to count on them until the later papers come out with phrases like “confirming previous findings.”

Legitimate health advice is usually boring

When something seems out of line with a consistent body of evidence, check it. If it goes against everything that we’ve been saying for months, there may be a problem with the way it’s being reported.

There’s no single magic bullet that will prevent you from getting a complicated disease. In fact, the only thing I know that has an impact on every aspect of health is the boring triad you’ve been hearing since you were a kid: regular sleep, regular exercise, and a nutritious, balanced diet. When it comes to the admittedly scary Covid-19 news, make sure you’re sticking with fact-checked stories from reliable sources.

Intuition often isn’t accurate

In a recent study, researchers found that people are far more likely to fall for medical misinformation on social media when they rely on their intuition. On the other hand, when people were given a “nudge” to consider the accuracy of what they read, they were far more likely to spot fake news. And that’s important because we are more likely to believe something when it’s shared by a friend on social media than we would otherwise.

It’s no fun — and not sustainable — to live in a constant state of panic. Luckily, reading science news is a life skill like any other, one we can practice and improve.

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