Skip to main content

Fact or fiction? How to be smart when it comes to online health advice

On May 21, Joe Schwarcz joins Concordia's David Secko and Simon Bacon to separate the good science from the bad
May 6, 2016

From left: Simon Bacon, David Secko and Joe Schwarcz From left: Simon Bacon, David Secko and Joe Schwarcz

What’s true? What’s not? Who should you trust? Important questions when it concerns your health.

On May 21, Concordia professors Simon Bacon and David Secko will join Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, for the public lecture Social Media and the Rise of Bad Health Information: Tweets, Posts, and Problems

The talk is part of the International Behavioural Trials Network’s 2016 conference taking place in Montreal from May 19 to 21. We caught up with Bacon, graduate program director in the Department of Exercise Science, in advance of the event.

How did you come up with the idea for a lecture on the theme of health and social media?

Simon Bacon: We know that the majority of people now get their health information online, with a large proportion of it coming from social-media outlets. While there is a lot of good information out there, there is also some questionable information and advice circulating around.

For over 10 years, myself, Brian Gabrial and David Secko in the Department of Journalism have had an interest in looking at this, and we’ve organized several academic conferences.

We felt now would be a good time to open this discussion to include everyone. Helping people to tell the difference between the "good" and the "bad" information can be really important.

How did you select your panellists?

SB: We wanted our panel to represent a variety of experiences and viewpoints. Our "headliner" Joe Schwarcz is a world-renowned expert in making science and medical discoveries accessible, and an avid social-media user. He really represents an outstanding example of how scientists can talk a common language and provide accessible information for the general public.

David Secko is a fantastic academic who has not only been a reporter, columnist and freelance science writer, but also studies the process of health reporting. He is the lead of the Concordia Science Journalism Project, which looks to actively support, better understand and improve the role of science journalism in Canada.

Finally, my area of expertise is health behaviour change, and I have been involved in a variety of media events where I not only actively discuss my research but also the process of getting this information into the hands of the general public.

I am also leading the International Behavioural Trials Network (IBTN), which is co-sponsoring the event. Collectively, I think we are a very knowledgeable, experienced and entertaining group of individuals.

Some people say social media has led to the rise of medical ignorance: parents refusing to vaccinate their children, for example. What’s your take?

SB: A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A lot of times people make decisions with the best intentions but based on limited or erroneous information. The trick is navigating the huge amount of information that is out there and working out what is reliable and what is not — which is not easy.

Hand-in-hand with that is the willingness of people to embrace that information. It is very easy to develop an opinion and then find information on the internet or social media that supports that position. Helping people to be critical of that information is an important part of the process of developing well-reasoned decisions on health.

Joe Schwarcz is well known for his dislike of certain bloggers, notably the Food Babe, who has no medical training yet dispenses health advice. How should people approach this type of online advice?

SB: I think most people have a hard time knowing what information is “trustworthy” and what is not. There has been a growth in the number of social-media personalities who are providing opinions about health issues that are not founded in good science.

Confounding this is the fact they sometimes actually cover something that is backed up by good science, which allows people to justify their belief in what these people say. This means that it is not only the person but also what they say that needs to be looked at.

Generally, if you come across something that is posted or tweeted, it is good to get a "second opinion." Seeing if this information is also reported on reliable health-information sites, for example, WebMD, is a good place to start.

If it directly affects a health concern that you have right now, you can also seek information from a health-care professional or call 811. If in doubt, it is always good to speak to someone.

Do you see potential for advances in medicine through social media?

SB: As they say, knowledge is power, and arming the general public with the knowledge — and power — to understand medicine and medical advances can be a really positive thing in helping them make good health decisions.

Social media is a great tool that can be used in this way. However, understanding what information comes from reliable sources versus less reliable sources and helping the general population to navigate that is important.

How do you use social media in your own work?

SB: We use social media to get information out about the research we are doing, the events we are running and other “good” health information that can be helpful to people.

We mostly use Twitter — our lab account is @mbmc_cmcm and IBTN’s is @IBTNetwork — but we also post stuff through our websites.

What do you hope people take away from this event?

SB: The goal of the event is to try and help people navigate the complex world of health information on the internet and social media. If we can give people some insight into how to get and evaluate information then we'll have done part of our job.

 for Social Media and the Rise of Bad Health Information: Tweets, Posts, and Problems, which takes place on Saturday, May 21, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the BMO Amphitheatre (Room MB-1.210), John Molson Building (MB) (1450 Guy St.), Sir George Williams Campus.

Check out the wealth of resources and information carefully considered and compiled by the professional healthcare providers at Concordia's Health Services.



Back to top

© Concordia University