1. Health

How to Confirm or Debunk Medical "Facts" That May Not Be True

Truth? Or Not? From Conspiracy Theories to Slippery Slope Arguments


Updated January 27, 2014

We all get them and see them. Emails that make questionable claims, or TV commercials that scare us. they might provide a link to a video or a website, or a blog post or Facebook conspiracy theory that sounds so far flung. They may be about politics or Wall Street, or marijuana or HPV vaccine, a political candidate or healthcare reform. So should we believe them? How can we confirm or debunk the information, before we forward it on to someone else?

These may sound familiar:

Remember the Senior Death Warrants? Email and blog posts during election seasons stated that healthcare reform would put the government in a position to let older people die to save money on healthcare.

Then there were the diseased green monkeys from Africa that were supposedly used to develop swine flu vaccine - or so said one email that circulated as the vaccine was being developed in 2009.

Muslims will be exempt from paying fines if they don't buy health insurance to conform with the Affordable Care Act, according to another email that circulated in 2010. Or maybe not.

Why Do We Believe This Questionable Information?

The human mind can be influenced by a number of factors including persuasion, education, guilt-trips and more. We tend to believe people we trust - even when their ability to be knowledgeable on a subject is suspect. We have grown up to believe that if something is put into writing, it must be true - even when it's not. The web, in particular, is a medium that sometimes provides us with real news, and other times provides only opinion. There's not always a label to identify which is which.

So when we come across provocative information, we react like we do to gossip. We want to be seen as both the hero who provided the warning about it, and we want to step up to help our friends protect themselves. So we share the information, regardless of its veracity.

Even if the information is wrong, or dangerous, there is no perceived penalty to the person who shares. We may think, "Better safe then sorry." We forward an email or a link to everyone we know. Then we move on without giving thought to the consequences.

What we don't realize is that by spreading false information, there may be repercussions that are damaging to someone else's health or wallet. For example, suppose someone believed the false information about the vaccines, didn't get a flu shot, and died from the flu? Whether or not you believe in vaccines, you can see how spreading information, no matter whether you believe it or not, can influence someone else's life.

Where Does This Information Come From?

Sometimes the links or information that come in these emails, on blog posts or through Facebook or other social media, is true. It has been put together in a thoughtful manner, it contains verifiable references, and it truly provides good information to the people who read it.

Other times, and probably far more frequently, the information in these kinds of inflammatory emails are someone's opinion. They will take a small piece of information, then begin drawing conclusions that are far-fetched and wrong.

A favorite among conspiracy theorists is slippery slope arguments - which are always wrong, by the way. But they are frightening, and too often are easy to believe even though they are false.

Many of these wild claims made in emails and social media are intentional. They are put together by a politician's rival - someone who wants you to be suspicious of that politician. Or they are developed by someone who wants to take your money. Like all other aspects of the web, there is plenty of fraud. It may be financial fraud or information fraud.

What to Do With Inflammatory or Suspicious Information

(How to figure out whether it's true or not)

When you receive one of these emails, or find statements on a blog or Facebook or other online sources, do not forward it, or send a link to someone else, until you have taken steps to either confirm or debunk it.

Here's how:

  1. Remember what your mother told you, "If it seems to good to be true, then it probably is." Likewise, if it seems too outrageous, then it is probably that, too.
  2. Follow the money. Decide whether someone stands to make money from the claims. If they told you they had a special serum for sale to protect you from the flu, then yes, they stand to make money. That means you want to try extra hard to prove or disprove the information.
  3. Trace whether the information comes from a slippery slope argument. If so, then you can't trust the information to be true.
  4. Check with one of the websites that confirms or debunks these kinds of statements. There are several that are recognized for the objectivity of their reviews:
    • www.Snopes.com covers everything from true and useful information, to urban legends.
    • www.Politifact.com is owned by the St. Petersburg Times and has won a Pulitzer Prize for its objective research and reporting on claims made by politicians and emails that circulate during stressful times.
    • www.FactCheck.org is owned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. It, too, addresses mostly political statements.
    • The Washington Post rates political claims from 0 to 4 Pinocchios (get it?) at its FactChecker website.
    • The About.com Guide to Urban Legends carries a list of health and medical related stories with an analysis of their veracity.
  5. If none of the websites listed above provides answers for you, then you may need to research further. All these sites provide you with the ability to ask them a question or forward an email to them for review. You may be able to find other credible sources, but trusting a source that is just as suspicious as the original email serves no objective purpose at all.
  6. It should go without saying, but if the email or links claim that the information has "already been confirmed by Snopes" or any of the other sites - don't believe it! Confirm the information yourself. That may be one more bogus claim.

What Should You Do Once You Have Confirmed or Debunked the Information?

If you can confirm it, and it seems important to share, then go ahead and do so.

If you learn the information is untrue, then you might just delete it. Or, even better, reply to the person who sent the email or link to you, and link them to the information you've found so they will have accurate information, too.

If you are interested:

All three of the emails and links mentioned above (Dhimmitude, Green Monkeys and Senior Death Warrants) have been carefully reviewed and found to be bogus. You can find all three claims, plus many others (some which will simply astonish you!) linked here.

Have you found a scam email worth reporting to others? Share your assessment with us!



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