Science Matters: Beat the ‘fake news’ by being science savvy

Fake news! It’s become the catch-cry of 2018.

Lately everyone has become concerned about whether the news, as reported by the mainstream media is, indeed, trustworthy.

But what about fake science?

You may not realise it, but fake science, or pseudoscience, is all around us. 

It’s most often used to try and sell us things. Drink this, it’ll help you lose weight. Eat this, it will help prevent cancer. Use this cream, it will make you look younger. 

We’re constantly being bombarded with these messages, and it’s easy to be sucked in by slick commercials and celebrity endorsements.

But much of the time these products have little, if any, actual science behind them. So in this world of fake science, how can you know what to believe? 

One of the first clues that the product you are looking at might be a bit dodgy is the type of language used in advertising. If the ads are full of technical jargon that you can’t make sense of, it can be a sign that someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

One of my favourites is an ad for face cream a few years ago, which was “derived from gene science”. I’m a scientist – and a geneticist at that – and I can tell you this statement is meaningless.

Whenever I see claims that products are “detoxifying”, or full of “bioactive molecules” I start to get a little suspicious.

The same goes for promises that a product is a “miracle cure” for something. Don’t let the big claims and technical language fool you. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Rather than take claims at face value, look at the evidence.

Has the product been tested scientifically – and objectively? A lot of products will claim to be “clinically tested” or “dermatologist (or other expert) approved”. This sounds really impressive.

But what does it really mean? Only that the products have been used on people with no ill effects – not that they’re actually effective. Instead, look for links to published scientific papers, which will detail how and when the product has been tested, and the results of these kinds of tests.

If there are links to scientific literature it’s always a good idea to review those studies and make sure they are robust. Was the product tested on people, or animals, or on something else?

How many test subjects were there? Were the results statistically significant? Who carried out the research – was it the company who produced the product, or an independent researcher? Where is the research published? Real scientific research undergoes a process of peer-review, where other scientists look at the work and make sure that it has been carried out properly.

A product backed by peer-reviewed research is more likely to be effective than one that is just backed by a flash looking website.

Someone is always trying to sell us something. But, by being a little bit science-savvy, you can make smarter choices, and hopefully avoid wasting your money on useless products.