Can I Trust What I Read Online About Health?

Many times I’ve searched high and low for information in the one area where information exists as it has during no other time in human history; the internet. And the internet is a big freaking place.

Falling asleep at the library trying to find information about your health concern? No longer! You have the internet.

Falling asleep at the library trying to find information about your health concern? No longer! You have the internet.

You can find whatever you want. Movies, books, facts, lies, porn, recipes, and of course cat videos. It’s literally all there.

Health facts, diagnoses, treatments, opinions, studies, and yes, blogs (just like this one) are present as well. Many sciences are present on the web. Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are personalities that bring science to many a person and make it interesting to learn.

Many people want to believe what they learn online about many different things. After all, if you have a question, it’s ridiculously easy to “research” it online and get an answer. You can even go to places like and ask questions and have people weigh in.

Questions are the beginning of knowledge. The problem is the knowledge is only good if the answer is truth. If it isn’t truth, even if it is meant with the best of intentions, doesn’t confer any knowledge at all that will be beneficial. Sometimes you get two or more answers that are equally beneficial. Sometimes there are just no good answers.

For example: lets say I make a Google query about how to clean a microwave. One website says fill a microwave safe bowl with water and put it in the microwave for a few minutes and let the steam clean it. Wipe up and be done. Another says that you have to mix vinegar and water for the effect. Both work, at least in my experience.

Another example might be pseudoephedrine side effects. Say you’re taking some because you are congested. Maybe the pharmacist told you that it might give you insomnia, which is true, it might. Before you take one though, you decide your pharmacist is an untrustworthy idiot (some may be) and so you do some of your own research online and find that pseudoephedrine can cause drowsiness, just the opposite of what the pharmacist said. “That dummy shouldn’t be practicing” is what you’re thinking now and you take some before bed.

What happens? For some, nothing. For some, they sleep better. For others, the have insomnia. For the insomniacs and the people who had nothing happen, they’ll be more likely to believe the pharmacist, and now trust him/her a little more the next time counsel is given. For the others who sleep a little harder, they’ll think that the internet was right and the pharmacist is a dolt. Next time they visit they pharmacy, they won’t trust, or even ask because they can probably do the fact gathering online.

Some people can't sleep at night if they take the wrong drug, even if the pharmacist told them it would

Some people can’t sleep at night if they take the wrong drug, even if the pharmacist told them it would

Another issue that arises is that of bias toward a theory. It’s called confirmation bias. In other words, you seek out information which supports what you believe is true and disregard other data because you don’t agree with the results. On things like recipes, adding cilantro rather than basil might not have serious implications to health policy at large. But if you’re looking at the food recommendations by the government (which just changed by the way) and you agree with them, you can rest easy knowing that your knowledge is sound.

But if you disagree with the food recommendations by the government because you’ve done research and generally think that the whole system is run by idiots, then when anything comes up about the food pyramid or MyPlate, you’ll roll your eyes into the back of your head, facepalm, and switch to another website that supports your dietary view.

Another hot topic these days is vaccinations. If your pro-vaccine, you’ll look at stories and research that is pro-vaccine. If you’re anti-vaccine, you’ll do the same but for anti-vaccine information.

Some people will judge information by the level of sophistication of the “look” of a website. If it looks credible, then it must be. Others will look to see if it’s written by a doctor. If it’s just some blogger then it must be wrong or misguided. The opposite is also true. If it’s written by a doctor, then some will think they are in the pocket of big pharma and only have a vested financial interest to what they write.

So how do you sort through everything?

For starters, it’s not a bad thing to take everything on the internet with a little skepticism. If a claim about natural cancer treatment is available and has unbelievable results, that’s all fine and well, but I need to do some research before it does. I typically ask myself these questions:

Are there studies to back up the results?

Is it a news report that gives generalities or does it give actual explanations? (you have to be careful with these because I’ve seen that new articles can really magnify something that isn’t so big or misquote things that have been said)

Does it give references that I can look up myself to verify what has been written or blogged about?

Does it makes sense? (Sometimes breakthroughs don’t intuitively makes sense, but if the explanation is causing your brain to shut down from over thinking, it is probably a red flag)

Do some homework and think about what it is you read before you make a decision. You have gray matter in your head to think, so think.

Another thing to look for is does what you’re reading about make blanket statements such as “Reduce blood pressure guaranteed” or “Never have another headache again” or “Get rid of arthritis for good”. Others might include “Drug X has no safety problems” or “Drug Y doesn’t cause cancer” or “Cherry Pie doesn’t bring happiness”. Did you notice that last one? That one iscompletely false and shouldn’t ever be a headline. Blanket statements should be a red flag. (Yes I’m aware I just made a blanket statement about cherry pie)

Cherry pie will make you happy. GUARANTEED! This is a blanket statement that should make you think twice about its validity, although cherry pie brings me joy every time.

Cherry pie will make you happy. GUARANTEED! This is a blanket statement that should make you think twice about its validity, although cherry pie brings me joy every time.

As a side note, I try not to make blanket statements, but I probably have. Take those with caution and do some research.

The fitness industry is filled with this kind of crap. “Lose 10lbs in a week” and other such catchy phrases sell billions in the United States alone. Steroid laden models mislead many males about how beneficial testosterone boosters can be. Can acai berries really make you look 20 years younger? Probably, if you live right, reduce stress, drink lots of water, find balance and maybe eat some acai berries. But if you just eat acai berries, probably not.

Lastly I want to return to my first example of pseudoephedrine. In lots of research, especially with physics and chemistry, we can reduce down the number of confounders and variables to get good results. Online we can’t do that so well, especially with treatments such as onion juice for hair growth. Hey, maybe it works wonders for some, but for others it leaves them smelling like onions. I hope they use walla walla sweets.

But that’s my point; with health some things actually do work for some people and for others they don’t. Simvastatin doesn’t prevent 100% of heart attacks or death in people who take it to reduce cholesterol. It reduces the absolute risk by a couple of percentage points, depending on the study. So for a few it will prevent heart attacks, but for the large majority, it won’t. We can argue about the value of that in another post, but it still doesn’t change that it doesn’t work for everyone.

So when looking online for information, take the time to actually research and think about what it is you’re looking at. If putting onion juice on your head for hair growth sounds like it might be a good idea, then go for it and let me know how it works because I have a receding hair-line. Will it harm you? Does it makes sense? Is it backed by anything?

This is my first post in a while that has no references. Does that raise a red flag? Maybe, maybe not. This is my opinion post afterall. So maybe you need to think about it. I hope you will apply some of the principles to everything you read online, not just health.