By Karen Oslund
Executive Director, Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County
Recently, a story on Facebook caught my attention and set off my inner alarm bells. “Sunscreen Causes Skin Cancer!” was the headline. The story went on to claim that the best defense against skin cancer is exposure to the sun. No! This is Fake Health News!
Fake Health News draws from the same bag of tricks as fake political news. The writers establish an illusion of credibility by weaving in morsels of official-sounding jargon or referring to a scientific “study.” Fake health news, like fake political news, tells us something we may want to be true and it is our bias toward belief that shuts down our inner skeptic.
Cancer—and its causes, prevention, and treatment—is a favorite topic of Fake Health News. Preying on fear, as well as our hope that there is a quick fix, a magic potion, or “one strange trick” that will protect us from cancer, Fake Health News writers can generate millions of clicks with a provocative, appealingly packaged bag of lies. We need to hone our ability to recognize all types of fake news, but with Fake Health News, our well-being depends upon our ability to discern fact from fiction.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering whether a health news story is credible. 1) Consider the source. Does the article have an author? Is the publication generally recognized as trustworthy? Search the author’s name to see what else they have written. 2) Beware of a wild story that you find in only one outlet. If many reputable news outlets are carrying the same story, it is likely credible. As a recent example, a news item reporting an alarming increase in colon cancer in younger patients was widely reported in late February and early March of this year. A version of the story appeared in the New York Times, the LA Times, and other major news outlets simultaneously. They were all reporting on a study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. This was actual news. On the other hand, if you read a story that you find in only one place and you cannot corroborate it with other sources, it is likely to be Fake Health News. 3) “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” This adage has stood the test of time because it is extremely good advice.
Regarding the claim that the sun protects us from skin cancer—this does not even pass the sniff test! By that, I mean that I can see with my own eyes that sun exposure has damaged the skin of those I love and caused many instances of skin cancers among my family and friends. Basal cell carcinoma is both the most common type of skin cancer as well as the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and it develops most often on skin that is exposed to the sun, such as the face, head, and neck. Protecting our skin from the sun from the earliest age, not only with sunscreen but also with protective clothing and shade, is our best defense against skin cancer, and this is verified by the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Dermatology, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Taking the time to look deeper into the claims of Fake Health News can prevent us from taking risks with our health. Some day, if “one strange trick” turns out to be true, it will be verifiable with reliable sources, it will be widely reported in established and respected publications by credible authors, and the scientific studies the “one strange trick” are based on will be peer reviewed. Until then, it’s just a trick.