Information Overload: How to Manage Misinformation
Information Overload und das unterbrechungsfreie Arbeiten (Photo credit: Frank Hamm)
In this age of information overload, how are we to sort fact from fiction? Whether it comes from newspapers, television, blogs, tweets, e-mail, or conversations with family, friends, teachers, health professionals, or co-workers, we are bombarded daily with information that requires us to form judgments—on topics ranging from world news or politics to research on health or claims about foods or diets. This is further complicated by the fact that today’s report may contradict what you heard last week. It’s no wonder that we often throw up our hands and simply tune out.
Why Myths Take Hold
Interestingly, the study of misinformation is a science in itself. In a journal report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, scientist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia and colleagues take a look at why certain pieces of misinformation seem to “stick” when facts show otherwise. They report that the main reason that misinformation takes hold is that rejecting information actually requires more mental effort. Absorbing information and forming a judgment on its validity is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting the message as the truth.
Factors that influence our judgments include how the information fits with what we already believe or know, whether it comes from what is considered to be a credible source, and who else believes this information. And if the topic isn’t particularly relevant to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to stick. For many, holding onto misinformation becomes personal and emotional, especially when it involves health.
Case study: HFCS Myths in the Media
Take, for example, the study of high fructose corn syrup. This sweetener was in use for over 30 years before a hypothesis was presented in a prestigious journal. In this 2004 commentary by respected scientists, high fructose corn syrup was suggested as being associated with increasing rates of obesity and health problems. Despite a retraction from the authors after multiple peer-reviewed studies showed that HFCS and sugar are metabolized the same, this misinformation, followed by additional false beliefs, took hold.
In this case, misinformation became “conventional wisdom,” which often persists when it simply becomes easier to point a finger at a single food or ingredient as the blame for obesity and related health problems, rather than dig deeper for scientific understanding and face the reality. Furthermore, popular media often contributes to misinformation regarding health issues by oversimplifying research results and using fear to demand consumers’ attention.
Interpreting Research Studies: How to Watch for Misinformation
Nutrition is an evolving science. You may wonder whether you can trust the science when you hear conflicting advice. Keep these thoughts in mind when you judge reports of food and nutrition research findings:
Read beyond the headlines. Attention-grabbing headlines often oversimplify more complex research results. Bottom-line conclusions are often reported at the end of a news story.
The results of one study are just one piece of a bigger puzzle. Don’t make changes in your diet based on the results of a single research study. Wait until more studies can confirm the results.
Take note of a study’s methods. Studies where subjects are simply “observed” may offer potential links, but cannot conclude cause and effect. That’s the purpose of intervention studies where researchers can study the effects of certain interventions, such as specific foods, ingredients, or diets, while controlling for other variables. Be aware that study results may not apply to you if the people studied are different in age, gender, health, or lifestyle.
Check the sources. Credible research is conducted by respected scientists or organizations, and it’s reported by a reputable newspaper, newsletter, magazine or scientific journal. Peer-reviewed published research carries the most weight.
Look for expert interpretation. Reports of research findings often include review and advice from nutrition and health professionals not involved with the research.
Betsy Hornick, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian, nutrition communications consultant, instructor at Rock Valley College and member of the CRA RD Panel, She writes regularly for consumer and professional audiences and also has experience in technical editing, nutrient analysis, project management, and nutrition labeling regulations. Betsy writes a bi-monthly column for Diabetic Cooking magazine, was co-author of The Healthy Beef Cookbook, and author of the 101 Best Food series.
RD Panel members provide general dietary information, but you should consult your own physician or dietitian for advice concerning your particular circumstance.