Fact-checking, misinformation, and the role of the medical writer
This week, as Facebook rolls out its curated news tab and tries to remove itself from anti-vaxxer controversy (not very successfully), I invite you to reflect on your own role and responsibility as a medical writer.
Fact-checking is used in journalism to ensure that the claims (facts) reported by the journalist are accurate. In the information overwhelm age that we live on, fact-checking becomes an essential skill to have: it prevents the creation and spreading of false or misleading statements.
As science disseminators, medical writers are in a unique position to combat misinformation and serve as trusted experts to the general public. To become this trusted expert, you should know where are the reliable sources of information and have a systematic approach to fact-checking.
Get your facts from the (right) source
Life would be easier if we had one place we could go for all the right data. When searching for medical related content, we usually go to PubMed, Cochrane Library or Google Scholar to dig the appropriate academic papers. It is a good place to start, but don’t blindly trust the results.
I found the first paragraphs of this issue of Poynter newsletter interesting because they put the finger where it hurts, and say that academia is no longer the last bastion of truth. Sadly, it is true, and as stated in AMWA-EMWA-ISMPP joint position about Predatory Publishing, “Harm to the scientific literature will be the ultimate result if predatory publishing proliferates”.
As articles published in predatory journals start seeping into respectable search engines, you should have your own filters in place and be prepared to critically assess the quality of an academic article.
Put your fact-checking googles on
Another article by Poynter urges you to keep in mind that science-based claims still need to be fact-checked, and provide five tips to do so. I encourage it to give it a read, as it provides useful advice. I love point 4: Understand the power and limitations of the p-value (or make friends with a statistician). Ha ha. Any statistician around?
Understanding scientific uncertainty is another important factor to consider. Most headlines we see in newspapers reporting scientific discoveries might not be plain wrong, but they don’t properly communicate that in science few things are black and white. I found two interesting articles about this subject:
Communicating scientific uncertainty, by Baruch Fischhoff and Alex L. Davis.
Scientific Uncertainty in Health and Risk Messaging, by Stephen Zehr
They both stress the importance of addressing uncertainty in order to provide accurate messages that are understood by the public and decision-makers.
Have a good read, my friends.
Until next time,