Dozens of editors from major cardiovascular journals have banded together to “sound the alarm that human lives are at stake” in a recent Journal of the American Heart Association editorial exploring the role of misinformation in cardiology.
Joseph A. Hill, MD, PhD, editor-in-chief of Circulation since 2016, and colleagues said the spread of false news—especially to incite debate or controversy on social media—is threatening quality cardiac care worldwide. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, television news, chat rooms and nearly ubiquitous accessibility to the Internet have facilitated the dissemination of medical information from almost any source.
“Celebrities, actors, activists and politicians with no specific knowledge or training use their fame to promote a message that causes serious harm,” Hill et al. wrote. “Individuals who are neither physicians nor scientists, but often with a specific agenda, have outsized influence over our lives. They dispute scientific evidence without ever having studied it.”
The authors pointed out that a single study years ago incited the debate over whether the common measles, mumps and rubella vaccine could raise a child’s risk for autism—a topic that’s still hotly debated. Seventeen other studies, all more reputable than the first, debunked that claim and the original study was retracted, but our Facebook feeds don’t necessarily reflect that.
Social media influencers have voices that rise above the rest, Hill and colleagues said. Compared to scientists, who are often skeptical, recognize that it’s “impossible to prove ‘never’” and couch their statements in statistical terms, celebrities are bright, certain and love to be controversial. And since recent evidence suggests misinformation travels faster than the truth on social media, it’s easier to vilify a scientific notion than verify it.
In their editorial, Hill et al. staged a typical doctor’s visit, one in which a doctor recommends that his female patient start taking statins to reduce her MI risk.
“No thank you, doctor,” the hypothetical Mrs. Jones replied. “I’ve read too many scary things about those drugs on the internet. Plus, I worry that some in your profession make these recommendations for reasons of personal financial gain. I also found that online.”
It might feel a little stiff, but the editors insisted “most cardiologists” would relate to the conversation. It’s the result of a few well-circulated stories—true, but sensationalized—about physicians who were paid to promote certain products or drugs in lieu of best practice.
Hill and co-authors said the onus to fact-check falls on purveyors of social media, who “must be responsible for the content they disseminate.” He said scientists and laypeople alike have to work to enhance science literacy worldwide, which can start with doing a better job of teaching the scientific method in schools.
It’s also important to emphasize that while science isn’t always right, it does eventually self-correct, the authors said. We trust aeronautical science when we board an airplane and mechanical engineering when we cross a bridge, but when a biological scientist is wrong, they seem to be held particularly accountable.
“We, as editors, are charged with evaluating the validity of the science presented to us for possible publication, and we work hard to fulfill this heady responsibility,” the authors wrote. “Recognizing that lives are at stake, we reach out to thought-leading experts to evaluate the veracity of each report we receive. Herein, we challenge social media to do the same, to leverage the ready availability of science-conversant expertise before disseminating content that may not be reliable.”