Your opinion is wrong!

    How to moderate your health language to prevent the spread of misinformation.

    You have lots of opinions. It comes with being a human in modern society.

    Some of them are pretty inconsequential:

    • What’s the best Marvel movie?
    • What’s the most underrated type of nut?

    Others can be consequential because they affect your health and the health advice you give other people:

    • What’s the best diet?
    • Should the average person take any supplements?

    Now here’s the part where I either annoy you or give you something to think about.

    Most of us have at least one “wrong” opinion and are also totally, blissfully unaware that we’re wrong. Worse, when we encounter people or information that might intrude on our bliss, the way we handle these situations can inadvertently lead to harm.

    What’s the problem, exactly?

    When people hold an unsupported viewpoint, they tend to be resistant to changing it. Especially if they feel strongly about their position, it contains a kernel of truth, and other people are arguing illogically or meanly against them.

    If you doubt this, just head to Twitter or any other social media platform. (Or maybe don’t.) Disagreements can get … ugly.

    Tweeting about nutrition information online can get complicated quickly. Once you have an audience, it doesn’t take long to start posting primarily to show how smart or insightful you are, rather than taking your time to write nuanced and not-as-exciting takes. After all, you have to keep your audience glued to your content, and catchy or blanket statements sell!

    (Sidenote: This is why Examine employs an entire team of full-time researchers. A large research team means that we can provide objective analysis from different perspectives, without an attachment to any particular diet or supplement. Catchiness doesn’t matter to us, because we don’t make money from pageviews or third-party ad revenue.)

    These pitfalls of social media science debate are part of the reason I don’t post much on my personal accounts. I know I’m not particularly smart or insightful on any single topic. Rather, I just really enjoy learning (which is why my social media handle is @thefoodlearner). And while online nutrition arguments can sometimes be interesting, participating in them can take a surprising amount of time, time that could instead go to growing Examine or watching cat videos.

    As a presumably rational and open-minded Examine reader, you’re unlikely to hold many unsupported or wrong viewpoints. But you are almost certainly wrong about at least one opinion. And like a game of telephone, your wrong or even imprecise opinions can spawn even more wrong or imprecise opinions in other people. Stop this process before it starts!

    How can you prevent the spread of misinformation?

    The first step is to admit you have a problem. Do you ever make blanket statements about a health topic? Have you ever stated strong viewpoints without reading most of the relevant full text papers? Do you think you’re almost certainly right about most (or, gasp, even all) of your health viewpoints?

    Maybe you’re a rare breed. Maybe you’re consistently nuanced and cautious in your language. But I bet there’s a topic or two that gets you heated enough where you, too, may claim something that’s at least partially unsupported by evidence or logic.

    Personally, I’ve slowly started to use more and more moderating language to soften my views, saying things like, “XYZ might be beneficial, but current evidence doesn’t cover most populations,” or “I’m nowhere near an expert on XYZ, so please double-check with someone else, but this study seems to be misinterpreted.”

    And even so, I’m still wrong too often! So, here are some more ways I try to prevent myself from either purposely or inadvertently spreading flawed opinions:

    • Criticize your own viewpoints publically. This may seem counterintuitive, but the strongest arguments aren’t built on one-sided analysis. Pretend that you have a nerdy little angel on your shoulder consistently reminding you: Are you 100% sure? If not, express some uncertainty. Might the other side have a point? And so on.
    • Clearly tag your opinions as opinions. Unless you’re a primary investigator literally restating the conclusions of your study along with its stated (and unstated) limitations, it doesn’t hurt to say “I think that …” rather than implying what you’re saying is an obvious fact.
    • Realize that what’s true for yourself isn’t necessarily true for other people. This often applies to diets and supplements — what works for one person doesn’t always apply as well to someone else due to differing health conditions, genetics, gut microbiomes, and a million other factors.
    • Don’t act like a know-it-all. Phrasing your opinions (or your interpretations of evidence) in a humble way can lead to much more fruitful discussions than flaunting knowledge and looking down on people. It’s okay to not know something! That’s a perfect opportunity to learn.
    • Don’t assume that the available evidence can explain everything. Hypotheses are progressively tested and retested, so a trial or meta-analysis on a topic is useful, but not always the end-all be-all. Be aware that there’s always science being done.

    Do you have a theory or opinion that’s near and dear to you? Is there any closely-held opinion you’ve changed your mind on? Perhaps one you’ve had many arguments about with friends and family or Twitter? Let me know and I may include yours in a future email about trending diet and supplement topics. Stay tuned!


    Kamal Patel
    Co-founder, Examine