Intelligent Decisions about Information: An Epidemic of Questionable Medical Information Infects Cyberspace

Article excerpt

Take the following quiz. True or false?

* Everyone should take vitamins.

* Vitamins are effective against stress.

* Taking vitamins makes people more energetic.

* Organic foods are safer and/or more nutritious than ordinary foods.

* Losing weight is easy.

* Special diets can cure cancer.

* Diet is the principle cause of hyperactivity.

* Acupuncture is effective against a long list of diseases.

* Chelation therapy is an effective substitute for bypass surgery.

* Chiropractic treatment is effective against a large number of diseases.

* Herbs are generally superior to prescription drugs.

* Homeopathic products are effective remedies.

* Spines should be checked and adjusted regularly by a chiropractor.

* Fluoridation is dangerous.

* Mercury-amalgam ("silver") fillings should be removed because they make people sick.

* All teeth with root canals should be removed because they make people sick.

Health Frauds and Fads

All false, according to Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist in Pennsylvania and longtime consumer advocate who devotes his time, knowledge, and energy to exposing and debunking "health-related frauds, myths, fads, and fallacies." The Internet has emerged as Barrett's most prolific fishing hole. The result is Quackwatch: Your Guide to Health Fraud, Quackery, and Intelligent Decision Making (http:// www.quackwatch.com).

Quackery, of course, has been around since long before the Internet. The term itself, as Barrett points out, "derives from the word quacksalver (someone who boasts about his salves)." But the ease with which almost anyone can publish on the Web--or spread rumor, innuendo, or false information via newsgroups, e-mail lists, and chat rooms--has resulted in a proliferation of questionable medical information floating around in cyberspace. While a fair amount of this misinformation is the end result of someone trying to make a quick buck, Barrett concedes that fraud is not always part of the picture, that " ... many promoters sincerely believe in what they are doing." Most promoters, he says, "are unwitting victims who share misinformation and personal experiences with others."

As information specialists, we know that what we find online must be evaluated with a skeptical eye. But the average "newbie" who logs onto AOL to cruise the Web may be a little, more trusting. Many people are still in awe of computers and are inclined to believe most of what appears on their screens.

The scams that are now flourishing on the Internet tapered off awhile ago "in real life"--multilevel marketing, chain letters, work-at-home schemes, questionable sweepstakes, unofficial lotteries, etc. Take a look at Internet Scam Busters (http:// www.scambusters.org) for an unvarnished look at some of this stuff. "You are about to make at least $50,000--In less than 90 days! Read the enclosed program ... THEN READ IT AGAIN! ... "; "Here's How To Get A $5,000 Offshore Credit Card, GUARANTEED ... "; "There is over 400 billion dollars in unclaimed money in the United States, 400 billion! This money belongs to You, and millions of other Americans."

Internet Fraud Watch (http://www. fraud.org/internet/intinfo.htm), maintained by the National Consumers League, keeps tabs on this sleaze. Meanwhile, tales of online investment shenanigans have become a staple of the business press. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission attempts to police this venue (http://www.sec.gov/consumer/cyberfr.htm).

Getting your pocket picked online or your bank account virtually vacuumed is bad enough. But when your health is at stake, the consequences could be fatal. Unfortunately, chronically ill people are often desperate. And many of the rest of us, given our shifts in moods and circumstances, might well take a second look at something that promises to give us more energy, make us look more youthful, or help us lose weight without invoking the dreaded diet-and-exercise duo. …