Scientists should take a leaf out of wellness bloggers' books

14 August 2015

How can we distinguish credible wellness information from unfounded pseudoscience? And why is it that wellness gurus are often taken more seriously than scientists? Jackie Randles writes.

Do you need to take supplements to be well?

Photo credit: Health Gauge, Flickr, CC-BY-2.0 

With so much conflicting health information available today, it's hard for those without scientific training to make decisions based on hard evidence.

If you're seeking information about losing weight, detoxing, managing illness or becoming fitter, finding credible voices amidst the proliferation of chat from the attractive commentators who dominate popular wellness channels is daunting.

While quick fixes are clearly too good to be true, there's probably sound advice amongst this glut of health-related positivity. But how do everyday consumers tell the good from the bad?

The appeal of wellness blogs

Neuroscientist and science writer Dr Sarah McKay believes the term "wellness" has been hijacked by pseudoscience:

  • "As a scientist, this makes me hesitant to even engage with it. The conversation about what wellness is keeps going back to people promoting ideas about health for which they have no evidence base. And this is where the crankiness comes from on the part of the science community, who don't like to see pseudoscience getting so much attention."

Dr McKay sees a disconnect between what consumers look for and how scientists and medical experts present credible information. She studied many popular wellness blogs before launching her own neuroscience blog Your Brain Health:

  • "Who wouldn't prefer a friendly warm and appealing person with a great story to tell over an impersonal, officially sanctioned website?"
  • "I looked at what the most popular health and wellness bloggers did and modelled my communication style on theirs. I understood that people would be more inclined to trust someone they liked instead of turning to an impartial information platform or a grumpy scientist who might look down on them for seeking a definitive solution to a health problem."

Dr McKay is not suggesting that scientists should offer a 'magic bullet' cure when there is none, or over-simplify complex science. But she raises valid points for why scientists need to find better ways to connect, empathise and resonate with lay audiences in order to build trust and share scientific messages more effectively.

If they don't, pseudoscience will continue to reign supreme.

You don't need to take supplements or to do anything extraordinary to be well. It's also about social and mental wellbeing.
Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli

Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli, from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre, agrees that scientists could step into the popular health channels more readily, and so help redefine the concept of wellness from an evidence base:

  • "Wellness to me is about being as fit and strong as you can be by living a healthy lifestyle. This means eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep. It's about healthy lifestyle choices rather than diets, detoxes or fitness fads."
  • "You don't need to take supplements or to do anything extraordinary to be well. It's also about social and mental wellbeing."

Professor Allman-Farinelli says that because scientists are trained above all to look for evidence and to be logical, some may find it hard to understand the influence that people's values and beliefs bring to their health choices. And this highlights another disconnect within academia between scientists, psychology and the social sciences. 

Balancing data with behaviour

Reading social media commentary, it is clear that there are many scientists who ridicule those whose beliefs and practices are not supported by evidence. But consumer behaviour is usually influenced by all kinds of social determinants - and people are not typically logical and rational when making decisions.

According to consumer advocate Christopher Zinn, irrational behaviour traits affect us all to some degree:

  • "If we rely on data and proven information alone to influence what people think and do, we fail to acknowledge our inherent irrationality as human beings. And this may prevent scientists and health experts from communicating health information effectively."

Zinn harnesses behavioural economics as one model to identify a set of common cognitive biases that influence the way we think and act.

For example, "present bias" may mean we tend overvalue immediate rewards. We might respond to what is right in front of us and seek instant rewards in the present rather than looking towards longer-term, proven gains in the future. Loss aversion might mean that we are unwilling to give an unhealthy behaviour up, and status quo bias may see us stick with the current situation, rather than actually doing something that would require a cognitive change or effort on our part. In this case, healthy choices can get pushed back to "tomorrow", day after day.

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely speaks about how we justify our irrational behaviour by telling ourselves convincing stories that provide us with rational logic - and then we believe ourselves.

In a similar vein, Zinn compares wellness gurus to shonky and misguided financial advisers:

  • "Research into financial decision-making shows that we do not necessarily turn to experts or evidence in order to form our views and make choices. Instead, we can be overly influenced by people we like and trust, and this can lead some people, including savvy consumers, to make some unfortunate financial decisions."
  • "More information does not always help, even if it is independent and evidence-based, and choice overload can leave us paralysed and unable to take any more information in."

Ultimately, if adults are prepared to spend their money on supplements and treatments that are not proven to work, why should we stop them?

"Nudging" people towards better health

Publicly funded platforms that provide credible information and speak to consumers in the ways they like to receive information might help improve the situation by "nudging" people towards better health choices.

Dr Sarah McKay understands why scientists become frustrated when they see people rejecting evidence and data because a topic has been effectively marketed to them, but she thinks scientists could also examine their own communication efforts:

  • "People don't want a whole load of evidence thrown at them, only to be dismissed if they don't understand. Nor do they want to be scoffed at for seeking complementary approaches. So scientists need to think more carefully about the information they are trying to get across and consider how people might wish to receive it."

From my own observations as a non-scientist who works closely with scientists to help them communicate more effectively with everyday people, I can see that there's a widespread disdain for popular media channels that needs to be overcome. While the Sunday lifestyle supplements of popular newspapers may not be the first places you might go to find credible information, these channels have mass appeal. A light read on a Sunday morning can also spark an idea to be revisited later.

So instead of worrying about reputational damage to an institution if an esteemed expert is quoted alongside a naturopath, scientists should be more willing to be published alongside wellness gurus. It's far better that a scientific expert is quoted in an article about gut health alongside the latest celebrity 'food-as-medicine' advocate than to have no evidence-based information available to a reader at all.

Simply by being there, the scientist can help nudge people towards more credible health and wellness information.

Radio National's Natasha Mitchell will be hosting the free panel discussion Bringing Science to Wellness next Tuesday (August 18) as part of Sydney Science Festival. Her panellists are Christopher Zinn, Dr Sarah McKay, Margaret Allman-Farinelli, and Liz Graham.

Jackie Randles is the state manager for Inspiring Australia, the Federal Government's national strategy for engaging communities with the sciences, whose NSW branch is housed at the University of Sydney.

First published on The Drum

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