Woo in Sheep’s Clothing
Be careful of the woo. It’s everywhere.
What’s the woo, you ask?
The woo is the whole genre of unvalidated health claims that get circulated around in various online forums and are misrepresented as though they are facts that have been validated through vigorous medical research. But they are not facts nor have many of these claims actually been systematically studied. (Like that time apple cider vinegar was supposed to fix everything). You’ve probably heard about Gwyneth Paltrow and all her GOOP promotionals that have taken quite a hit from scientists due to her endorsing “natural remedies” with questionable claims. Most of that stuff is woo. There are a million examples. Another doctor blogger colleague of mine recently attended a naturopathic conference and live-tweeted much of it (@ChadHayes if you want a crack up). The unvalidated claims were numerous and quite surprising. No supporting data, just claims — claims of alleged cures for autism and cancer by simple diet manipulation!….and plenty more ridiculousness.
In general, woo tends to clothe itself in flowery, pseudo-science language that sounds too good to be true. Reports of benefits are often anecdotal.
Is all of the woo bad? Well, no…not necessarily. Some of it is fine and may even help a few folks a little. Most of the time the woo isn’t harmful, unless you avoid getting actual medical care because of it. Or unless you spend a lot of money for a bunch of quack.
You can find people promoting specific products or behaviors everywhere, of course. Essential oils…sleep tips…how to manage infant reflux…best car seat to buy…one example of a place where you can often find it ALL is on the various online parenting “pages.” Of course, there are quite a few great parenting sources, but there’s lots of woo located in some of these settings. As you can imagine, sometimes it’s difficult for me as a medical expert to refrain from commenting on a few of the more outrageous posts. I can usually control myself, thinking that my role of presenting properly peer reviewed medical information is best served by showcasing accurate health data on my own social media properties. But lordy, it’s tough sometimes.
I’ve already written about fake medical news and pseudoscience, so my entry today is really more of a non-preachy (I promise) plea for all of us to double down on being careful about what information we share and circulate. We all have good intentions about the health and well being of every child on the planet, but we need to think twice when we share information that we can’t be certain is from a valid source, and we need to recognize that a therapy that may have worked for our child won’t necessarily work for another, and refrain from commenting as a health expert unless we are one. One recent example is a story that was shared widely about a teenage girl who allegedly suffered extensive neurological damage from the HPV vaccine. This was an isolated story of one individual that was not supported with any factual vaccine-related data. The HPV vaccine has been studied extensively and repeatedly in large population studies and meta-analyses for safety and efficacy, but those studies were not shared concomitantly to allow readers to make informed decisions. Remember, science doesn’t really care whether or not anyone likes it, it just is. Facts. Data. No sides taken. As a scientist I will change my practice pattern if there is enough data to support that my current practice is obsolete, but it’s my duty to assess all the evidence before doing so and not let my bias or opinion get in the way of the facts. I encourage everyone to do the same to the best of their ability.
I’m a big believer that “the brotherhood of motherhood is the sisterhood”
so for all the women reading this who participate in these online mom groups (I’m not excluding dads, but the overwhelming majority of members of these forums are women), I implore you to pause and reflect critically before you weigh in on or judge someone on an issue. I believe we should all have the freedom to share our opinions, but we should label them as such. And civility goes without saying, no matter what. I’m not especially worried about the crew reading this post because you are all #smartmommas and #smartdads, but I do believe this message bears the occasional repeat. We are all humans; it’s difficult NOT to share our thoughts and passionately held opinions. But when it comes to chiming in on a subject armed with less than the full story we often aren’t helping the situation, even though our intent is to do just that.