Googling for health information is irresistible when you have a question and aren’t sure where to turn. Some topics will lead you to legitimate information, but for others, the real answers to your questions are buried under pages of results for pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.
Vitamin K shots are one of those, Renée DiResta reports at Wired. It’s a routine shot at birth for a very good reason: vitamin K is essential for blood to clot, and babies are born deficient in vitamin K. They’ll soon catch up on their own, but if they have any issues with bleeding in their early days of life, like surgery or any internal bleeding, a baby who didn’t get the shot is at serious risk of dying a preventable death.
Pediatricians, obstetricians, public health experts, and pretty much every other legitimate health care provider or researcher can tell you the vitamin K shot is a no-brainer: it provides a huge benefit with nearly no risk. Organizations like the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have web pages that patiently explain this. But if you just google “vitamin K shot,” the results pages are split roughly 50/50 between the results you’re looking for, and anti-shot arguments written by clickbait quacks and poorly-informed mommy bloggers.
When I tested in incognito mode, Bing was better than Google about bringing the legit results to the top of the page, but in both cases the overall results page was a mess. If you didn’t know, you’d think there was a legitimate debate on the topic.
DiResta likens this to a data void, because the real information is scarce. I’m not sure if that’s the right metaphor, since the real stuff is out there. The problem is more that some people have become very passionate about their pet topics. Try looking up information about the Holocaust some time, or about the second-largest city in Libya.
Skipping vitamin K shots is popular in natural parenting circles, since it fits with the idea of giving birth with as few interventions as possible (a fine goal, within reason) and it’s also a shot, so anybody who is suspicious of vaccines will get their hackles up.
Beware These Topics
The topics that are most likely to surprise you with misinformation are ones where people care a lot, not just about their topic but about fitting into an ideological camp. If you’re going to defend a certain point of view, it’s easy to grab any piece of information that seems like it should back you up. Before you know it, you’re writing a treatise arguing why that information must be definitely true.
So, be especially wary when your searches lead you into these territories:
- Vaccines. Even though the link between vaccines and autism was never real in the first place, and has been repeatedly disproven, there are plenty of parent groups that keep spreading misinformation about vaccine safety. They sometimes give their websites and organizations names that sound official.
- Pregnancy and childbirth. We all want the best for our babies, but we also want autonomy over our own bodies. Childbirth is a risky time, medically, but it’s also an ordeal that most people get through just fine. Meanwhile, there are a lot of options to choose from—midwife or doctor? Epidural or no?—and so you’ll find groups of people committed to the most natural birth possible no matter what. These groups are at war with others who think anything from the natural camp is useless “woo.” Tempers run high.
- Breastfeeding. There is a real, multi-faceted conversation to have about the pros and cons of breastfeeding, formula-feeding, and options for introducing solid foods. But once again, there are camps who will defend breastfeeding at all costs, and others who will attack it with the same vehemence.
- Metabolism and weight loss. Everybody’s got a pet theory about why we gain weight and why it’s hard to lose weight. These theories can get very detailed, and the proponents of each dieting philosophy will claim that their theory explains everything.
- Specific foods that are “good” or “bad” for us. This topic is a subset of the one above. People will tell you that carbs or beans or “nightshades” are killing us all, or that coconut oil can cure literally everything.
- Skincare. People end up with preferences for certain products or approaches, and bad experiences that they interpret as cautionary tales. There’s very little solid science in this area (a true data void) so people end up holding fast to shreds of research and to their own experiences, and form into ideological camps to argue about why St Ives scrub is the devil and other topics of, we are led to believe, extreme importance.
It’s impossible to make a complete list, because there are surprising little pockets of passion around topics you might not expect. I always see it as a red flag when people are very committed to an idea, and I wonder why. Sometimes there’s a good reason behind it; sometimes there’s just a conspiracy theory.
Where to Find Good Information
When you see opposing viewpoints or passionate arguments, it’s a good idea to check with a mainstream source to orient yourself. Not because it’s the only good source of information, but because it’s usually pretty reasonable, and you can branch out from there. These are some of my favorites:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a US government agency that deals with public health. (Just add “CDC” to your google search, for example, “vitamin K CDC”)
- HealthyChildren.org, about kids’ and teens’ health. This website is run by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- MedlinePlus, which has information about health conditions, drugs, and supplements.
- Cochrane Summaries, plain language summaries of mega-studies that combine the results of many prior studies to answer specific questions about medical treatment.
There are more sources in this list of trustworthy health information sources, but you may not be able to answer every last question this way. Don’t forget that actual medical professionals, like your doctor or your insurance company’s nurse hotline, are your best source for questions that are truly important to your health.