How medical writers (and anyone else, for that matter) can help to combat pseudoscience

learning to survive and thrive as a freelance mum and writer

Pseudoscience is everywhere.

You simply have to log into Instagram, Facebook (or a/n other chosen platform), and you will see information presented as fact, supported by scientific-sounding terminology and superficially convincing arguments – but characterised by unfounded assertions, anecdotal evidence, and a lack of peer-reviewed scrutiny.

Why is this important to recognise? Why does it bother me so much? Why did I spend an hour writing this post? Read on to find out…

What is pseudoscience?

The word ‘pseudoscience’ refers to beliefs or practices that claim to be scientific, but lack the rigorous methodology, empirical evidence, and adherence to scientific method that are representative of genuine scientific enquiry. Typically, pseudoscience fails to withstand critical examination.

Beliefs may range from claims about paranormal phenomena, to alternative medicine practices devoid of any scientific support (or of ‘good’ quality evidence), to conspiracies that defy established scientific principles.

What is the harm of pseudoscience?

The danger lies in the potential of pseudoscience to mislead and misinform, getting in the way of genuine scientific progress, eroding trust in evidence-based knowledge, and even posing risks to public health.

Pseudoscience proponents often promote unfounded health treatments, putting individuals at risk by diverting them from science-backed medical practices.

Importantly, the continued spread of misinformation fosters a climate where critical thinking is undermined – and people routinely make decisions about important things like their health based on unverified claims.

More broadly, societal embrace of pseudoscience means there is a real risk that resources and attention with be diverted away from legitimate research endeavours, like developing solutions to pressing global challenges. This means that combatting pseudoscience is not only a matter of individual wellbeing, but also an important step to preserve the integrity and progress of scientific enquiry.

What can be done to combat pseudoscience?

Foster critical consumption of information:

Being a critical consumer meansremaining vigilant when presented with information, particularly if it appears sensational or to be offering a ‘quick-fix’ (which, sadly, rarely exist). We should encourage people to consider the true veracity of what they read, rather than accepting things at face value; and to seek information from legitimate authorities rather than self-proclaimed ‘experts’.

Promote scientific and health literacy:

A scientifically literate society would be equipped not only to consume information critically, but to participate in active discussion, thereby promoting a collective mindset that values evidence-based reasoning. This is about more than teaching scientific facts. It is about understanding scientific method: the process of hypothesis formation, experimentation, data analysis and publication. It is about understanding the value of peer-reviewed research, which has withstood rigorous scrutiny by experts within a field.

Address echo chambers and partisan media:

Encouraging people to engage with diverse information sources and perspectives will help them become more adept at discerning their own biases, and differentiating between evidence-based reporting and sensationalism. This means actively seeking out information from a variety of reputable sources – even outside our comfort zone.

What can we do as medical writers to combat pseudoscience?

Medical writers are in a unique position to be able to enhance the quality and accessibility of information in the public domain – and in turn, contribute towards a more scientifically literate and informed society. By doing so, we might also help combat the proliferation of pseudoscientific claims.

How can we do this?

  1. Focus on clear communication of scientific concepts: Imagine yourself as a bridge with general public, translating expert’s research into layman’s terms and ensuring it reaches a wider audience – and is understood. Always simplify complex jargon and present research findings in an accessible manner. Engaging and easy-to-understand content is always going to do the job better than something that is impossible to understand.
  2. Always factcheck and verify references: Ensure that all claims are backed up by credible, up-to-date references and peer-reviewed studies. Make sure that the studies you are citing ACTUALLY support what you are trying to say. Remember never to cherry-pick information to suit your purpose.
  3. Keep learning: Stay abreast of the latest research and scientific advancements in your area of interest. Read, a lot. Don’t stop reading!

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My name is Rachel Pascal. I’m an accomplished and versatile freelance medical and health writer with more than a decade of experience writing content to educate healthcare professionals, empower patients, communicate research findings, and raise brand + disease awareness.

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