We live in an age of wonder: the information age. Never before have humans been so interconnected. While the world is shrinking every day because of the internet, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. The many benefits of social media have brought with it the drastic rise of misinformation.
With the click of a button, we can instantly share something with our entire social circle. If just a few people share it with their entire social circle, it sometimes doesn’t take long for something to “go viral”. For example, after my brother decided to make a snow tunnel to his car while bored at home, myself and a few people shared his video of what he had done. Within days, he became a social media viral sensation; culminating with being seen by millions of people on many YouTube videos, and even being featured on Good Morning America.
The goal of this post is to try to reinforce why you should at least read something in its entirety before deciding to share it on social media. Otherwise, you may simply become just another cog in the big wheel of viral internet misinformation.
Did a study really find that parachutes don’t prevent death?
The study “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” by Robert Yeh and colleagues, published in the BMJ, was done “to determine if using a parachute prevents death or major traumatic injury when jumping from an aircraft”.
What does the parachute study abstract say?
In the study’s abstract (which is a short summary of the study’s methods, results, and conclusions), the authors report that they tested 23 consenting passengers (out of the 92 passengers screened). They randomly assigned each person with either a parachute or an empty backpack.
They then measured the rate of either death or major traumatic injury immediately after impacting the ground. What they found was that parachutes were not associated with a difference in either deaths or severe injuries (0% difference between groups).
Their conclusion was: “Parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention.”
Explaining why the study did not lie about the results
Is this result explained because the parachute did not deploy in all 12 of the people randomized to parachute use? Actually, no.
Those who took the time to further read the study beyond the minor details in the conclusions recognized why the results may not be as dramatic as they seemed (and why rational people would sign up to participate in the study in the first place).
Important things to note are that participants in the randomized group were “at a lower mean altitude” (0.6 meters vs. 9146 meters) and were “traveling at slower velocity” (0 km/h vs. 800 km/h).
That’s right, the people who jumped off a plane did so while the plane was stationary on the ground:
This study was real, but it’s obviously just a joke to make a point. However, I think it’s essential; it illustrates why you should read something in its entirety before assuming you understood everything (and especially before sharing on social media).
Examples of other misinterpreted study results that went viral
Below are a few more short examples of study results that were misinterpreted and subsequently went viral:
“Pfizer vaccine’s 6 month efficacy data shows limited efficacy window”
I’ve already covered this in another post (so if you want more details, click here to read it).
This study evaluated vaccine effectiveness over time to see if it changed over a span of 6 months. Within less than a day, social media was full of reports saying that the trial “proved the vaccines only work 6 months”.
However, anyone who actually read the study would be able to tell that it wasn’t the case. While the study saw a reduction in some effectiveness, it didn’t see a disappearance of it either.
What they did show was that effectiveness against all infection types (including asymptomatic infections) caused by the Delta variant went from 93% at 1 month post-vaccine to 53% at 5 months post-vaccine. When it comes to things like hospitalizations, the protection against severe illness stayed stable at 90% or more throughout the entire study period.
So, the reporting of “no vaccine effect after 6 months” was a pretty severe misrepresentation of the results of this study.
“Eating 1 hot dog takes about 36 minutes off your life, study finds”
This study published online from Nature Food went viral when announcing that for every hot dog you eat, you lose 36 minutes of your life.
However, there are major problems with this conclusion. This finding is derived from taking population-level data. What this means is they take bulk statistical data from an entire population when it comes to things like diet, chronic diseases, quality of life, and mortality rates.
Afterwards, this is averaged out and “translated” into an individual-level risk. However, in my opinion this is not really appropriate to do.
With a study like this, there are just way too many variables at play for this calculation to be taken seriously. Luckily for Joey Chestnut, each hot dog probably doesn’t remove 36 minutes of your life.
“Ibuprofen may slow aging”
The reporting of this study is a personal favorite of mine. A study from 2014 made headlines when it showed that ibuprofen increased the lifespan of all three organisms that they studied.
This made many people leap to the conclusion that taking ibuprofen (also known as Advil and Motrin) could extend your life. But, unfortunately I’m going to have to rain on that parade as well.
This study wasn’t done in humans; it wasn’t even done in mammals. The study looked at the effect of ibuprofen on the lifespan of yeast, nematode worms, and fruitflies.
I don’t know about you, but I’d have to see some slightly better quality data than extending the lifespan of a 1 millimeter nematode worm with a life expectancy of approximately 2 or 3 weeks.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately a lot of the confusion surrounding the reporting of scientific articles is due to flaws in science communication among journalists in the media, but sometimes it can also arise from plain old misrepresentation of evidence by charlatans pushing an agenda.
Misinformation campaigns of any kind will thrive if people don’t take a moment to read what they are sharing. This is particularly problematic when what they are sharing aligns with what they already believe to be true (see my other article for more on confirmation bias).
The best way to combat the problematic spread of misinformation is to become part of the solution. Before you share anything on social media, you should at the very least read it in its entirety.