Cheerleading, Shibboleths and Uncertainty
There was no better keynote speaker for this session than Gary Schwitzer (@garyschwitzer), the founder of HealthNewsReview.org. The site, funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, provides independent reviews of the accuracy, balance and completeness of news stories about medical treatments, tests, procedures, and products.
Unfortunately, Schwitzer explained, about 70 percent of all the stories evaluated by HealthNewsReview failed to meet those criteria. Rather, too much of the time, medical news was dominated by an attitude of uncritical cheerleading for any and all new offerings, without an adequate exploration of the relative costs, tradeoffs in risks, credibility of the evidence or conclusions, conflicts of interest, and other important considerations. (A list of the site's rating criteria can be found here
New medical technologies he said, get treated like "shibboleths"—objects of cultish devotion. As a consequence, journalists who should be helping to their audience to set intelligent health agendas are instead just flooding the public with half-baked information and conflicting messages, according to Schwitzer. With a dig at FOX News (which he said was notably awful in this regard), Schwitzer called the present "an age of infoxification."
For a good example of a dreadful phenomenon, Schwitzer pointed to coverage of cancer screening. Mass screening is expensive and potentially harmful, so it should be balanced against the potential benefits. But anyone recommending that younger people not get mammograms or prostate antigen tests was loudly accused of wanting to "ration health care" or not caring whether people died.